The struggle and rivalry between the “West and the rest” might be grabbing news headlines due to the Ukraine war these days, but in truth, it is anything but newsworthy. This antagonism, this battle for geopolitical, physical dominance, for moral supremacy, and this clash of ideas and fundamental values has been raging for much longer than that, perhaps longer than most of us can recall.
It sowed the seeds of bloody and even genocidal strife many a time in the past. It stood in the way of peace and harmony, it undermined and impaired human compassion and it impeded progress and productive collaboration. Throughout history and through our modern conflicts, be they military or merely political, there has always been this great divide; no matter what the conflicting sides choose to call themselves and how they try to demean their rivals, the whole debate essentially boils down to a very simple dilemma: the choice between collectivism and individual freedom.
After centuries of practicing and enforcing the former system, which entitled a ridiculously minuscule minority of “anointed”, “special” people to oppress, exploit, intimidate, debase and dehumanise literally everyone else, the West eventually found itself occupying the moral high-ground. Over the last century or so, the West chose to move away from the absurdism of leadership by divine right and to embrace the latter approach, largely superficially, yet ostensibly so. Any high school history book makes it clear: this was the side that not only stood up against the extremes of the right and of the left, but it also undeniably prevailed over them – the final outcome of World War II and then the victory over communism demonstrated as much.
Even after all that however, there were still political and ideological battles to be won. The appeal of the right-wing extreme was not entirely vanquished. And, much more widely proliferated, the temptations and the populist magnetism of socialism and all its iterations were even harder to resist for the average citizen. Let down by their leaders, betrayed, abandoned and ignored by their elected governments, countless voters sought radical change and predictably turned to the extremes to find it.
It mattered not if these new “Messiahs” identified as left or right, or whether they could coherently verbalise their actual policy proposals, or define their political platforms or even roughly outline their broad ideological convictions and beliefs. None of this “fuss”, these unimportant details and perceived pedantry was needed or even considered as relevant. In a mass, collective wave, a phenomenon we commonly saw over the last decade, the popular will just suddenly “flipped”.
Too many members of the public – seemingly or even literally overnight – relinquished their core principles and moral positions. They asked no questions and scrutinised no assertions and claims. They just flocked to anyone who presented easy answers to difficult questions and offered simple, convenient and swift solutions to complex and multifaceted problems. Most of all, they gathered around anyone who promised short-term personal profit no matter the long term cost. In other words, “free stuff” – subventions, subsidies, welfare payments, or any other kind of wealth redistribution.
And yet, even against all these headwinds, some of those “advanced”, “sophisticated” and “liberal” values triumphed over the alternatives. During all this time and against all these challenges, one of the main ”selling points” of our “free and open” Western democracies has always been the respect for the individual, the claim that any citizen can speak their mind, freely express their views and even bluntly criticise the powers that be. Of course, that was never actually, practically, or universally true (or even if so, only in extraordinarily rare exceptions) – however the majority of the body politic believed it anyway for the longest time and it is the perception of the majority that really matters in any democracy.
Even though this widespread faith and support persisted and could be depended upon by politicians for decades, it eventually began to fray. For some citizens, this blind faith and trust in the” benevolent State” quivered when they saw the atrocities of all the unjust and unjustifiable wars it forced them to defend. Others started to question and doubt their convictions when they simply found themselves impoverished and helpless, even though they tried and worked and toiled at the best of their abilities and limitations. For many more people, however, (arguably even for a critical mass), the covid crisis blatantly demonstrated how naive this belief was.
In the upcoming second part we’ll shed light on the crucial and consequential difference between direct and indirect threats to individual liberty and specifically to the right of free expression and self-determination.
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