20. Freedom — Part One

What does freedom mean to you?

What image pops into your head when you think about it?

Is it one of William Wallace (aka Mel Gibson) screaming “Freeeeeeedom!” at the top of his voice as he leads a charge of highland warriors across the field at Bannockburn?

Or is it something a tad gentler? Perhaps Kris Kristofferson strumming ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ on his guitar and softly singing “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.

It’s strange isn’t it? Freedom is one of those fundamental human rights that most of us just take for granted. Before the Covid-19 pandemic most of us didn’t even think about it. But when government started telling us we couldn’t leave our houses, that we’d be breaking the law by sitting on a beach or playing a game of footy in the park, and, horror of horrors, they were going to force our local pub to shut its doors. Well then freedom suddenly became an issue. What’s the old adage? You don’t miss something until it’s gone?

If this time last year we’d been told that the government were planning to remove these fundamental freedoms, what would we have done?

Would we have picked up our pitchforks and marched on the Houses of Parliament? Maybe, the last time anything like that happened was back in 1990, during the Poll Tax riots. In comparison to what’s happening today that issue seems insignificant. But at the time it was a big deal, the powers pushed the people a little too far and got their fingers burnt (along with a few buildings). They backed down, the people won.

But with Covid-19 it’s different. We accepted these restrictions of our freedom because we understood what was happening. It seemed clear that the health of those we loved must come before the freedoms we took for granted. We understood that this wasn’t a ‘them and us’ scenario, particularly when Boris was struck down with it. They told us we were all in this together. 

Now, 8 months down the road and with no end to this pandemic in sight that faith is being tested. We’re starting to wonder if we’ll ever be free again. We’re starting to wonder if the ‘cure’ is worse than the ‘disease’.

That fear has been compounded by those that should know better. Government ministers and advisors got to break the rules without penalty, we were told the police wouldn’t hesitate to arrest and prosecute us if we did the same. Ministers are telling the poor they can get by on less than minimum wage, while they continue to bank their £81,932 basic annual salary. It doesn’t feel like we’re all in this together any more. It’s one rule for them, one rule for us yet again.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, it’s always been that way. In the Ancient Greek Republic freedom was reserved for the slave owners. In our modern capitalist society it’s just the same. Someone once said:

“Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves”.

Ain’t that the truth?

And there’s the rub. Have we been kidding ourselves all along? Have we ever experienced true freedom in our entire lives?

To answer that question let’s first go back and try to identify what freedom really is.

Here are a couple of definitions to get us started: 

  1. The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants. 

  2. The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.

Looking at the first one, and given what we’ve just been talking about, it’s obvious that we don’t have the first. Even pre-Covid we couldn’t act as we wanted. We live in a ‘civilised’ society with laws that, if broken, trigger punishments many of which, ironically, use removal of freedom as their primary weapon. The same applies to the right to speak as one wants. You’re not free to go about spouting racial abuse or that Nazi’s didn’t kill many Jews. That said, the internet has gone a long way towards restoring that particular freedom. We looked at it last week, in cyberspace you can say anything you want, the chances of getting caught and punished are low.

No, of the three basic freedoms in that first definition there’s only one that stands unchanged — Whoever you are, wherever you are, you are free to think whatever you like. 

So, what about the second? “The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved”?

We’ve touched on imprisonment already. Generally speaking, the people who have lost their freedom that way cannot blame anyone but themselves. Wether or not incarceration is an effective way to deal with those who break the law is a whole different debate. For now, let’s take it as a fact of life.

Slavery is an emotive word. It brings to mind the image of a shackled African crammed into the stinking hold of a ship, being taken away from his homeland to a life of brutality on a Caribbean plantation, never to be free again.

The BLM movement continues the fight for the rights of those descended from these stereotypical slaves. It’s a worthy cause, but let’s not forget how far we’ve come since slavery was abolished in 1865.

That said, let’s be under no illusion either that it still exists. There are tens of thousands around the planet working in poly tunnels, sweat shops, and kitchens who are undoubtably living as slaves.

So, excluding the above, it must surely be that case that the vast majority of people in the world today aren’t imprisoned or enslaved - I’m not so sure.

Goethe once said:

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free”. 

I think many people are living with that false belief.

They’re just as shackled as those slaves in the ship, but their shackles are not made from steel but from thought. 

That’s a bold statement I know, next week I’ll do my best to justify it.