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Shared values or a fractured people: The decline of liberty in the West

Declan Ganley delivered the following address at the Acton Institute’s "Crisis of Liberty in the West" conference in London on December 1, 2016. Sir Roger Scruton's presentation may be read here. video of the full conference is available online here. – Ed.

The pursuit of “liberty and justice for all,” a cause to which millions of Americans pledge renewed allegiance every morning, has been the idea which has defined not just that country, but the whole of the Western world, in the 70 years since the defeat of fascism.

Ours is a civilization whose great monuments bear witness to our identity as the “home of the free,” from Lady Liberty’s torch raised high above her head at the mouth of the Hudson, to the Freedom monument in Riga where as a young man I first bore witness to that triumphant expression of man’s long struggle to seize for himself control over his own destiny.

Today, the great struggle for freedom is being waged not against enemies without. The West has proved itself superior, time and time again, to those tyrants who would practice Orwell’s vision of a mailed fist smashing a human face.

In this new age of division, we must renew our determination to be the home of the free.

Today, the struggle is waged within, a fierce and uncompromising battle for the meaning of the word “liberty” itself, in which both sides have sadly adapted some of the tactics of the totalitarian. In this new age of division, we must renew our determination to be the home of the free.

The Man in Hamburg

There is a famous photograph, taken at Hamburg in 1936, which every child should see. It shows a lone man in a sea of thousands, refusing to raise his arm in acclamation of his Führer.

He stands alone, his arms folded across his chest in simple show of defiance and individuality that had the potential to cost him his liberty and his freedom. Like all great photographs, it echoes through history, its message as relevant to the young people of our age as any message can be.

Freedom and liberty are not preserved by the many. They are preserved instead by the conscience of the individual, the one, the lone voice, the person who refuses to comply. That brave man in Hamburg is the icon of our cause.

Too often, the man who folded his arms is seen as an icon simply of resistance to Hitler and fascism. He was that, but he was also more.

For his act of defiance was not targeted simply at the Nazis and their Führer; it was also a powerful rebuke of the hundreds around him, the people who raised their right arms, the people who went along with the crowd.

It takes courage not to go along with a crowd, especially when that crowd is screaming at you that you must. But throughout the history of humanity, our race has shown time and time again that the human spirit will never be broken by even the most immense pressure to conform, or to abandon its conscience.

Freedom and liberty are not preserved by the many. They are preserved instead by the conscience of the individual.

The long history of our people in the West is littered with examples of brave men and women willing to lose their lives for an idea, or a thought: Saint Thomas More, Joan of Arc, Giordano Bruno, the Oxford Martyrs. The list is endless.

And so it is that the great accomplishment of our civilization has been to institute amongst ourselves a form of government that ensures that no man or woman shall ever be compelled by their government to accept that which they do not believe to be true.

That is the cause in which our glorious dead have given their lives. Our freedom to think, and to speak, and to live our lives according to our own consciences. It is the most precious liberty of all, and it is being forgotten.

The fracturing of a people

For power in our society does not simply rest with those who rule over us. The currents of political thought are not powered only by the House of Commons, or the Congress, or the Assemblée Nationale. They shift also with the winds of public discourse, and with the conversations we have with each other every day.

We are the most powerful generations ever to have walked upon this earth. Every one of us, with the tools technology has provided us, has ready access to a potential audience of millions. Somebody with 500 Twitter followers will, on average, have their tweets seen by 100,000 different people in a calendar year. Every one of us can now shape the conversation in ways that have always been unimaginable.

Not only have we been granted an unprecedented power to speak; we have been given more control over the voices we listen to than any humans who came before us. We can create our own bubbles, and live within them and hide ourselves away from the unbeliever. We are in the process of fracturing ourselves as a people.

The consequences of this are not all negative. But the paradox is that while there are more voices in our politics than ever, fewer and fewer voices are being heard.

We are told that we live in a multicultural, pluralist, cosmopolitan society. But the truth is that many of us don’t. Instead we too often live in monocultural, rigid, and highly ordered little societies of our own choosing – and increasingly, there are those who react badly to the discovery that they are not the majority anywhere outside of the world that they have created for themselves.

And so, whole swathes of our people must be explained away. For what is someone who disagrees with what everybody believes to be fact, except a troglodyte? What is somebody who rejects what everybody believes to be a good idea, except stupid? What is somebody who rejects what everybody believes to be decent, except a bigot?

What we are witnessing in the West is the revolt of people against an establishment consensus that demands relentless conformity.

These divisions, and this culture, are corrosive. It is a much bigger problem for the Left-half of society, than those of us on the right. For we are exposed to their worldview every day, in every television program, newspaper article, and movie theatre, and they are exposed to us only at the ballot box, much to their increasing horror.

The consequences of alienation

In the United States, this divide has ushered in President-elect Trump, in an act of absolute rebellion by those who did not feel that they were being heard.

What we are witnessing in the West is the revolt of people against an establishment consensus that demands relentless conformity from each and every one of us before it is willing to declare us civilized.

It is also a revolt against a culture in which a small elite decides the new catechisms of the day, and then declares questioning those catechisms to be proof of the questioner’s unfitness to be considered reasonable.

This is the biggest threat to liberty today. It comes from within, and it grows daily. It is the consequence of alienation from one another, and from a shared sense of purpose.

The United States’ Declaration of Independence, the seminal document in the history of mankind’s quest for freedom, “holds these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

That is perhaps the most quoted passage of any foundational document, anywhere in the world. But the very next paragraph is not quoted often enough:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.

This year, we have seen the people begin to do just that, in the United States and in the United Kingdom.

And if we want to preserve liberty, and preserve our shared and common values, we, as a society – and particularly those of us who are in a position to attend and speak at conferences like this one – must recommit ourselves to behaving like genuine liberals.

The loss of the apple

But that is not our only challenge. If preserving liberty were as simple as following a few people you disagree with on social media, liberty would not be in danger.

Writing of the Communist Russia in his 1932 essay “Bolshevism and the Bourgeoisies,” Christopher Dawson observed that the Bolsheviks had “upset the throne and the altar, and put in place nothing but themselves.”

The Bolsheviks are not on record as having responded to Dawson, but it is likely that their response would have been to say that the throne and the altar had failed, and it was time to sweep them away.

But one of the failures of communism and collectivism has always been its failure to recognise the importance of a unifying creed and set of beliefs for a people that is more than simply economic.

In the West, increasingly, there is no unifying creed, or set of beliefs. We, too, over the last 30 years, have swept away throne and altar. We have replaced them with a vanishing nothingness – an emptiness where our shared identity should be.

If we want people to assimilate into our society, to defend our values, and to place on them the same high price that our ancestors willingly paid, we have to give them something into which to assimilate. We have to project a sense of pride, of common purpose, of self-belief.

In conversation with the journalist Peter Seewald, the former pope, Benedict XVI, had this to say:

It is obvious today that the concept of truth has become suspect. A large proportion of contemporary philosophies, in fact, consist of saying that man is not capable of truth. But viewed in that way, man would not be capable of ethical values, either. Then he would have no standards. Then he would only have to consider how he arranged things reasonably for himself, and then at any rate the opinion of the majority would be the only criterion that counted.

The former pope’s criticism echoes that 1932 criticism of the Communists.

When we abolish the concept of universal truth, as we have done in the West with regard to our own values, and replace it with nothing but our own perceptions of what is true, then the very foundational stones on which a society is built begin to collapse.

There is a certain truth, hidden in the oldest parable of them all. The freedom of Eden was conditional on Adam making the choice not to eat the apple. The apple, and the tree on which it grew, was to be respected and venerated. The apple tree was not a restriction on freedom, but merely the price that had to be paid for its preservation. When we bite into that apple, the whole structure comes crashing down.

Our task as individuals is to seek out and find the shared values that still unite us.

The apple in today’s West is the unifying values which we all must share in order to co-exist in liberty. We must not undermine them, and as we do, we will find that we pay the price for doing so.

It would have been unthinkable just a decade ago for a candidate for the presidency of the United States to declare half of the citizens of her country deplorable. It would have been unthinkable too, for the other candidate to demand the imprisonment of his opponent. But when our shared view of the truth is so diverse, and our shared values have become optional, then so our sense of duty to treat each other as full heirs to the inheritance of liberty becomes coloured by something else.

The death of truth

And what, then, are these shared values which we have lost?

They are the values we have chosen to insulate ourselves from. The freedom of faith and conscience, the freedom of speech, the freedom of thought, and the freedom to dissent.

When we in the West demand, as we increasingly do, that the world conforms to our individual view of how it should be ordered, when we allow the voices of dissent to be silenced, and when we declare as we so frequently do that there are no truths (only points of view), we are biting into the apple.

Today, many people in our society argue that some things which have been true for millennia were never true at all. Gender itself, the most basic natural differentiator provided to our species by nature, is now being questioned.

Truths can and do change over time. It was once accepted to be true that the sun orbited the earth. But truths have never changed so rapidly as they do now. Increasingly, what was true yesterday is denounced as racist bigotry today.

There is a grave danger to us all in this – because people do not give up truth easily. And as we abolish the altar and the throne, we must be wary of the danger that we are replacing it with a terrible new tyranny of the self.

It is in these circumstances, and in these times, that the man in Hamburg who folded his arms must be remembered. To defend liberty, we must tirelessly seek out its voice wherever we can find it. The person who holds to truth, who fears not the crowd, who faces down the prevailing wind, and who by his obstinacy, challenges us to look again at the direction of the herd.

Conclusion

We are in uncharted waters as a civilization, and it is both exciting and dangerous. In times of great change, when old values are challenged and existing understandings are pulled apart, the resultant transformation of a society is not always guaranteed to be for the better.

As a civilization, we have bitten into the apple. The veneration of the tree has ended. Look around you, and try to find an institution of moral or civic authority that commands the respect it did three decades ago. You will struggle.

In these times, therefore, our task as individuals is to seek out and find the shared values that still unite us. It may be hard for some of us to do that. But it is essential – because if those shared values fall apart, then the process of dehumanizing each other will begin. The process of declaring those who do not live within our own micro-societies to be something different will begin. The process of viewing society itself as the enemy will begin. And the respect that we have for each other’s liberty will begin to be lost, if that process has not begun already.

And that, my friends, is exactly what that brave man in Hamburg refused to raise his hand to salute.

Remember him.

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Declan Ganley is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Rivada Networks, a leading public safety communications business with operations in the United States and Europe.