The fragility of freedom

As part of my thesis research I picked up a copy of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 1948 book The Vital Centre: The Politics of Freedom. The first chapter, ‘Politics in the Age of Anxiety’ bears strong familiarity to the present moment. Schlesinger’s dissection of the tearing of economic ties wrought by the industrial revolution invites comparison to what increasingly seems like the shredding of social ties wrought by the information revolution.

The book is, in many ways, a defence of the liberal order, from communism on one hand and fascism on the other. Of course, this was always a mostly-false distinction: the far left and the far right tend to join hands back behind the curtain. So while the rhetoric of communism has all but disappeared, its most loathsome manifestation as a thuggish, anti-individualist power-project is a persisting threat.

As Schlesinger notes, “centuries of struggle have drawn a ring of freedom around the individual”. How do we test this freedom? Schlesinger proposes the seven below.

  1. Is there the right to free expression of opinion and of opposition and criticism of the government of the day?
  2. Have the people the right to turn out a government of which they disapprove, and are constitutional means provided by which they can make their will apparent?
  3. Are there courts of justice free from violence by the executive and free of all threats of mob violence and all association with any particular parties?
  4. Will these courts administer open and well-established laws which are associated in the human mind with the broad principles of decency and justice?
  5. Will there be fair play for poor as well as for rich, for private persons as well as government officials?
  6. Will the rights of the individual, subject to his duties to the state, be maintained and asserted and exalted?
  7. Is the ordinary peasant or workman … free from the fear that some grim police organisation, under the control of a single party … will tap him on the shoulder and pack him off without fair or open trial to bondage or ill-treatment?

Viewed through the prism of these tests, it hasn’t been a great couple of days. EPA employees have been prevented from talking to the press or using social media, even to put out basic facts about climate change. Donald Trump’s press secretary repeated his boss’s claim that millions of people voted illegally for his opponent – a likely prelude to voter suppression. And the President himself tweeted the threat of federal force to deal with Chicago’s slightly increased murder rate. Hold on to your hats.

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