Saturday, January 2, 2016

Self Determination versus Freedom

When there is a war, everybody -- on either side -- will tell you that they are fighting for freedom. In a way, that is true by definition. Each side is fighting for freedom from the other side. That is traditionally what war is all about -- who gets to rule whom.

But there are also internal wars that are less about freedom from invaders as freedom from tyranny. Those are the wars that are not about national freedom, but rather personal freedom. People rarely address this distinction clearly, so it is refreshing to find any writer who can conceptualize and articulate the difference. One such writer was Lord Byron, in his poem "The Isles of Greece", a serious lyrical piece within the larger satirical work Don Juan.

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
  We will not think of themes like these!
It made Anacreon’s song divine:
  He served—but served Polycrates—
A tyrant; but our masters then        65
Were still, at least, our countrymen.

 Inspired by this during the heyday of my Blake's Seven fandom, I wrote the following filk:

Star One is found in The Blake Bunch, a filkbook by Aya Katz based on Blake's Seven

Whenever we go to war with a foreign country, one argument that is made fairly explicitly is this: "The bondage that we like the best, may yet be be ours. It could be less!" People fight to keep foreign powers from ruling them. They will support tyrants on their own side, rather than falling to the enemy.

During World War II, socialism was a very popular philosophy, and people on different sides of the war all had one form or another of it in force under the authority that ruled their country. The Soviets had communism, which is a kind of socialism. The Germans had national socialism. The Italians had fascism, which is also a kind of altruistic philosophy in which people sacrifice all for the homeland. The Japanese have always been very communitarian. The British had their own empire where people were expected to serve the interests of others overseas, for the good of the many. And the Americans had socialism under FDR, which included many programs under the New Deal, as well as price fixing and rationing of staple foods during the war. 

When the leaders of these countries told their citizens they were fighting for freedom, they meant freedom from being conquered by the other side -- not personal freedom. Not freedom of contract. Not economic freedom. And not the freedom to express an opinion that was not supportive of the war effort.

After the war, Britain's Empire collapsed under the extreme effort of paying for the fighting, even though the British were ostensibly on the winning side. The United States was in better shape, but things never really went back to the freedoms that were taken for granted before the two world wars.

Self-determination is something that many of the old colonies gained, not by outfighting the British, but simply because the British no longer could afford to keep them. It was the same kind of  "you are free to go" freedom that slaves of bankrupt masters sometimes win.

In the Weihsien Internment camp in China, self-determination was always allowed to the internees. They governed themselves under the Japanese rule. Their day to day life was a hell of their own making, because they voted on practically everything.

You don't automatically get personal freedom by being self-governing and self-determined. When your neighbor gets to vote on what you have, that is the least free form of government that there is. But the internees did not seem to realize this, because everybody in those days believed in absolute democracy. They were all socialist, each in his own way. 

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