An op-ed in the Washington Post about the Canadian truckers’ protest tells us that the idea of freedom is “White” with a capital W and that the truckers’ belief in freedom is “a key component of White supremacy.” This is about as sensible as saying that the idea of gravity is “English” or that the Post reports the news. True, Newton’s apple fell in England and the Post looks like a newspaper, but gravity is universal. The same goes for stupidity, though that takes many forms, and for the impulse to be free, though that too takes many forms, some of them stupid.
Taylor Dysart, the author of this insult to reason, is a white PhD student at private Ivy League university. Color me shocked. Color me even more shocked that this op-ed appeared in the Post’s “Made by History” section. It isn’t history at all. It is a species of political propaganda, and it bodes badly for the future of freedom, white or not.
The Canadian truckers are expressing the universal human aspiration to act like an American even if you aren’t one. They are conducting an uncouth version of the civil disobedience that has, rightly, seen Martin Luther King installed as a modern saint and, wrongly, saw our streets jammed with unmasked Black Lives Matter protestors when everyone else was supposed to stay indoors.
The truckers are coarse. Their trucks are mobile emblems of the original sin of the carbon-fuel economy that powered “settler colonialism.” They are Deplorables on wheels, out of step with soft-handed metropolitan technocracy, and some of them have exercised their right to be stupid. Footage from Ottawa, Dysart says, shows “maskless protesters brandishing Confederate, Nazi and” — brace yourself — “‘Trump 2024’ flags.” This is what Ivy League historians call “shooting the messenger.”
The Post’s editorial page accuses the truckers of a “self-righteous embrace of an upside-down idea of ‘liberty.’” The language is revealing. In the American system, democratic legitimacy rises bottom-up, from the people. But the unelected managers of the American system — the bureaucrats and technocrats, and their servants in the universities and most of the media — have had enough of the people and their upside-down delusions of freedom. It is the task of the academy and the media to explain this to the public, stigmatize the impulse to endorse the right to protest as the cost of freedom, and add the truckers to the list of what Dysart calls “marginalized communities.”
We are all of us made by history. The moral stain of slavery is a fact of American history. There is no better way to discredit the idea of freedom than to associate it with the worst behavior of its adherents, whether in the freedom of the market or in freedoms of speech and action. Give people freedom, and some of them will take liberties. But if you take away people’s freedom, you make them slaves and serfs — and you unmake them as a people and a nation.
The first people to free themselves from slavery were the Jews under the Pharaohs. It is not accidental that they freed themselves into nationhood at the same time. Later, the peoples of the Greek city states did much the same: a free citizen of Athens could not be a slave or helot. Later still, the Americans freed themselves from slavishness to nationhood. Only on the far shores of lunacy, or in the modern departments of humanities, could the ancient Jews or Greeks be called “white.” They did not see themselves in those terms, and they had better things to do than parsing skin tone — such as inventing monotheism, morals, nationhood and philosophy.
True, the American colonists who believed in freedom saw themselves as white, made sure that their slaves and helots saw themselves in racial terms, and apportioned freedom accordingly. This was one of the stupidities to which freedom can lead. So is the abuse of intellectual liberty which seeks to suppress dissent by equating freedom with slavery and “White supremacy.”
The tyranny in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four claims that “Freedom is slavery” and “Slavery is freedom”: the individual who frees him or herself from the grip of the party loses the collective’s power to change its circumstances, while the individual who submits gains a freedom that is conditional, restricted and conformist. That is a slave’s bargain. It does not mean the death of freedom, because ideas cannot be killed, only suppressed and stigmatized. But it would mean the death of freedom’s modern fruits, liberal democracy and the nationhood that sustains it. We are still free to decide — aren’t we?