The Two Faces of American Freedom
Aziz Rana in conversation with Bruce Ackerman
Co-sponsored by the Lillian Goldman Yale Law Librarys
Wednesday, December 8, 2010 * 6:00 pm
290 York St., New Haven, CT
The Two Faces of American Freedom boldly reinterprets the American experience from the colonial period to modern times, placing issues of race relations, immigration, and presidential power in the context of shifting notions of empire and citizenship. In the tradition of synthetic works that combine law, history, and political theory, the book challenges prevailing interpretations of U.S. founding, constitutional development, and liberal identity. It does so by focusing on how the country was first and foremost an experiment in “settler empire.”
Today, while the U.S. enjoys tremendous military and economic authority, citizens are increasingly insulated from everyday decision-making. This was not always the case. America, Rana argues, began as a settler society grounded in an ideal of freedom as the exercise of continuous self-rule — one that joined direct political participation with economic independence. However, this vision of freedom was politically bound to territorial conquest and to the subordination of marginalized groups. While presentations of the American Revolution as a radical event often highlight its egalitarian aspects, Rana maintains that the Revolution was just as much about defining the future of imperial colonization. He also re-conceives American immigration history, illustrating how the 19th century’s de facto open borders were tied fundamentally to an ethnically exclusive and republican vision of expansion. In essence, historic practices of internal liberty and external power were not separate currents, but rather two sides of the same coin.
Nonetheless, at crucial moments, reformers and social movements sought to imagine freedom without either subordination or empire. By the mid-twentieth century, these efforts failed, resulting in the rise of hierarchical state and corporate institutions. This new framework presented national and economic security as society’s guiding commitments and nurtured a continual extension of America’s global reach. The book ultimately envisions a democratic society that revives settler ideals, but combines them with meaningful inclusion for those currently at the margins of American life.