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Letters from Downunder

A workable Freedom

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

(April, 2010) One of the greatest promises ever made to anyone at any time is in the American Constitution. Everyone, it says has the unalienable right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The 'right to life' has gone through some incredible twists and turns over the years, but as I understand the original intention, it was simply to affirm that because life was God's gift to humanity, it was therefore his to take away. The writers also knew that happiness was not something anyone can promise to supply, because it is a very subjective feeling, but they declared that every falling under this charter could pursue it without hindrance.

But Liberty? That most prized of conditions is fragile. No society can function without restrictions on its citizenry - anarchy, or the absence of government, is the opposite to democracy; it does not allow for happiness or peace, and as history shows, makes life tenuous for the majority. Citizens everywhere prosper under stability, order, and certainty, and they cannot pursue happiness without at least some of each. Laws are vital, and no one really argues with this, even when it means that the lives of certain individuals must be restricted. My question this month is, however, 'How much liberty can we have?'

The answer will depend on where you sit, both literally and metaphorically. To the millions of dispossessed throughout the world, the answer is 'very little'. To the growing number of plutocrats, it's 'as much as we want'. To the rest of us it is a big variable. Most people in modern society learn to live with what they are given, and this is the nub of the argument, for many have come to experience their liberty as what they believe they have. Liberty is therefore subjective and relative, and the purpose of many western governments, Australia and The United States among them, is to make liberty seem to be a boon of their policies. And more than that, it must fit within their framework, not to do what you want, but to do what they want, yet still believe that it is the ideal liberty for you, your country, and your times.

As Juvenal said around 100 AD, 'Only two things does he, the modern citizen , anxiously wish for - bread and circuses.' And that is exactly what we have. If we dare to suggest that most of the liberty we have is illusory, or even that the circuses have lost their appeal, we are either ignored or, if we have a bit of clout, slapped back into our little box with the threat of loss of more liberty. Most of us capitulate, can't be bothered, and ignore the insidious creep of boundaries inward. The old cry 'if you do not behave the way we say should you are a communist' still reverberates.

The political parties of democracies can be brought to heel, however, and there are increasing signs that the rumblings of disaffection are going to produce more than heat and smoke sometime soon. Not just 'oh well, we'll vote for the other side this time, they can't be worse that the others', but things like the recent resolution by the county commissioners for Frederick County, Maryland, 'to explore the financial and legal ramifications of seceding from the state of Maryland and applying to the congress of The United States for admission to the union as a new state,' mean that dissatisfaction, even outright disgust by an elected body of citizens at the way the current legislature has been handling things is a sign of such an earthquake. Of course, this could only happen in a democracy, but the appearance of such a proposal is a shock in itself. Are such sentiments confined to Maryland? Not likely.

Or, from the opinion pages of the Frederick News Post (March 6, 2010), '… the check (that) voters provide with each election year… is no longer adequate. The system is broken and stacked against voters…' 'Approval ratings for congress, never high to begin with, are at an all time low.'

It doesn't matter which party is in power, the smell is rank and disaffection remains. When enough citizens get so thoroughly fed up with the system they are forced to live under, they, like the roots of a tree, are likely to break the pavement and cause upheaval. No country is immune. It's beginning in China, the most despotic of all countries. Scandinavia seems least affected, while Britain is suffering like you and us from the spin and plutocratic handshakes of many decades. History is full of rebellious example, because when self-serving and self promoting trough-snouts begin to have the light shine on them, it shows them up for what they are even as they scream and shout their innocence.

There are so many examples it is not possible to quote even one - we all know many from our own backyard - and although the civil liberties groups are as active as they can be, they too have their powers circumscribed by newly introduced law, for that is how it is done.

Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, wrote in his book 'Between the Monster and the Saint' 'The kind of society we have evolved in northern Europe, flawed though it is, has three redeeming characteristics, the first of which is a healthy mistrust of power and those that wield it.' People who break no law or try as best they can to remain upright citizens, but suffer because of their art, their beliefs, their capacity to understand, or to simply deal with the broken promises that burden them, should never be excluded from the guarantee of liberty.

So, beware of the constraints that, like a triffid, come from outside and take away your hard won choice. Freedom is not just being able to select which movie you will see, or which band to hear, or what food to eat. It's the ability to walk with your head up, even if you belong to a different race, creed, or religion. Liberty is not being told you must hate, distrust or kill anyone who wishes you no harm. And it is not agreeing with the presiding powers who promote such values. Freedom and liberty have to be worked at. Let's applaud everyone who does just that, then join the ranks.


Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker