A memorable phrase in an historic speech sometimes becomes the name by which the speech is remembered: I have a dream. Ich bin ein Berliner. Tear down this wall. President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech may one day be deemed historic. If it is, a fitting title can be found in the 20th paragraph: War is sometimes necessary. When the president said those words, I blinked back a tear.
But it was another phrase used in the Oslo speech that will be mulled over here: freedom from want.
It is an unfocused phrase, but of excellent provenance, first decanted in FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech, in which he fore- saw a world founded on those freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Here’s part of what he said: “The third is freedom from want – which, translated into universal terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world…. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.” He was speaking in 1941.
In 1948, the phrase was reused in the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want.” Eleanor Roosevelt helped craft the document.
This brings us back to President Obama’s “War is some- times necessary” speech, in which he said, “If human rights are not protected, peace is a hollow promise,” and, later, “a just peace includes not only civil and political rights – it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.”
The phrase seems off, and I think I know why. The word “want” has so many different meanings that “freedom from want,” when inspected closely, turns out to be more of a Rorschach test than a right. Let’s consider.
As a noun, “want” might mean: (1) “the state or feeling of desire,” as in, “Flipping through the catalogue of huge tele- vision sets, Taylor was consumed by want,” (2) “destitution or privation,” as in, “Many Biharis live in want,” or, (3) “any- thing that is desired or needed, but lacking,” as in, “The hotel staff scrambled to fulfill the diva’s every want.” Did PDR and company have one of these meanings in mind?
Let’s try out definition (1), the state of desiring. “True peace is … freedom from want.” This sounds an awful lot like the Lord Buddha talking, doesn’t it? It was he, after all, who taught that suffering comes from desire, and the key to happiness is to stop wanting. Buddhists call it the Third Noble Truth: to end suffering, one must achieve freedom from want.
If that’s the idea, the president could ask the Secretary of Education to launch an initiative in our public schools to complement the “Just Say No” and abstinence-only programs. Funds could be earmarked for begging bowls and saffron robes for the students in mandatory “Stop the Want” classes.
I’m not serious. It’s a pretty sure bet that neither Roosevelt nor Obama had the teachings of the Buddha in mind. But how about the Old Testament?
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Now, if I were a sheep, the 23rd Psalm would be comforting only if my shepherd were a committed vegan. Setting aside the shepherd and sheep analogy, which has no place in Buddhism, and setting aside the fact that he~e “want” is a verb, doesn’t the psalmist’s counsel seem similar to the Buddha’s: to find true peace, free yourself from want? In the psalm’s final line, the author even expresses confidence that he “will dwell in the House of the Lord forever,” a result that’s a bit like the one taught in Buddhism, except that, in nirvana – absence, non- returning, “blowing out” – there’s no one home.
But Roosevelt’s idea of the Third Freedom has nothing to do with an afterlife, with or without sheep or a shepherd. No otherworldly glow surrounding the”economic understandings” of the Third Freedom. What FDR had in mind was more mundane than that. So definition (1) is definitely out.
Maybe it’s my fault. Instead of wasting my time in Industrial Arts, I could have signed up for Liberation Theology. Maybe then I would have grasped instantly just which “economic understandings” are equivalent to, or productive of, “freedom from want,” without consulting my dictionary of Newspeak. But let’s try the next definition of “want” (2), “destitution.”
In daily speech, “want” is most often used as a verb, not a noun. It isn’t a particularly grand verb, and it is generally used for trivial things, as in, “I want a puppy.” This alone suggests that it would be out of its depth in “freedom from want,” if it were being asked to serve as a grand and tragic synonym for “destitution or privation.” (A related problem can occur when a grand word is used to describe insignificant things, as in, “This yogurt is awesome,” although, to be fair, that construction still allows room for the Taj Mahal to be totally awe- some.) Yet there trembles little “want,” shoved out onto the stage amongst these rhetorical Valkyries and asked to sing basso profundo.
Surely, “freedom from destitution” would have been better than “want.” Ending abject poverty would be a good thing. With “destitution,” there would be no need to resort to an arcane definition or a usage rarely heard, and no puppies would be whining in the connotations. Yes, “destitution” had the pipes for the role, and “privation” would have made a suitable understudy, clearly a better choice than “want.” So, if the two presidents were trying to say “destitution,” why did they say “want”? That is, of course, unless they weren’t trying to say”destitution.”
If only the Founding Fathers had included “freedom from want” in the Constitution, all this speculation might be unnecessary. The meaning of those words would be laid out in the Federalist papers, and one could assume that this was the meaning that a president intended to convey when he used the phrase. I guess the Founders just didn’t get around to it. But let’s try our luck with definition (3), “anything that is desired; but lacking.”
A casual viewer, watching TV at home without a thesaurus handy, and listening to a politician talking about “freedom from want,” might think, “What was that? Did he say I can have anything I want? For free? Whoa. I want to get rid of my old clunker and get a new car. Can he help out with that? And I want another stimulus check. Can he get me one of those? And get that credit card company off my back. And keep cranking out my brother’s unemployment checks. While he’s at it, could he please forgive my kid’s college loans? And, hey, I want free healthcare. Oh, yeah, and force the bank to cut my mortgage payments. Better yet, fork over some money for a new house. If that’s what this guy’s talking about, count me in. He’s got my vote.”
When considered in this way, the contrast between the Third Noble Truth and the Third Freedom is stark. While the Buddha advised extinguishing the desire that motivates want, thereby ending suffering and, in some versions, the need for rebirth, Roosevelt and his successors could be under- stood as suggesting that the way to end suffering and bring “trUe peace” is to satisfy every want right here on earth. Don’t starve it; feed it, so to speak.
This reading is made possible by the double negative created by definition (3). “Freedom from want” in this sense can be distilled to the absence of a lack. Only on rare occasions do double negatives not have the effect of rendering less clear that which is already unclear. For example, “freedom of speech” could have been written as “the right to the absence of limitations on speech,” but it wasn’t. The phrase is clouded by the paired negatives. In Algebra I, we learn that two negatives cancel out, leaving a simple positive statement. Mathematically, then, a fair reduction of “the absence of lack- ing anything that is desired” would be “having everything that is desired.”
While it would be wrong to hold a politician responsible for bizarre interpretations that others assign to his words, and while the ambiguity of “want” cannot be said to be entirely the fault of the speaker, it can, nonetheless, serve as a rhetorical device that musters needed votes from needy voters who, like all the rest of us, must engage in the exercise of trying to match up what is said with what is done.
So maybe our casual viewer is on to something. If the politician talking about “freedom from want” initiates programs that provide this voter with the things he wants, and at no apparent cost, who is to say that the voter’s interpretation of the phrase is wrong? What if his take on the phrase is pragmatically accurate? What if the “economic security and opportunity” mentioned in the Oslo version of “freedom from want” were pragmatically interpreted as a promise to free people from the lack of anything that they desire, with the tab for the goodies going to someone else?
In our viewer’s eyes, this politician is, let’s face it, Santa Claus. Naturally, a solid majority of children, especially the nice ones, are pro-Santa. One wonders, though, how Santa polls amongst the elves, who must beaver away year-round to fulfill the children’s want lists. But if the promise being heard is that all desires will be fulfilled, the message is simple: the life of humans here on earth can be made perfect.
Some will find this interpretation of “freedom from want” absurd. They will call it a stretch. Others will find the entire line of reasoning naive, or obvious. My apologies. But one other thing was said in Oslo that arched my left brow. In the 50th paragraph, President Obama said, “We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected.”
The statement is undeniably true. Strictly speaking, we don’t have to think that human nature is perfect in order to believe that the human condition can be perfected. Regardless of what we or anyone thinks about human nature, people can, and do, believe just about anything. Much of it is, of course, nonsense, including the notion that the human condition can be perfected. Hypothetically, though, questions arise: is war sometimes necessary so that the human condition can be made perfect, or is it the imperfect nature of man that periodically necessitates war? If compelled to answer in the affirmative to only one of these, with great reluctance and some sadness, I would give the nod to the latter, with the footnote that a limited understanding of the human condition is a pre- requisite for believing that it can be perfected. I mean, look around, for God’s sake.
And now, the Rorschach test: “freedom from want.” Take a small sip. Roll it around on your tongue. What comes to mind? A chicken in every pot? Eternity in the house of the Lord? The man with all the toys? Release from the wheel of life? Every man a king? The clear light of the void? A workers’ paradise? Everything your little heart desires? The iron rice bowl? Opium for the people? The perfection of the human condition? Take your pick. Go ahead.
As a statement proposing a human right, “freedom from want” is a hopeless muddle. It is plank. But as a rhetorical device for garnering votes, it has a deceptively complex structure and a short but zingy finish. A thrill may even go up your leg. Be forewarned, though, if you actually drink this Kool- Aid, the hangover will be a doozy.