Thursday, December 28, 2006

If Freedom fail

Over the past year, one of the major themes of this blog has been Freedom.

However, this is not the kind of freedom where "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law".

It is my belief that the individual has the right to live their life untroubled and untrammelled. Everyone should be free to choose to "go to the devil their own way".

Nevertheless, there are many snares in untrammelled freedom- selfishness cuts us off from others, greed ultimately poisons our bodies, or our happiness. Materialism leads us to neglect ourselves in favour of possessions.

So, although I will make no judgments of others, it is clear that there are certain disciplines that we can impose upon ourselves that will help us live more fulfilled and happier lives. It is these disciplines that form the basis of morality and ethics.

From the 1930s, the Oxford Group began to talk about a "moral re-armament" in the face of the challenges of both Hitler and Stalin, and while occasionally the ideals of what became Moral Re-armament (M.R.A.) may have strayed either into naivete or directly political action, the core values have stood some surprising tests. The twelve-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous has its roots amidst the Oxford Group, for example.

When I was a child, my father was interested in the values of Moral Re-armament, and had an audio tape of M.R.A.s Gilbert and Sullivan style satire on the Cold War: The Vanishing Island, which we used to listen to on long car journeys. At the time, the key to the satire appeared to be be the Cold War itself- the regimented forces of Weiheit'tiu (We Hate You) challenging the power of the island of Eiluph'mei (I Love Me). Now, and with a more adult eye, I see that the satire was as much about the license that freedom gives to selfishness and greed. Although dated, I still find myself picking up on the cynicism of the Press that is portrayed in the song "Inky Scribes" or the self satisfaction in the words of "We are right, you are wrong"- a song that sums up the arrogance of George W. Bush to perfection.

The core message of the Oxford Group is the need to take personal responsibility for one's own actions and behaviour. Although originally a Christian Group, Moral Re-armament, now known as Initiatives of Change, has embraced members of all religions, and those whose tenets prefer to embrace a voice of conscience instead. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the Group itself, the message of the Oxford Group seems to be gaining a greater resonance in our own time.

In the West, we live in a time of unparalleled abundance- yet our actions are polluting the world. We give ourselves more and more license, yet in order to posses things once thought of as luxuries we now commit to greater financial burdens. The conformity of groups has eroded our rights to be respected as individuals.

Our society has become one where those who take responsibility end up becoming blamed, while those who shirk responsibility are ignored. Our political system has become a paralyzed bureaucracy, dependent on 18th or 19th Century technology and ideas. Our universal principles reduced to the flummery that disguises an all powerful executive, which seems determined to reduce the power of individuals as far as possible. Without personal responsibility, the human spirit is reduced to irresponsibility- and society begins to lose cohesion.

Meanwhile, the power of organised religion- a previous source of morality- has declined into the ritualistic. The moral force that religion once had has been blunted by the increasingly undeniable truths of science. Western society no longer accepts the unvarnished tenets of faith. In a sense this is a maturing- we can now see our place in the Universe more clearly. Yet this change in perception has removed the parental figure of the God of Religion. We still know very little of our place in the Universe, and dimly we perceive the value of the moral and ethical lessons of the past. Slacking our physical appetities does not necessarily filfil us, shirking responsibility reduces our sense of autonomy. Yet no single spiritual manifesto seems to address modern concerns.

Vaclav Havel spoke out against Communism in "The Power of the Powerless"- and he also put forward a moral manifesto for a citizen against the state: "The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility", perhaps this can be the basis for a new political perception.

Today we face the challenge of fanaticism- this time "We Hate You" comes in the monstrous actions of Al-Qaida. Their barbarity may tempt us to act intemperately, but as Iraq must surely demonstrate-we must not give into the temptations of revenge rather than reason.

More and more the greatest challenge we face is in ourselves- the challenge of overcoming our own actions. Our failure to nurture moral disciplines in ourselves has allowed our Greed to turn the gardens of China into polluted deserts and the seas of the world into fished-out dustbins. Our failure to nurture our offspring leads to ill educated, feral children whose lack of personal autonomy makes them live their lives in a consequence-free moral vacuum. Ultimately our greed and our selfishness destroys us as well as everything else they damage.

I do not put forward the manifesto of a philosopher-king, Freedom allows all to make moral choices within the law. However, genuine freedom gives, indeed insists upon, personal autonomy and responsibility.

As a Liberal I demand the freedom to take responsibilty for my own life. It is not merely a civic duty but a moral obligation. Though many will regard this as pointless dreaming, yet will I leave with one further thought from Havel:

"Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance."

As I see the banalities of our political cycle seem poised to move to their own imperatives, yet will I continue to campaign for Freedom. I will also seek a path of moral responsibility based upon personal autonomy. Honesty, purity unselfishness and love do not seem like bad influences upon the course of life. The next years will need a far greater political and moral vision- and we can not rely on our leaders to provide it. It is up to ourselves to make moral choices and to speak out for the principles and values of freedom in the face of indifference, ignorance or hostility.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

My Dear Cicero,

One of my friends advised me to log into your blog which is apparently full of witty comments. I have to say I am disappointed. If Freedom fail, what a statement with very little depth and width. Freedom is the base of our life speaking about IT requires a little bit more seriousness and truth. Speaking for speaking is not a virtue anymore on what great orators use to defy their oppressors " The just man is most free from disturbance, while the unjust is full of the utmost disturbance." One questions sprayed to my mind: Have you ever been to a country where these inhabitants suffered from a lack of freedom?
Epicurus

Cicero said...

Don't really follow your point- were you writing after the pubs had closed?

Country were inhabitants suffered a loss of freedom? I was active in the dissident movements of most of Eastern Europe from 1979 until 1989.

Anonymous said...

Taking responsibility for your actions is very important, it is necessary for liberty, but it has been undermined by successive governments.
We are now encouraged to abdicate our personal responsibility and put our faith in the state.

There is a difference between people and encouraging people to abdicate responsibility, something many LibDems need to realise too.

Also, the increasingly arbitrary legal system and subversion of the rule of law hinders people's freedoms. How can you be responsible for your actions if you don't know what is and isn't allowed?

Mike and Jan said...

As one who has been long active with The Oxford Group/Initiatives of Change (IofC), I was intrigued to read Cicero’s blog referring to our work. I also was brought up listening to my parent’s recording of the allegorical Cold War play The Vanishing Island, with its references to smug Western complacency as much as the class warriors of the Soviets. Things have moved on. Western liberal capitalism of itself is certainly not delivering a just globalization, at least not according to Joseph Stiglitz’s critique of the Washington Consensus. (See his books “Globalization and its discontents” and “Making Globalization Work”.) We are not at the end of history.

When it comes to understanding notions of freedom, there are two issues: political freedom and personal freedom of spirit. The two are of course closely linked. Concerning the latter, we of IofC have always held that there is a paradox at the heart of freedom, summed up in the phrase: “In Whose service is perfect freedom”. Service sounds like servitude. But freedom can never be confused with an escape from servitude into license. I am not free to commit murder, rape, adultery…. Indeed the license that indulges ones passions, on the lines of the seven deadly sins, ends up in slavery to ones passions. On the other hand, there is dignity in service.

Nor can true freedom be divorced from notions of belief. “In Whose service is perfect freedom” implies the existence of a divine creator who has our best interests at heart. Such service, then, allows us to flourish; allows our best talents to bloom; allows selfless love and respect for one’s fellow human beings rather than crass exploitation and greed. Paradoxically, at the heart of freedom is obedience to the still, small voice within. The Beatitudes sum this up: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Human values are stood on their head. We cannot be full of ourselves, rather than being “poor in spirit”, and at the same time enter into true happiness, or indeed be sensitive to the spirit of others; we cannot invade other countries (the antithesis of meek) and not pay a consequence. But those who are meek are warmly welcomed wherever they travel. (The Beatitudes repay much reflection and study.)

People of other faith traditions may have similar refections. After all, the very word Islam means ‘submission’ to the will of God/Allah.

I am grateful that Cicero has raised such a fundamental debate.

Mike Smith
Initiatives of Change
24 Greencoat Place, London SW1P 1RD
Tel: 020 7798 6000

Cicero said...

I think the key issues are to do with personal autonomy- and the expectation that "the state will provide" certainly undermines a sense of personal responsibilty. I suppose that this might bring us into the territory of the "undeserving poor". The problem is how to make a safety net rather than a security blanket- and I think inject ideas of "tough love" might be valid.

Very please to see a comment from IoC- and I certainly echo your comments re: The Beatitudes. Of all the tenets in my occasional an partial Christianity those are the ones that keep me coming back to the (Lutheran) church.