Sunday, 5 August 2007

In Search of Freedom

In recent years, the word "freedom" has been used... liberally. We could even say that to talk about freedom or liberty has now become as frequent and meaningless as making passing comments about the weather at a bus stop. In fact, saying as much, would be to unfairly demean those conversations about the weather that have become so much more relevant than we've been used to.

In his speech to congress on 20th Sept 2001, George W Bush used the word freedom in the following phrases: "Tonight, we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom."; "On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country."; "a world where freedom itself is under attack"; "They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."; "what is at stake is not just America's freedom"; "This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom"; "Freedom and fear are at war"; "The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us."; "I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people."; " Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." (1)

Stop and read those again. Read them aloud. Read them confidently. Take a few breaths between each, and notice what effect saying those aloud has on you. Notice the effect on you to hear those words spoken aloud, and spoken resolutely.

Personally, it sends shivers down my spine!

To complete the picture, here is what Mr Bush has to say about liberty: "As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror. This will be an age of liberty here and across the world.".

Now consider late July 2007. "The Freedom Fighters", of, "The Free World", are entrenched in Afghanistan and Iraq in an attempt to deliver our cherished freedoms by force, and are fighting against nothing other than a form of home-grown "freedom fighter", who in turn is attempting, in their view, to defend their own way of life.

Furthermore, back here in the
free society of the UK, we have just had an attempt to impose restrictions of movement on 5 million people. In a ridiculous move to circumvent those very freedoms that we claim to have: in Bush's words "our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other", BAA, the owners of most of the UK's airport capacity, were attempting to disrupt the "Camp for Climate Action" sustainability event and protests near Heathrow.

Perhaps though it is understandable that words like freedom, liberty and democracy (that other thing that we're attempting to "give" to the world)
have become tainted, and almost meaningless.

Looking back at the phrases from that speech, which some regard as a 'great' speech of history, I'd suggest that the source of our difficulties with freedom lie in history itself.

In the past, our societies have evolved and expanded with plentiful space and resources. The actions that we have taken, and the resources that we have used, have had no consequence on the lives of others. Those trees felled to build that log cabin; that oil burned to run our cars; and even that pollution that ran off our fields into the river, just didn't seem to matter.

This is what we have become used to, and we called it "freedom". We celebrated it, built monuments to it, and educated our society to aspire to unlimited lives, where whatever we can dream we can have.

Unfortunately, we built freedom on a myth: that our actions are small and inconsequential.

It's not surprising that we did, when we consider the vast expanse of just one continent that became the "new frontier" with the settlement of Jamestown as recently as 1607. Consider that only 200 years ago, the population of that continent had fewer people than live in greater London today, around 7 million. What an amazing adventure that must have been. Back in 1800, the whole world population still numbered under 1 billion. In the next 100 years it grew by 70% to under 1.7 billion, and then in the following 100 years, rocketed to 6 billion, standing a mere 7 years later (as of July 2007) at 6.6 billion.

The people of our vast global population are now falling over each other and fighting over many declining resources that once seemed so huge that we couldn't dent them. Forests, arable land, mineral resources, the fish stocks of the seas: they once seemed so huge.

And, to that list of scarce resources, we can add "freedom". Freedom has also turned out be be limited, and it is now also being fought over. What was once celebrated and theoretically available to all has become something that is declared; owned, defended and attacked.

And.. as with any limited resource, "freedom" now has a price in a global market. Those who can afford it can have it, but those who cannot, they have to fight and to take it by force. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is our ideological battle. It is not the fight of one way of life over another, but instead the fight for the space for both.

In this vein, perhaps the future for freedom, is the same as that of our other scarce resources. We must learn to share it, and to share it equally. Do we want to continue in a world where our supposed democracy is nothing of the sort, but instead something where legal fees and political donations are a greater sway of power than individuals? Do we want to continue to fight for room for unsustainable and unrestrained freedoms that give no consideration to what is left for others? I, for one, do not.

So what of the search for freedom. We found it. It was great, and let's hope that we learned from it. Freedom was that impulsive and individualistic teenager. It's now time for freedom to grow up, to fall in love with responsibility, and form a bond called liberty.

Our search now must be for the balance of freedoms and responsibilities that has us live in harmony with each other, and in harmony with the planet that sustains us. Rest in peace freedom. Hello liberty.

Only when we have mastered liberty, will we once again, like those American pioneers, be able to stand and look out over the world and say "This... this is freedom".

Neale Upstone
5th August, 2007

(1) Source:

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