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Burning for freedom

Two important books with important questions about progress

Scott Olson/Getty

The Free World,” Louis Menand’s intellectual history of the Cold War, offers an explanation of the period’s rapidly-shifting, transatlantic, artistic and intellectual styles by “examining the conditions of their production and reception.” Covering the years 1945-1972, Menand gracefully and lucidly narrates the concentrically related stories of George Kennan and postwar containment, the Frankfurt School and the Bauhaus, Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, The Beats and The Beatles, Susan Sontag and second wave feminism, “atonal” music and “drip” painting, Andy Warhol and Pop Art, George Orwell and James Baldwin, the French New Wave and Pauline Kael. It is a kind of nonfiction novel with a hundred characters.

Menand seeks to demystify the mythologies and misprisions (his favorite word for errors in description or judgment) about contested political theories (communism, totalitarianism, fascism), philosophies (existentialism, phenomenology, deconstruction), ideologies (liberalism, feminism, negritude, free speech) and cultural histories (literary criticism, modernist novels, paperback publishing, Abstract Expressionist painting, rock and roll music, Hollywood movies). Synthesizing biographical profile, historical scholarship, literary journalism, and cultural critique in dispassionate, brilliant prose, Menand gently corrects the accepted understanding of this period rather than advancing case-closing judgements.


Menand’s central character is freedom, its definitions and meanings. “Freedom is not natural,” he writes, “it is carved out of a system of socialization and coercion, and it requires its own system of coercions to be maintained. As an absolute, freedom is the equivalent of arbitrariness and anarchy, and socially meaningless.” Though we understand freedom rhetorically and colloquially, when we attempt to define the concept philosophically or legally, Menand explains, we meet some barbed questions: “Given that freedoms are carve-outs, what are their proper limits? Does freedom bring other values, such as equality and social responsibility, along with it, or is it achieved at their expense? Can the state constrain individual liberties in the name of collective goods, such as community norms or national security?”

These questions are as old as any conception of individual rights. Painters, philosophers, novelists, and intellectuals are often animated by and struggle with these questions. After the Second World War, these questions made liberal democracies anxious because while expansion of liberty was a geopolitical necessity (in the contest against the Soviet Bloc), it upset the racial and gender hierarchies supporting their domestic status quos. In the US, Black Americans used this ideological conflict to escalate their already-ongoing push to desegregate national life and win recognition as equal and fully-protected Constitutional citizens. Elsewhere, African, Asians, and South Americans battled to end of European colonial rule and establish their own independent, sovereign nation-states.


Interestingly, the ambiguities built into the rhetoric of freedom proved to be more expedient than demands for racial equality. Menand points to Martin Luther King. who “understood that the language of liberation had greater political force than the language of egalitarianism. Equality implies redistribution. Freedom implies individualism and is usually imagined as a non-zero-sum good. Freedom was a demand the federal government could get behind. In fact, of course, freedoms are not zero-sum: a right for someone is a prohibition for someone else. And they are not rights at all unless all citizens enjoy them equally; otherwise, they are privileges.” Cold War geopolitics “made the civil rights revolution happen much faster than it otherwise might have.”

Recall, however, that American and European governments confronted nonviolent decolonization and Black liberation movements with violent repression. The Cold War record explains that in places like Oakland, Luanda, or Hanoi freedom, equality, independence, or political self-determination didn’t arise without violent rebellion. In “America on Fire,” her new historical examination of African American rebellions from the late 1960s and early 2000s, Elizabeth Hinton explains that “the philosophy of nonviolence may have had some moral advantages, but it also came with obvious practical failings. As for colonized people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, in the US, self-defense became a means for Black Americans to contest their second-class citizenship.”


Hinton’s main character is also freedom. However, no Cold War headliners dramatize her narrative. Instead, “America on Fire” focuses on the Black citizens in places such as Cairo, Illinois; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Miami, Florida; who rebelled against white vigilante and police violence during the decade following the Civil Right Act of 1964. Hinton calls the late 60s-early 70s “the crucible period of rebellion.” The period matters, she writes, “because it has, despite being forgotten, defined freedom struggles, state repression, and violence in Black urban America” into the 21st century.

In Hinton’s first book, “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration,” she documents how federal crime control policies placed urban centers and Black neighborhoods under siege, thus instigating violence rather than curbing it. “America on Fire” picks up this thread, illustrating the origins and legacies of the rebellions that sprang from police incursions in Black life. Hinton demonstrates that these rebellions against state repression, and the reactions of the state to the violence, express a cyclical, concentric process. Federal policy initiatives like the “Wars” on crime and drugs surround Black ghettos with the police, who patrol, surveille, and disrupt everyday life like occupying soldiers “in a bitterly hostile country,” as James Baldwin once put it. The very presence of the police, Hinton writes, “their perceived callousness to the inequality around them — felt violent in itself. An unnecessary encounter between the police and young Black and Brown residents, or an arrest, could tip into community violence.”


Both books suggest that defining, achieving, and maintaining freedom is likely a project without end. However, Hinton’s trenchant study also proposes that African Americans may not be able to free themselves without mixing nonviolent resistance and aggressive rebellion. “Two generations removed from the era of rebellion . . . the young activists at the center of the contemporary freedom movement have forced us to reckon with anti-Black racism and how policing and incarceration in America anchor totalizing systems of political and economic oppression,” she writes. “America on Fire” closes with a “Timeline of Black Rebellions”; those 25 pages correct any claims that the uprisings we’ve witnessed in America since Ferguson in 2014 are either new or over.

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War

By Louis Menand

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 880 pages, $35

American on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s


By Elizabeth Hinton

Liveright, 408 pages, $29.95

Walton Muyumba is the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism. He teaches at Indiana University-Bloomington.