This will not be an impartial discussion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s legacy. I will not give credence to historical revisionists who have sought to cast doubt on the role he played in salvaging the American economy after a disastrous decade of reckless speculation. The fraudulence of those revisionist arguments has been dealt with elsewhere. And little need be said about the claim that FDR caused the Great Depression – an argument that only holds up if FDR had a TARDIS in his possession. In this post, I aim merely to praise some of the ideas he articulated.
The Four Freedoms
|Franklin Delano Roosevelt|
On January 6th, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered a State of the Union address. In this address, he urged an isolationist Congress to respond vigorously to Nazi imperialism. He prepared the country for the prospect of war. Thirdly, in stating the four freedoms that members of a democracy enjoy, he clearly articulated the differences between American values and Nazi ideology, and defined the basis for United States engagement in world affairs.
Today, the four freedoms are only a footnote in the history books, but they are more relevant than ever. In the 1940’s, the four freedoms provided a positive moral justification for America’s entry into a second world war. Also, the four freedoms singly and collectively constitute a line in the sand: if a free people are to remain free, they must not permit their government to cross it.
Unfortunately, the rhetorical excesses of partisan politics are such that nearly every prominent American politician has been accused of leading the country toward fascist dictatorship. As a result, warnings of the threat of Nazism now appear excruciatingly trite and implausible.
It is a mistake to assume that tyranny always assumes the garb of Nazi fascism: the tactics of achieving dictatorship exhibited by the Nazis were implemented by the professed communist Josef Stalin in the former U.S.S.R. and by others in the past, notably King Charles I of England (source). The transition from representative government to tyranny does not require the spectacle of Nazis goose-stepping down Main Street. In many cases, the mass of ordinary citizens remain unaware of the change.
I. Freedom of Speech and Expression
As noted in the website of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “One of the first steps in the creation of the Nazi police state was the elimination of dissent. Opponents of Hitler's regime, including liberals, socialists, Communists, trade unionists, and intellectual dissidents, were imprisoned in concentration camps. The first permanent camp was at Dachau, a small town near Munich (source).”
II. Freedom of Worship
When pastors openly disagreed with Nazi policies, they were arrested and imprisoned (source). More ominously, perhaps, the Nazis co-opted religion and compelled church leaders to support the Nazi cause. In Mein Kampf, Hitler said, upon reflecting on the use of religion in the Roman Empire, “by employing religious force in the service of its political considerations, the crown aroused a spirit which at that outset it had not considered possible.”
III. Freedom from Want
The Nazis, after physically segregating Jews within the Warsaw ghetto and other walled-off communities, pursued a policy of deliberate starvation aimed to deny food to “unnecessary mouths.” Years earlier, over 1 million Armenians starved to death as part of a deliberate, genocidal policy enacted by the Ottoman Empire. And today, the people of North Korea starve while their leaders revel in their luxurious appointments.
IV. Freedom from Fear
After being democratically elected in 1933, Adolf Hitler immediately began to conspire to seize tyrannical power over the people. When a mentally disturbed Dutch citizen set fire to the Reichstag, a house of parliament, it set into motion the following events:
Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, presented the incident as the prelude to an armed Communist uprising and persuaded the aging President Paul von Hindenburg to establish what became a permanent state of emergency. This decree, known as the Reichstag Fire Decree, suspended the provisions of the German constitution that protected basic individual rights, including freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. The decree also permitted increased state and police intervention into private life, allowing officials to censor mail, listen in on phone conversations, and search private homes without a warrant or need to show reasonable cause. Under the state of emergency established by the decree, the Nazi regime could arrest and detain people without cause and without limits on the length of incarceration (source).
Freedom of Speech and Expression Today
FDR approvingly quoted Benjamin Franklin, who said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” A different temperament prevails in the United States today. Tarek Mehanna is currently serving a 17 year sentence for translating an Al Qaeda text into English. As explained by Andrew March, who attended the trial,
The centerpiece of the government’s case against Mr. Mehanna’s speech activities was a translation of a text titled 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad (source).
The witness, in reporting this event, was unsettled by the outcome. As a scholar specializing in Islamic law, Mr. March himself has occasion to translate texts and videos creates by members of jihadi groups. Thus, we see the corrosive effect of the desire to “purchase a little temporary safety.” If this trend is left unchecked, the Orwellian prospect of Americans being convicted of thought crimes is not far off.
Freedom of Worship Today
FDR saw the role of religion in this light: “religion, by teaching man his relationship to God, gives the individual a sense of his own dignity and teaches him to respect himself by respecting his neighbors (source).” He also said,
We are a nation of many nationalities, many races, many religions-bound together by a single unity, the unity of freedom and equality.
Whoever seeks to set one nationality against another, seeks to degrade all nationalities.
Whoever seeks to set one race against another seeks to enslave all races.
Whoever seeks to set one religion against another, seeks to destroy all religion.
So-called racial and religious voting blocs are the creation of designing politicians who profess to be able to deliver them on Election Day. But every American citizen—realizing how precious is his right to the sacred secret ballot—does scorn and will scorn such unpatriotic politicians. The vote of Americans will be American—and only American (source).
To reiterate, FDR believed that the carving out of religious voting blocs is a cynical tactic used by politicians to increase their own power. He believed, moreover, that the politics of division is contrary to Judeo-Christian values (or indeed the values of any of the major world religion). Today, it appears that Americans have succumbed to clannish sentiments, and prefer to view social relations in terms of “us versus them.” When organized religion and politics become interwoven, it is to the detriment of both.
It has been argued, persuasively, that the meaning of religious freedom has been perverted and has come to mean religious privilege. For example, when adjunct professors at St Xavier’s University sought to unionize, the university administration sought to block this effort on religious grounds. According to the administration, religious freedom means exemption from regulation by the National Labor Relations Board. A similarly secessionist impulse motivates the American bishops’ collective efforts to dictate which health care benefits they are willing to provide their non-Catholic employees (source).
Freedom From Want Today
Roosevelt, during a 1940 re-election campaign, reminded the American people of the years leading up to the Great Depression.
Back in the 20's, in the years after the last World War, Americans worked and built many things, but few of our people then stopped to think why they were working and why they were building and whither they were tending.
Those were the days when prosperity was measured only by the stock ticker.
There were the factory workers forced to labor long hours at low wages in sweat-shop conditions. They could look forward to no security in their old age. They could look forward to no insurance during periods of unemployment.
Roosevelt also reminded the American people of how the crash came to pass.
There were millions of workers, unable to organize to protect their livelihoods, unable to form trade unions.
There were the small businesses of the Nation, threatened by the monopolies of concentrated wealth.
The savings of the many were entrusted to supposedly great financiers, who were to lose those savings in fantastic adventures of giant holding companies and giant investment trusts.
Roosevelt placed the blame squarely on the American plutocrats who held enormous and concentrated wealth. The same class of Americans who have not been asked to bear their fair share of the tax burden in the late “fiscal cliff” bargain (source). Historical data are consistent Roosevelt’s analysis. In the 1920’s, an unprecedented share of the national wealth was held in the hands of a very few. After the crash of 1929, and after the country emerged from the Great Depression, there was a long period of economic prosperity and low income inequality (for a chart, go here).
Freedom from Fear Today
It’s recently been reported that, ever since the events of 9-11-01, the federal government has authorized the use of a system called ThinThread, which gathers data from American citizens’ emails, phone calls, credit card payments, and Internet searches and maps the data in a way that permits warrantless examination by nameless individuals (source). Thus, it would probably be unwise of me to use this space to sing the praises of Al Qaeda were I inclined to do so (as it happens, I am not). The whistleblower who revealed this wholesale violation of Americans’ First and Fourth Amendment rights received, by way of thanks, an FBI raid on his home. Complete, one may assume, with body-armor, automatic weapons, and all-black gear.
In Seattle, local police have been granted approval to operate camera-laden surveillance drones (source).
It could be argued that law-abiding people have nothing to fear from this new policy. However, in other countries, even the most innocuous public surveillance awakens pangs of dread. When Google decided to introduce its Street View camera-equipped cars in Germany, it aroused an unprecedented wave of protest (source). This could be chalked up to paranoia. Or maybe the Germans have learned a lesson from history that privacy is too precious to give away.