There have been many questions about the role of the United States in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. They revolve around the leadership of the Western World. They include thoughts about the manipulation of countries, information, weapons and individuals. They deal with the increasing use of false information. They also involve the assumed advantage that western democracy has over eastern autocracy. The United States is in a political and social mess unbecoming any of the roles being ascribed to it. For someone who is western educated and democratically inclined it is a tragic and deeply worrying sight. We fear accidental nuclear war, prolonged destruction of lives and homes in Ukraine and a confusing and unsatisfactory agreement when the war ends.
Significant numbers of people with western education are temporing their democratic views in favour of greater control, less freedom and – as they see it – better order. I have much respect for, and sympathy with, these views. The half of me that is American is wretched with concern about what appears to be approaching civil war in the Land of the Free. The demonstrably unfair distribution of wealth is in urgent need of attention, as it is in many other countries. Some people will always be better off than others. Accident of birth, fortune of good parenting, outstanding education, incisive personality and, most important of all, good luck all work towards wealth creation. The reverse of these attributes produces poverty and crime.
The gap between the rich and the poor has widened to a point that is unacceptable to anyone who wants to be part of a socially decent world. Politicians are elected to deal with problems like this, not, as in the US at present, to stoke the fires of discontent and fear. On the whole, politicians worldwide are doing a poor job of equipping the New World with what it needs to sustain the planet and conquer the overpopulation and climate challenges facing us. There have been good attempts to unite at least some of the world’s nations. The European Union is one of them. No sooner established and running reasonably well than a major player – the UK – decides to quit, with very little thought of the consequences for the country, for the EU or for the world. It was an act of throwing petrol on a fire. Sensible Brits now regret it deeply.
The United States would regret it if individual States had increasing powers to go their own ways, separate from the federation. America’s strength is its unity and its singleness of purpose, disparate as that often is. As the leader of the western world, America is vital to all of us.
Recognising the fundamental difference between democracy, however creaky, and autocracy, however apparently appealing order is, must remain a clear objective of western politicians. The essential gift of humanity is the choice of each individual to live the life they want within the bounds of their social duties towards others. The more people there are, the narrower that choice becomes. But there is still much choice left – choice to think, to have a point of view however sagatious or stupid it may be. Freedom brings with it a commitment to be reasonable, open minded and forbearing. But it still allows choice.
One of the first things I can remember being taught was the old saying “I may totally disagree with what my neighbour says but I will fight to the death for his or her right to say it”. Freedom is an elusive and ill-defined concept. I recall the joy that I and several other kids had at the freedom to run wild in part of Battersea Park in London in WWII. We ran and jumped and shouted and played to our heart’s content. Then one day we arrived at our playground to find it fenced off with severe notices Not to Enter. It must have been for our good, of course. But our freedom was gone. Would it be like this if the other side won the war, we asked. It was not a serious deprivation but it was a serious lesson. Small deprivations mount up to become big walls. Small freedoms are lost until there are none.
I am too old to fight for freedom now.
But I will continue to write for it.