Sunday, September 23, 2007

Book watch

The prolific A.C. Grayling (probably my favorite living philospher) has written another timely book that will see its American release on Oct 2. It is Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggles for Freedom and Rights That Made the Modern Western World.

An excerpt of what appears to be the introduction is available here, and the following quote should explain the "timely" part

For how long will Westerners continue to enjoy the hard-won liberties so long fought for, and at such cost? As the twenty-first century dawned thegreat achievement of the open liberal society was under threat, not as it had been at times during the Cold War (and even then, as we later discovered, more notionally than not), but because of terrorism, the related phenomenon of the resurgence of religious fundamentalism, and the retrogressive reactions of liberal societies to both. When the threat that liberal polities faced consisted of attack by enemy armies, the reaction was to have soldiers and nuclear weapons and fighter aircraft ready in return, and it was reasonably clear where lay the line in the sand which the enemy must not step over. That threat and that kind of preparedness were too familiar, alas, because of what modern war had become; it was for this that the world made its preparations, and, having done so, achieved a certain comfort and stability behind the ensuing armoured lines.

But terrorism is wholly different. It is insidious, secret, unpredictable, treacherous; it comes as much from within a given society as from outside it; it targets unsuspecting innocents in the course of their daily lives. It is crime on a monstrous scale, aiming at nothing less than mass murder and wholesale disruption of social and economic life. Moreover its association with strongly held religious belief complicates matters vastly, because whereas liberal societies are painfully anxious to respect the sensitivities of religious minorities, to show them a maximum of friendly and concessive tolerance, and thus to give them all the freedom they need to exist and flourish in their own chosen ways, those very freedoms allow the religious minorities to breed from among themselves, in their darker corners (the majority are surely horrified by what criminality comes from among their own), the very enemies, the paradoxical enemies, of the freedom and tolerance that first permits them to arise.

Perhaps worse still is what liberal societies might do to themselves in the face of this new and different threat. They begin, by small but dangerous increments, to cease to be as liberal as they once were. They begin to restrict their own hard-won rights and freedoms as a protection against the criminal minority who attempt (and as we thus see, by forcing liberty to commit suicide, succeed in doing so) to terrorise society. In a curious way, liberalism's efforts to restrict its own liberties are made according to the liberal principle that no minority must be singled out. Thus, even if it were known that all would-be terrorists spring from a small group within a small minority in society, it would be illiberal to impose restrictions just on them to protect the rest of society, on the grounds that this would be unfair and discriminatory. As a result society as a whole is brought under the liberty-restricting new regime.

In the United States the Orwellianly named 'Patriot Act', and in the United Kingdom moves to introduce identity cards, to restrict freedom of speech, to limit immigration, and to introduce longer periods of imprisonment without trial, are among the liberty-undermining measures that these states — both in the vanguard of the free world - have introduced in response to perceived terrorist threat. For observers of these moves, one of the most troubling things about them is their disproportion. When in 1940 Britain faced the imminence of invasion (and the actuality of daily aerial attack) by the might of the German armed forces massing just twenty miles across the English Channel, its government enacted some temporary security measures — temporary, note - such as identity cards and restrictions on the freedom of speech and the press. Now, in face of a far lesser threat, the greatest among the Western liberal democracies are enacting permanent legislation of even more draconian kinds.
One of the factors Grayling believes is responsible for this disproportionate response is that we have taken for granted our liberties and forgotten the struggles that Western civilization had to endure before we could get to a point where individuals could consider themselves "lords" of their own lives.

The point I urge in this book is that all the efforts towards securing the rights and freedoms we enjoy today (still enjoy, almost, although they are beginning to fray and diminish) cost blood, and took centuries. It dishonours those who fought for them to forget that fact now, and it does us no credit to be careless of what was thus won. My hope is that understanding what it cost—seeing our last five centuries as a continuously unfolding series of struggles to make ourselves free, to make us lords of ourselves—will summon resolve not to allow the erosion of our liberties in the spurious name of security, for as Benjamin Franklin said, 'he who would put security before liberty deserves neither'.
I'll be reading this book as soon as I can aquire a copy.

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