IS FREEDOM WORTH FIGHTING FOR? – Salisbury Review, December 2016
“Vorrei, e non vorrei,“ sings Zerlina to the seducer Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera. “I want to, and I don’t want to.” We delight in her dalliance, but approve of her reticence. She is after all engaged to another man. Such is the attitude of many people to freedom. Our eyes gleam as we give rein to our free spirits, but we also shy away from the dangers that liberty can lead us into. So which is right? Should we embrace freedom, or curb it to keep safe?
If we choose the safe option, we may have no problem living under General Sisi’s regime in Egypt, which provides its people with security guaranteed by the shooting or locking up of dissidents deemed to be terrorists. History abounds with strongmen who promise a steadfast status quo as long as you do not rock the boat. However since the time of ancient Athens, mankind has shown a remarkable propensity to kick over the traces, come what may. In an assembly of 6,000 citizens in 480 BCE, the Athenians decided to resist the invading despot Xerxes – and after winning a naval battle, established the world’s first democracy with a wide range of liberties.
It was not perfect and did not last for long, but there was more to come. Jesus preached a liberating message to the downtrodden poor – that theirs would be the Kingdom of Heaven. Its appeal spread around the world, and today the fastest growing segment of Christian followers is precisely the poor. And when the Catholic Church imposed autocratic disciplines, heretics risked the repressive terror of the Inquisition to speak out in dissent.
English barons defied a King to enforce habeas corpus and trial by jury, while Parliament successfully challenged Kings who asserted Divine Right to enforce their whims. In France, rational philosophers swept away the myths of the Catholic Church, while Protestants insisted on their right to interpret the Bible as they wished. After working class unrest in the 19th century, Parliament extended the right to vote beyond the landed classes, and women won freedom to be legal entities in their own right and eventually to vote too. Under British leadership, the institution of slavery was largely abolished, and people are no longer oppressed by Nazi and Soviet dictatorships or apartheid.
It is worth cataloguing these achievements if only to belie the impression that freedom is losing ground. Of course, there have been setbacks to its progress, some of them catastrophic. In 1940, most of Europe was under the Nazi heel, and even in a surviving democracy such as Britain, young men were forced to give up their peaceful occupations and submit to military discipline, while the government controlled the economy and the media. All the achievements of two millennia seemed lost then, but five years later the Western Allies liberated Europe and free democracies flourished anew. When Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment by South African whites in 1964, he seemed destined to wither into oblivion. But he never bowed his head, and the whites not only had to let him go but also concede him leadership over the whole country. After Aung Sang Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in Myanmar in 1990, who would have thought she could compel the military junta to release her 20 years later, or that she would take power after winning a free election? But she did. Freedom has amazing resilience.
As a consequence of this hardiness, the struggles have brought lasting change to our societies. The principles of ancient Athens still influence politics today, and if you live in Oxford, as I do, Socrates’ penchant for free debate flourishes as strongly as ever. The American political system based on multiple liberties, established in the 18th century, has lost none of its attractiveness to people around the world. And at least in the West, women are free from the oppressive influences of fundamentalist religion and primitive patriarchal traditions that prevail in less developed parts of the world. Where women have won the right to vote, work, earn money and be educated, their freedom is gained forever.
Freedom however is rarely granted voluntarily. Usually people have had to fight for it. Civil war broke out after King John refused to honour his commitment to Magna Carta. Americans could develop their unique system of representative democracy only after defeating the British colonial power. When Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith refused to back women demanding the vote (for fear that they would vote for his Conservative opponents), women broke shop windows and exploded letter-box bombs, and by running large parts of the home economy during World War I, entrenched themselves in a position of influence that brought them to their goal.
One objection to fighting for freedom is that it may kill or injure people and do great damage. This has prompted some of the greatest heroes of the struggle to refrain from violence. Crowds in Leipzig, East Berlin and Prague chanted “no violence” to Communist riot police wielding batons to smash their bids for freedom. The protesters felt they held the moral high ground if they refrained from joining in. In this, they were emulating Gandhi in British-ruled India and Martin Luther King in the American Deep South.
That has led to the false assumption that the only honourable way to fight for freedom is nonviolent. But these peaceful campaigners for liberty were not facing absolute power. Mikhail Gorbachev had already pulled the rug from beneath the puppet Communist rulers of Eastern Europe. Gandhi was up against British who had lost their appetite for empire, and Martin Luther King had the President of the United States on his side. None of these non-violent activists would have stood a chance if Stalin had been their opponent.
At times therefore, use of force is unavoidable. It was only through massive violence by millions of heavily-armed Allied soldiers that Europe was liberated from Hitler in 1944-45. Today Britons still feel squeamish about the beheading of King Charles I. But in a violent age, how else could Parliament have overcome his fierce defence of absolute rule? The French have fewer scruples over the guillotining of Louis XVI: on national day, their democratic leaders resolutely sing the Marseillaise to celebrate a revolution of which they are proud.
Taking to the streets in revolution is the traditional way for oppressed peoples to overthrow tyrannies. As in Paris in 1789 – so too in St Petersburg in 1917, Budapest in 1956, Lisbon in 1974, Tunis and Cairo in 2011 and Kiev in 2014. But that does not mean the struggle for liberty is necessarily the preserve of leftists. The demonstrators who flocked to the streets of Eastern Europe chanting “We are the people” were revolting against Marxist-Leninist dictatorships, and the European Union that their countries then joined is based on free market principles.
People of the same nation may end up championing irreconcilable concepts of freedom. Much like Trump voters in the U.S., Brexiters seek to take back control of their destinies and liberate themselves from outside interference. Advocates of the European ideal, on the other hand, want to share common democratic principles and enjoy freedom of movement, goods and capital. One can drive across most of Europe today without having to stop at frontiers, show identity documents or pay commissions to banks to change currencies. But this version of freedom ends at the border to the U.K., where the first concept prevails.
With a track record of 2,500 years, the struggle for more liberty is unlikely to come to a halt. The urge to be free seems an intrinsic part of human nature. It may simmer beneath the surface of human consciousness for a time, but then bursts forth like molten lava. Immanuel Kant saw it as a natural development like growing into adulthood: you break free of the parents you once had to obey.
Freedom however is not a virtue in itself. It is a state of being. Whether good or bad comes of it depends on how you use it. On his release from prison, Nelson Mandela could take credit for averting a bloodbath in South Africa by preaching reconciliation and multi-racial solidarity. Vladimir Lenin, by contrast, used the overthrow of the autocratic Tsars in Russia, not to free workers from their chains as promised, but to impose a new dictatorship.
If freedom is not necessarily good, that brings us back to the question: is it better to fight for it or play safe? Nearly all people seek a stance between these two extremes, and their choice is influenced by personal character and assumptions. Pessimists tend towards a society that is orderly, well-regulated and stable, but also fearful and stultifying. Optimists seek more freedom – choosing to be subversive and unsettling, but also innovative, progressive and empowering. The latter brings risks and may offend, but it offers vitality and change; for better or for worse, history shows that human beings are unlikely to abandon its pursuit.