Saturday, 25 November 2006

Things Never To Do

The meme I got tagged with yesterday by James Higham (and subsequently only managed to pass on to one individual, namely Tom Paine), has got me thinking about such vows and whether they are worth anything, inspire by reading Ian Kershaw, Martin Gilbert, Richard J Evans and a book called "A Strange Enemy People", about the British zone of Germany between 1945 and 1950.

These ideals tend to take one thing for granted: your ability to make those choices. Tom Paine, in his 10, gives voice to his fears for liberty in his homeland, which I avoided, but feel increasingly keenly. People talk and write of the lack of opposition in Nazi Germany, and only sometimes do the comfortable historians refer to the manufacturing of widespread consent in a dictatorship, by which I mean the way that moral values we take for granted in a free society don't apply to the same extent. If you have a set of beliefs but are consistently living in a state of terror, with death and torture your faithful companions, you lose the responsbility of someone with the freedom to exercise your choices, and others lose the right to bring you to account. Under oppression, real oppression, if you feel your duty is to survive in the face of bewildering violence and the meaninglessness of life it spreads, you are not to be judged. That doesn't mean that murder and terrorism automatically become justified; but it means collaboration with an evil government does not deserve the condemnation we seem inclined to give sometimes.

Martin Gilbert gives a harrowing account of the attempts of rabbis to formulate ethical codes for living in the ghetto - that it is even considered should be enough to make us weep. Even in a true "victim" position, to consider yourself an autonomous moral citizen with responsbilities to yourself and others, and even to some kind of ideal about human purposes - should put our society to shame. Perhaps it was just an attempt to survive by making their situation the subject of routine and hence to humanise it; still it shines to us across the bright lights of our shallow world.

What I mean is not that we are heading the same way as Nazi Germany or any other dictatorship; it is just a comment on the nature of responsibility and morality.

As it happens, I agree with Mr Paine's assumptions: I do think our rights are being infringed, despite the figleaf and lawyer's chequebook of the Human Rights Act, and I do think our government, out of sheer mistrust and misunderstanding of the people, are trying to bring us under ever more control. We are, at the moment at least, not really bothered - and so we are fiddling while our trousers are being eaten by a small but malicious dog.

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