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.