When nations find themselves in crisis and the people live with an element of fear, it becomes all too easy for freedom to be lost. As we worry about the day-to-day necessities, the fear of war, or – as we are seeing now – the threat of an apparently deadly pandemic, our focus is shifted away from maintaining our liberties and toward a more urgent sense of self-preservation. We are so concerned about making it through to the next day or week that we fail to consider whether that new dawn will be more treacherous or harsher than the current crisis.
Is this perhaps how all freedoms are lost? Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Wise words, though there is little in the way of evidence that they were first uttered by Thomas Jefferson as many believe. While a common saying in the 1800s, one of the most famous uses comes from Wendell Phillips, the American abolitionist and activist. Speaking at an anti-slavery meet in 1852, he said:
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday.”
But here’s the rub: A loss of freedom most commonly happens when the people give up their rights without protest or sound.
As Coronavirus sweeps the globe, the citizens and subjects of each nation are allowing governments to create new laws, to restrict freedoms, and to cast us along a very dark path. What’s worse is that many of the fellow citizens seem intent on supporting this despotic turn of events. Rarely is the state ultimately responsible for a lack of liberty; it is the people refusing to be independent, refusing to accept their own responsibility to make things work.
We are seeing people fined for not following the Coronavirus guidelines in the U.K. And, of course, those who refuse to pay or can’t pay – as many people are being forced to stop work – they will go to prison. But what are these hideous crimes? Well, in many cases, they’re leaving their homes more than once per day, they are visiting elderly relatives, or they are found sitting on a park bench when they should apparently either be exercising or at home – such wicked, wicked deeds, indeed.
But the nadir, the real horror taking place, is that these hardened criminals are being informed on by their own neighbors. Online portals, set up by the police, are being used to report neighbors anonymously. Drones, operated by the police, are filming people innocently walking their dogs in the remote countryside, the footage then splashed across social media to shame the wrongdoers.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve likely read George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984, in which neighbors tell on neighbors, were telescreens watch your every move. But the modern world is becoming more like Airstrip One every passing day. In the novel, there is a terrifying chapter where Winston Smith attends the two-minute hate – a celebration of directed anger at the enemy Goldstein. Such a thing couldn’t possibly happen in modern Britain, could it?
The drone footage of innocent dog walkers was shared on social media to encourage the public to pour their scorn on these rebellious rulebreakers, and, sadly, it worked. There have been a few noble commenters who questioned the police’s invasive techniques, but the majority of remarks were vitriolically aimed at those country ramblers.
And how about an actual two-minute hate? Well, not quite, but how about a state-approved two minute-appreciation? You may not think there is anything wrong with showing appreciation, but the motivation behind the act is the same: to create conformity and to ostracize those who refuse. Britains are being encouraged to stand on their front steps at precisely 8 p.m. and applaud the National Health Service (NHS) workers. People take videos of their streets, paying particular attention to those houses that DO NOT engage.
The NHS workers deserve appreciation, but for the state to encourage this kind of coordinated action and to virtually force people to engage through fear of being named and shamed is every bit as tyrannical as Orwell’s two minutes of hate.
We are beginning to turn on each other, and once we walk through that Traitor’s Gate, there is no chance of turning back. We maintain our freedoms only because we are strong individually; when we fall to pressure and fear, we give up our liberty – and we may never get it back. By being strong as individuals, we can be strong as a society. You can’t have one without the other; it works both ways. Without a strong culture of freedoms, of rights, we can’t make strong individuals. I’ll leave you with the words of Rudyard Kipling and the first part of his poem, “The Law for the Wolves”:
NOW this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.
Read more from Mark Angelides.
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