29 January, 2010
Friday, January 29th, 2010
by Guest Blogger Sushma Joshi
Why are people willing to trade freedom for prosperity and material comfort, asked John Kampfner. His book, Freedom for Sale, looks at eight countries as examples of places which have traded in freedom for material security and prosperity. He was born in Singapore and lived in China and Russia—where except for a group of “fearless troublemakers,” most people have bowed down to the imperatives of prosperity in exchange for public freedoms. The UAE and Dubai have a Disney quality about them, says Kampfner, where everyone is trading freedoms for other things, including slave labor. In India, pollution is the tradeoff, while in Italy, Berlosconi has dismantled the independent judiciary and media. In the UK, the ascent of the Left has dismantled civil liberties, and in the USA, self-censorship after 2001 is at an all time high, with people trading in public freedoms for public security.
Niall Ferguson tried to play the Oxford don and questioned Kampfner about his assumptions. Ferguson brought up Tocqueville. He said that there was a tradeoff between liberty and equality. He talked about totalitarianism. The Oxford questioning (in a nutshell, he said that some freedoms had to be given up for material prosperity, and that material prosperity in turn brought freedom) brought forth quick retorts from the author, who pointed out that his questioner didn’t seem to have read the book. “I am not talking about totalitarian regimes—North Korea, etc. I am talking about liberal democracies. When a government says: we need to do whatever must be done to protect you, that’s fishy,” he said.
Steve Coll, jumping in this fray, said that one freedom he was glad of was the freedom from an Oxford education! The middle class is always trying to protect itself, he said. He said he was recently in Saudi Arabia, a place with no culture of public freedom, no free press, no human rights organizations, no tenured professors, and no Constitution other than the Koran. Even though people were consigned to these private spaces, they still talked about public freedoms because the discourse of it was global, and it was everywhere. In the USA, private security took over public freedoms after 9/11, he said. Americans were deeply frightened. Like India, Americans are now learning to deal with the notion of persistent terrorism, he said. Despite everything, there is a pervasive culture of redress in places like India—people speak out fearlessly even when the state is murdering its own citizens. In the USA, people don’t challenge the state as much as in India, he said.
Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka concluded the session by saying that “India needs a lot of activism on the part of its elites. I’m agnostic, but I was born a Hindu, and philosophically we have to do what has to be done. India has a social contract but it’s still a country in progress. The promise of democracy still has to be delivered.”