observations and opinion
People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf – Eric Blair
Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) died too young – he was only 46 when respiratory disease brought him down. In his short span he fought fascism, spurned communism and became a bitter, honest critic of the hollow-headed and the hypocritical. Thursday June 25th was the 112th anniversary of his birth.
Blair, a true liberal in the sense that he revered liberty and free speech, was under no illusions about the price we pay for that condition. He understood we needed a kind of muscular liberalism to fight – literally, as he fought the fascists in Spain – the forces of darkness.
Muscular liberalism was first and best instituted by a man with frozen muscles, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And another liberal President (JFK) spoke of the adversaries of freedom in his Inaugural:
We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.
This is just true. But many liberals and progressives shelter their senses from the prickly truth of why they are free – that other, less genteel sorts carry guns and are ready to kill on their behalf. It was harder to pretend that wasn’t true in the 1940s – the world fought a war to preserve western civilization. It was harder to pretend in the 50s too, when a truly ghoulish and monstrous murder machine loomed in Moscow.
But the idea of a martial stance against anti-democratic forces took a beating (deservedly) in LBJ’s war in southeast Asia. Much of the west lost its stomach for killing or arming against the foe, when the ally and the home team itself, was so stained with blood and corruption. And of course, the most recent and apocalyptically stupid incursion into Iraq squandered every ounce of blood, money, treasure, unity and reputation the U.S. had left. This was true too for allies of the USA (the UK, in particular).
And yet…people sleep safely in their beds at night, tonight, because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. That is true for you, for your children, parents, friends and pets. As it is true for me and mine. We were harshly reminded of this fact on Blair’s 112th birthday.
The day before – June 24th the medieval media monsters of the Islamic State (aka “ISIS”) published their latest death porn video: drowning men in cages, setting fire to them in cars and most memorably (for this witness) blowing their heads off like bowling balls in the desert. They also blew up ancient monuments of Palmyra, which you kind of knew were doomed when the bastards took over the town a few weeks ago.
But in our weirdly connected yet insensate reality, the machinations of June 24th seemed like just another episode in the crazy reality show called “Islamic State.” Let’s face it: they commit violence for show, as a theatrical presentation of their strength, their immorality, their inhumanity. It is meant to sicken and shock and terrify.
ISIS didn’t stop with that this week. Thursday June 25th their agents attacked a factory in France (beheading one poor man, of course), sprayed a Tunisian beach with gunfire (37 dead sunbathers) and blew up car bombs in the Syrian town of Kobani, littering it with corpses. The war against civilization continues.
How weird it feels then, that the very next morning – June 26th – one part of the human race took a great step forward. Although 37 of the United States had already permitted same sex couples to wed or legally join-up, it was only with “permission.” Friday June 26th the United States Supreme Court narrowly came to a majority decision that the right to wed was just that – a right – not a gift of liberal legislators or even of the voters. A fountain of rainbows burst across the Internet.
The majority opinion of Justice Kennedy in Obergefell ends with a memorably poetic paean to marriage. But it’s the dissents which dish out some finely-crafted claptrap – great whinging bleats of agony that democracy itself is at risk from a tiny cabal of old judges knocking aside the will of the people and their legislatures. Barf.
It is difficult to measure the phoniness and disingenuousness of this muck: how exactly is it that Justice Scalia has just discovered that he sits on a Court of nine privileged people? Or that those people don’t “represent” the body politic? You’d have thought when he was helping to destroy U.S. politics with the Citizens United decision, Scalia might have noticed that, gee whiz, we have a lot of power here. We should be careful. But Scalia was happy to bestow super-democratic power upon the billionaires who take him on hunting trips. (Maybe if someone had just taken him to a kd lang concert before, the vote would have been 6 to 3.)
What Justice Scalia will not talk about, of course, is how his blessed legislatures have become so captive to special interests – thanks to lobbying, bribery and vote controlling – that the actual majority of voters stand outside the halls of power. So it takes a bare majority of the old judges in the Supreme Court to reflect and enact the true will of the true majority: not to “give” human rights to anybody, but to recognize the rights that exist.
Which oddly enough, takes us back to Palmyra – where rights and lives are being taken away, hacked to pieces and set alight, hour by hour. And so it will continue unless there is sufficient force put against the evil men. There will be no Obergefell decisions in Iraq or Syria – and fewer anyplace else – if the reactionaries aren’t restrained.
Poor old dead Eric Blair knew we had to resist such forces of reaction. Mr. Blair knew too that however well the fight went, the push forward would be very, very hard:
Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.
Yes, we saw this week that progress is not an illusion, but we also saw that it is slow, and erratic. Two gay men in their 80s were wed this week, after a half century of being “roommates”, and we rightly sighed with the sweet sight of it. But another two men, much younger, were hanged in the mid-east for allegedly loving each other. And of course, ISIS committed a series of more indiscriminate murders all in the service of their crazy creed of hate.
Progress is not an illusion. It happens. But it is slow and invariably disappointing. And it is something else: it is fragile. The tide of reaction and hate comes bashing into the beach every night, red and sticky, ready to drown what we love. We have to go back out their every day and rebuild our sandcastle, day after day after day. And we always will. Because if we don’t, we are dead.
The liberty that lets me write these words and lets you read them, were paid for in blood by men long dead, and are purchased again, day after day after day, by rough men ready to do violence on our behalf. Without those women and men, without their weapons, skill and courage, we are all just waiting to be told we cannot marry whom we love; to be told we cannot vote for the candidate we least dislike; to be told we cannot say the words that come to mind, or type vituperative comments on the internet.
Without the rough men ready to do violence on our behalf, we can just line up and wait for other rough men to come and chop our heads off, one by one by one.
And that being just true, as true as the sunrise, as true as the love you know you feel – that being true, then we must disenthrall ourselves from the soft, gauzy dream of a world without power. We must let go of the fantasy that our freedom is free. We must tell our politicians to put the material and muscular force of our civilization behind the effort to stop the masked maniacs and fools currently cannibalizing the Middle East.
Because, and this is true as the love you feel too – because ISIS and its enablers and its recruits and its agents are out to kill you and what you love. They’re busy at it now where it is easy for them, but they won’t stop at murdering Muslims in faraway lands on TV. Even if you couldn’t give a good goddamn about human lives in Syria and Iraq – and maybe you don’t, fine – eventually the human life that you won’t give a good goddamn about, will be your own.
This is a sentiment that long pre-dates Eric Blair and the Presidents quoted above. It was Lincoln, something of a liberal himself – who wrote:
Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.
Some may contend that they’re doing nothing to “deny” freedom to anyone anywhere. But if they castigate anyone who thinks force is necessary to obliterate ISIS, and if they reward politicians for saying they won’t send soldiers and weapons to do it, well then they ARE denying freedom to others. They’re letting the faraway, unarmed innocents do the dying.
Indeed, those who ride the wave of others’ labour and suffering, to sustain their own comfort and security – especially those hypocritical enough to bathe themselves in smug satisfaction at their progressiveness – bring to mind another Blair / Orwell quote:
All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
We in the west, particularly those unprepared to pay any price for what we enjoy – those who in fact insist that we pay nothing, that we do nothing to lift the yoke of slavery and death from the vulnerable – those people – many liberals and progressives among them – are most assuredly “more equal than others.”
But that is not consistent, I submit, with being truly liberal. Because you cannot be truly liberal, if you are not true to liberty.