It was the moment he first began to chant for freedom that a transformation occurred.
He was a soldier in Assad’s army at the time, at home on leave. But it did not keep him from protesting the regime, and when he opened his mouth everything changed.
We met in a café in Greece, where he told me of his experience participating in several other protests before eventually escaping the country, and his identity has been disguised for reasons of his own and his family’s safety. Yet, now secure in Europe, his eyes shone brightly.
Another Syrian-American, Ammar, spoke to me of the way people in Syria used to walk around in a sort of haze. Everybody knew what everybody else knew, but nobody could say it—and when they finally opened their mouths, it was revolutionary. Perhaps there is always something revolutionary in saying what has sat bitter and suppressed on the tongue for years, and the transformations that occur are typically overwhelming.
The Cameroonian philosopher, Ajume Wingo—with whom I have begun to study—writes movingly, in a yet unpublished manuscript, on freedom and what it means to live under tyranny:
“Freedom…implies independence and action that is often out of step with what is expected or tolerated. To act in such a way can be frightening.”
And because it is frightening, people living under tyrannical regimes often retreat by either emigrating or hiding in the womb of their own minds.
“We see people petrified into apelike imitators before tyrants and their threats to any independent action. We see the fear-struck faces of victims of genocides who find it easier to march docilely to what they know will be their deaths than to defy their persecutors.”
And perhaps, it is this sense of terror that people living in developed democracies cannot comprehend.
It is common to hear so-called peace activists speak about their Syrian friends who are grateful for the quietude they enjoyed under Assad’s rule—or their Russian friends who admire their patriarch Putin, in spite of his liquidation of democratic institutions.
Russians may no longer possess the ability to safely speak out against gay rights or empire, nationalism or the rule of oligarchs, but it is argued they feel secure and that is what matters most. But this is a shallow notion of human flourishing, and it fails to seek out any meaning behind what they are saying.
Complain to the telephone support staff of a major corporation about its service, or the manager of a fast food restaurant about the quality of its ingredients, and you will probably hear a similar story. No one likes to have their lack of freedom pointed out, because there is shame in the acquiescence to authority. And in pointing it out you are holding up a mirror to their spiritual self-mutilation.
Wingo explains that perhaps, “The most terrifying quality of an autocratic or totalitarian regime is not the regime’s ability to stymie political participation…but the ease with which persons are transformed into bare humans, fit objects to serve as the canvas of the tyrant’s vision of the world.” And it is this lack of agency, this hollowness at the heart of personal action, that points up the tragedy of tyranny.
There is something hauntingly surreal about the way the more intelligent Syrian supporters of Assad defend his regime on social media. It is not simply the way they mouth propaganda, saying Syrians love Assad, in spite of their fleeing the country in droves; or that Assad is the only force of secularism, in spite of his officer corps now being guided by jihadists from the Iranian National Guard and his inviting the religiously devout Hezbollah to take large portions of Syrian territory.
Nor is it that these slogans are so divorced from reality. Rather, the words are so audacious in their denial of reality, so void of moral meaning, so poised to excuse the worst atrocities, that they lift off the page in flight and drift about in a sort of dream-space.
This problem of retreating from freedom can also be approached from the other side, in the developed world, where people suffer not from too little, but too much freedom. The social-psychologist, Erich Fromm, points out in his now classic, Escape from Freedom, that the burden of freedom can be painful and that many will seek to throw it off.
Hence, there is a kind of sadomasochistic symbiosis between tyrants and their followers. The follower feels weak and insecure and seeks a great leader from whom he can not only get guidance but in whom he can immerse his identity.
Writing at the end of WWII, Fromm was addressing a fascism that was about to be struck a death blow, but it is newly re-emergent in the world today. We can see it in the movement to elect Trump, where weak followers lap up the repeated lies of their leader, where they revel in his self-inflation, and where after the election, his greatest opponents now look to him as some sort of potential savior.
Trump the bigot, Trump the sexist and Trump the know-nothing braggart is now the one who might break the power of the elites. The neuroses invested in this fantasy are simply staggering, but what is perhaps most disturbing is the escape from the burden of freedom involved.
Fromm writes of freedom as the ability to act spontaneously, and Wingo suggests something deeper, describing the free person as “the maker of surprises.” The thoughts of free people are gestated in private and expressed freely in public, coalescing in unanticipated demonstrations, like the Arab Spring.
When Egyptian protesters took Tahrir Square in the waning days of 2010, they were not only calling for democracy but for a new freedom of expression, at whose heart lay a tolerance for difference that surprised almost everyone. But Egyptians retreated from those calls for freedom in first electing the more conservative Muslim Brotherhood and then in taking to the streets in support of a coup.
About the only country where the demonstrations resulted in full-fledged democracy was where they began in Tunisia. A Tunisian friend and doctoral student, Narjes Ben Ammar, speaks of the transformations that resulted:
“We used to be fearful puppets, who dared not complain about their dissatisfaction, even privately. With the revolution the wall of fear collapsed all of a sudden. That which we dare not allow our minds to think has now been spoken out loud.”
Yet, Tunisia is still in flux and roiling with economic and social discontent.
Professor Wingo suggests, “A community of free persons requires not just effort on the part of individual citizens, but also time to reach a state of equilibrium.”
But in a global community of increasingly free peoples, it might be some time before we reach the great equilibrium of universal freedom. In the meantime, it is disorienting for people brought up under democratic governments, who have come to take their freedoms for granted, to be criticized by people brought up under tyrants in the third world for their support for those same tyrants.
If there is an equilibrium to be reached among free people living in self-governance, perhaps there is also an equilibrium to be reached among the newly free members of emergent democracies and escapees from the freedom of a democracy in decline. It is now immigrants like Wingo who may best understand the preciousness of the democratic freedoms that Americans are so casually and carelessly throwing away. And perhaps the interaction between the two groups will make for the greatest surprises of all.