Thursday, January 27, 2011

Freedom: Universal and Absolute

In the 2010 BBC Debate - Nobel Minds programme, there is a five minute segment (from 17:55 to 22:55) where the participants, all 2010 Nobel laureates, discuss the absence (due to his detention by his own government) of their fellow 2010 laureate, Liu Xiaobo (Peace) from China. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov (Physics), both originally from Russia but currently living and working in the United Kingdom, advance the argument that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu is "patronising" and a case of Westerners imposing their own views on the rest of the world. Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru (Literature) strongly rejects this idea and argues that freedom is a universal value.

Vargas Llosa's is undoubtedly right. And over the last two months or so we have seen, and (will) continue to see, the truth of this view being played out on the streets of North Africa and the Middle East. Many commentators have put forward the ridiculous notion that so-called Western-style democracy is only for Westerners, and not for the people of North Africa and the Middle East, or other parts of the developing world. The dramatic push (it can hardly be called a fall) from power of Tunisian President Ben Ali, or Ben A Vie ("Ben for Life") as he was known by Tunisians, is just the latest evidence of freedom as a universal and absolute human value.

Every normal human being wants to be free TO live their own life, free FROM political intrusion and interference. This truth is, in the words of the signatories of the United States Declaration of Independence, self-evident. If, on the other hand, it were true, as Geim and Novoselov suggest, that freedom is a local (versus universal) and relative (versus absolute) value, then why do so many people from relatively unfree parts of the world try to move to relatively free parts of the world? If we asked every single person in the world (including the 1.3 billion citizens of China) where they would voluntarily choose to live, I suspect that China and Russia would be nowhere near the top of the list, whereas countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Norway (the Nobel Peace Committee is Norwegian) would. But perhaps Professors Geim and Novoselov were merely being as politically "aware" as people generally have to be to survive in unfree countries. After all, the two Professors appear to still have some ties with their country of origin. In a more candid moment, reported in The Moscow Times, Geim was asked whether he could envisage a scenario in which he would go back to Russia. "Reincarnation," he said.

And that really says it all: Freedom is a universal and absolute value. Even for those who claim to believe the opposite.

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