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A Re-evaluation of Freedom – Our Brave New World

Photo Credit: Alice Popkorn on Flickr under CC licence

There was a time when humanity’s heroes were almost invariably the champions of freedom. In politics, philosophy, story-telling, and beyond, our idols were those who fought the good fight so that people could live free and in peace. It was viscerally understood, by all of us, that freedom was a good thing and that no society could be good without it.

In recent years however, there has been a philosophical shift on the value of freedom. The change happened incrementally, so slowly it was almost imperceptible. We began to view freedom with a cynical eye and its value diminished, to the point today where those who defend it are almost thought of as selfish or crazy. If “Braveheart” had its initial release in cinemas now, I wonder if Gibson’s cry “they’ll never take our freedom!” would have quite the same effect on today’s audience. To quote Aldous Huxley, a writer who understood the fragility of freedom, we are living in a ‘brave new world’.

Understanding how this happened is no easy task. But it seems to me that it is linked to the popularity of those political philosophies which have long eschewed freedom in favour of other values. At the root of all such philosophies is the underlying presumption that what is best for the people is decided by those in power and that freedom is secondary to that. Under communism, economic equity trumps freedom. Under fascism in Germany, “safety” trumped freedom. Right now, in today’s world, public health trumps freedom.

But many people across the world who lived through communism and fascism can tell you why we should never trade freedom for protection. Those who survived totalitarianism in eastern Europe, China and elsewhere tell us that whereas the initial justification might sound convincing, the abuse of power that almost inevitably follows the loss of freedom is very hard to combat. These people now tell us that what they see in the West feels eerily familiar to them, even before the current Covid restrictions. The relentless march towards authoritarianism began, it seems, some time ago. Political groupthink, cancel culture, media bias, free speech suppression, self-censorship – all these things coalesce together and align with the experiences of those who have suffered under totalitarianism. It is, of course, not the hard totalitarianism they endured, but the first signs of a sort of inchoate soft totalitarianism.  

You might say this sounds like some far-fetched conspiracy. And I agree. But our current love-in with authoritarianism is not necessarily some big nefarious conspiracy by bad actors. It is, I think, more the result of blind stupidity, enabled by indolence and an unthinking solipsism in the soul of western society.

You might also say current Covid lockdowns are an exceptional response to an exceptional crisis. That may be true. But we have had horrific, terrifying crises before – in the last century alone, two world wars and a couple of deadly pandemics – and yet at those times, individual personal freedoms were not suspended to this extreme extent and in this disproportionate way.

You might say we live in liberal democracies with sophisticated legal and political systems, replete with all the necessary checks and balances to spring into action before things get too bad. I thought so too. And then I watched, aghast, as key tracts of our constitution were flouted by our government in the last year, and no-one stopped it: Not the president, sworn to maintain our constitution, who chose not to exercise his power of referral of potentially unconstitutional laws to the Supreme Court. Not the judiciary, who in my view is now simply refusing to do its job, repeatedly and inexcusably shirking its responsibility to hear a constitutional challenge taken by a private citizen earlier this year. Not our parliament, where main opposition parties are so utterly asinine they look like token players a dictator might roll out to give a laughable veneer of propriety to the proceedings. And certainly not our media, who are too busy acting like the propaganda arm of a one-party state.

It is a scary day in the West when it finally dawns on you that there is, in fact, nobody standing between you and the potentiality for totalitarianism.

If you are one of those who feel a Pavlovian response of anger and revulsion when anti-lockowners go maskless or drone on about “freedom”, consider this: Was there a time when you too actually thought that fundamental freedoms were inalienable? And why do you no longer think it? Is it possible you might just be a little bit brainwashed by years of relentless messaging from our unified political, media and expert class, incessantly justifying to us why there must be greater control over our lives, our speech, even our thoughts? And is it possible that maybe, just maybe, you might have forgotten some important truths along the way? Such as the truth that the individual rights of every person are vitally important, and that once we accept the principle – however well-intentioned – that those rights can be taken away, it becomes increasingly difficult to regain them and to defend them.

If we do not begin to ask the big questions, this cancerous attack on individual liberty will not end of its own accord. To those paying attention, the rise in authoritarianism across the free world is only one part of a much wider cultural sea-change. But right now, in our brave new world, just as in Huxley’s, most people are too busy living their lives to notice. Maybe our young people will likewise ‘grow up to love their servitude and never dream of revolution’.

 


 

Miriam Clune

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