George Jonas

Our one-night stand with freedom

Liberty came in the late 19th century and went in the early 20th

by George Jonas
National Post

I wrote in a recent column that individual liberty diminished during the last half-century while state intrusion into people's business and private affairs increased. A reader demanded examples. This intrigued me. The growth of the administrative state in the last 50 years has been no less noticeable than, say, advances in medicine. Yet if I had written "medical know-how has advanced since the war" I doubt if any reader would have demanded examples.

I guess that's because medical advances are welcome, but increased government and decreased liberty aren't. Many are bothered by decreased liberty, but those who like government -- yes, there are such people -- worry that it's not increasing quickly enough. Why, it's scandalous that anyone can still get a canary without a licence.

We in the West are gung-ho to export democracy, but sometimes it seems we're keen to ship it overseas mainly because we've not much use for it ourselves. We go through these Mao-jacketed phases when we export democracy and import tyranny. Perhaps before exporting democracy wholesale, we should try it at home.

All right, this is just a wisecrack, but what comes next isn't. We went from pre-democracy directly to post-democracy, leaping over democracy on the way. In 18th-century France, after removing the King's head from the body politic, the revolutionaries replaced it with their own. Liberty's children began building their brave new world by turning Reason into a deity. That's when the state turned into a secular theocracy, worshipping shibboleths of its own making as though they were divine revelations.

Contemporary "politically correct" democracies do likewise, missing only the actual figure of a scantily clad Goddess of Reason. Short of that, modern Western societies worship their own ideologies with a theological rigidity, often accompanied by legal sanctions reminiscent of Saudi Arabia.

When it comes to our ideas of blasphemy, we can be as unbending as any Wahhabi sheik. Only our punishments are milder. We don't chop off the hands of university presidents who offend our state religion of feminism; we merely send them into the outer darkness. (The chattering sound you heard a few years ago was Harvard president Lawrence Summers gnashing his teeth.)

Aren't Western societies still freer than outright theocracies or dictatorships, like Cuba or North Korea? Of course they are. Are they free, though? Not really. They aren't free, not just compared with some mythical absolute, but with their own past.

The world had a one-night stand with freedom. She came in the late 19th century and went in the early 20th. Even the citizens of semi-constitutional monarchies, such as Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany, were freer in the pre-World War I era than the income-and consumption-taxed inhabitants of the European Union are today. They were certainly freer in terms of individual expression, enterprise, and mobility than the photoID'd, hate-crime-muzzled, gun-registered, dog-tail-length-regulated, smoke-freed, and body-searched citizens of the interventionist democracies are in our times, Canada included.

Examples? How many do you want? In the narcosis of "progress," the liberal state clings to its dogmas, sacrileges, holy things, and taboos. It guards them as jealously and enforces them as rigidly as the Taliban guards and enforces its version of Islam. Maybe it doesn't enforce them as cruelly -- maybe.

Exaggeration? You decide. In the year 1300, a period we call the Dark Ages, a pig was tried for blasphemy in France. In the year 2000, 200 years into the Age of Enlightenment, on the threshold of the 21st century, in the United States of America, the authorities charged a six-year-old boy with sexual harassment for kissing a six-year-old girl.

True, in the Dark Ages few were scandalized; in the Age of Enlightenment, there were many. The pig faced the death penalty if convicted, while the six-year-old didn't -- perhaps I should say "probably didn't" because who'd predict what people who charge six-year-olds with sexual harassment may do. Nor was this a unique event. Some years later in Brockton, Mass., another six-year-old was suspended for touching a classmate's skin in violation of the school's sexual harassment policy. No charges were laid, but the school principal notified the police, the Department of Social Services, and the District Attorney's office. No, he didn't contact the United Nations for some reason. Later the boy's parents sued and the school district settled for an undisclosed sum.

While this is a happier ending than registering six-year-olds as dangerous sex offenders, it illustrates the neo-medieval ambiance of the liberal-fascist state. No doubt the expression will offend some who have no trouble practicing liberal-fascism, but are too sensitive for the word. In democracy-exporting countries there's usually a berth for them in the sheltered workshops of human rights commissions that continue to offer safe environments for the fragile psyches of liberalism's Gestapo.

"Enough, Jonas!" My classics master has always been a calming influence and now I hear his voice. "Settle down. You're such a simian. Remember, temperance is a virtue; temper is a vice."

"Please, sir, they demand examples, sir..."

He must be gone, for there is no answer.