Thursday, February 23, 2006

Freedom Fried

The notion of ‘freedom’ is rarely out of the news at the moment. Most often because it features heavily in the missives emitted from the White House. It seems to go hand-in-hand with democracy, but present circumstances have blurred and befuddled this comfortable coupling. On the one hand there’s Hamas: democratically elected by the Palestinians - and the ever-tightening grip of Britain’s nanny state on the other. Then there’s the infamous Danish cartoon: freedom of speech, or insensitive prejudice?

This week, I counted 20 different types of marmalade in my parent’s local supermarket. That’s freedom of choice. Unfortunately, I couldn’t compare the choices with those available in any other shop, because, owing to the overbearing dominance of the aforementioned outlet, there’re no longer any other marmalade-mongers in the town.

With continuous CCTV surveillance there’s little need for the responsibility that was once the traditional partner of freedom. The introduction of identity cards and a raft of other hurried, ill-considered laws scrabbling onto the statute books there are fewer and fewer liberties left to protect.

Why is the public so complicit in its loss of freedom? Fear is perhaps one possible reason. Terrorism, militant Islam, lung cancer, rogue states, the axis of evil and Al Qaeda are only a few of today’s fearsome threats. And then there are the perpetrators: Bin Laden, Saddam, Abu Hamza etc, who are nothing less than international bogeymen. Surely we’re not safe in our beds with the likes of these roaming the mountainous wastelands of Afghanistan and Finsbury Park.

As a result, it seems a surprisingly simple task to pull the wool over the public’s eyes and force through a raft of new authoritarian laws. Freedom implies choice – no, it doesn’t imply it: it necessitates it. If I am a free man, I am free to commit, as well as not to commit crimes: and it's imperative that I have the choice. If I drive along the street and I know for a fact that to exceed the speed limit will result in a speeding fine – I no longer have a real choice. It follows then that I am relieved of my responsibility in equal measure. I no longer drive at a speed that I believe to be safe, but at a speed at which I will not invoke the wrath of the law. That is not freedom.

Six men went on trial last week for the theft of Edvard Munch’s Scream from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Security at the museum was pilloried because it was so lax and because the security staff, unlike the thieves, were unarmed. Of course, it is easy to laugh at misplaced trust after the event, but what makes people most trustworthy? Imbuing them with trust, or depriving them of responsibility? Trusting is risky and all too often gives way to abuse, but that’s the nature of freedom. Which is preferable – to live in a world where crime is rife but where the majority trust one another and reap the multifarious benefits that ensue – or to quest for the eradication of crime by all available means, including the sacrifice of freedom? That ‘violence breeds violence’ is a truism, but we keep on with the bloody war on terror anyway.

Freedom of choice is about more than marmalade, and having 120 TV channels. It's about whether to be social or anti-social, whether to prize one’s own rights more highly than the preferences of others. But it cannot be absolute in any society because one person’s freedoms will inevitably impinge on another’s, which is what happened to the Danish cartoonist. Europeans are [quite justifiably] adamant in defending their right to print such material, while at least as many Muslims are outraged; not necessarily by our freedom of expression, so much as our wanton lack of respect in exercising it.

With the world in its current condition, one might hope that the western - so called democratic free world - might have the self confidence not to need to become quite so defensive when the Muslim community [already squaring up to those it sees as its oppressors] feels the need to defend itself and its beliefs. We may well have had a justifiable right to publish and re-publish those images, but would it not have been more respectful and wiser in the circumstances to have apologised for the offence and quietly let the story die - especially in the light of the string of subsequent climb-downs, suspensions and resignations? Besides, I have to wonder quite why it took the Muslim community at least 4 months to find out about the cartoons. Who told them and when? The term Agent provocateur springs to mind for some reason… after all, where would we be without the ‘War on Terror’ and its bogeymen? It’s time we assessed what we mean by freedom, and decide whether it’s something we want to cherish, aspire to, or proscribe.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"To achieve the good that they desire, the bold do not fear danger; the intelligent do not refuse to undergo suffering. It is the stupid and cowardly who are neither able to endure hardship nor to vindicate their rights; they stop at merely longing for them, and lose through timidity the valor roused by the effort to claim their rights, although the desire to enjoy them still remains as part of their nature. A longing common to both the wise and the foolish, to brave men and to cowards, is this longing for all those things which, when acquired, would make them happy and contented. Yet one element appears to be lacking. I do not know how it happens that nature fails to place within the hearts of men a burning desire for liberty, a blessing so great and so desirable that when it is lost all evils follow thereafter, and even the blessings that remain lose taste and savor because of their corruption by servitude. Liberty is the only joy upon which men do not seem to insist; for surely if they really wanted it they would receive it. Apparently they refuse this wonderful privilege because it is so easily acquired.”

The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude
by Étienne de la Boétie

Thursday, March 02, 2006 12:38:00 pm  

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