Monday, January 21, 2008

Beneath our petty differences, a common love of freedom

Tony Blair spoke in Toronto last week, and he stressed an important truth that has been obscured in recent years. To wit: No matter how profound political differences may seem within and among Western democracies, and despite the passions those differences ignite, those distinctions are minor compared to the cosmic contrasts between our culture and those that oppose us.

On issues ranging from freedom of speech and religion to women's rights, the environment, commerce, democracy and on ad infinitum, Westerners of all parties and persuasions can usually agree, at least, on the fundamentals.

Democracy is good, for example (or, as Churchill called it, "the worst form of government, except for all the others"). Individuals should be allowed to worship, or not, as they choose. Women are not property. These concepts are nowhere near revolutionary in the West. But, Blair posits, we ought to remind ourselves that those who oppose us openly (al-Qaeda, Iran, etc.) or strategically (China, and increasingly Russia) do not share many of our most basic beliefs.

This realization ought to do two things: First, it should disabuse us of the guilty misapprehension that every conflict we encounter is somehow our own fault, the natural result of an imperialist past or Western excesses; second, and more important, it ought to sharpen our focus and steel our resolve to protect our shared values in a dangerous world.

The most apparent and explosive threat to free society is radical Islam. But cancerous concepts such as communism (despite the much-ballyhooed demise of that twisted ideology, it still enslaves one-fifth of the world's population) or good old-fashioned dictatorial thuggery (Vladimir Putin, please pick up the nearest courtesy phone) will gladly fill any vacuum left by liberty's retreat.

Faced with eager adversaries whose worldviews are utterly antagonistic to our own, democratic leaders and candidates for office ought to be mindful of the maxim that political differences should end at the water's edge. By all means, discuss and debate tax policy, environmental controls, immigration and health care. But do so with gratitude for the system that makes such debate possible, and remember that there are many who would rob us of that freedom. Blair's political career epitomized the transcendence of smaller notions in furtherance of liberty. As conservative writer Mark Steyn observed in 2005, "If I lived in Britain, I'd vote for Tony Blair's Labour party. Yes, yes, I know he's a nanny-state control-freak and you can hardly pull your pants on in the morning without filling in the form for the Public Trouser Usage Permit and undergoing inspection from the Gusset Regulatory Authority. But on the One Big Thing -- the great issue of the age -- he's right, and he's reliable."

Not only are we blessed with the right to dissent, we are charged with the duty to defend it. At times, that defence takes the form of military action, as in the efforts Blair supports in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as all people of good faith agree, war ought to be our last and least-favoured option. Our most potent weapon is the manifest goodness of freedom. Refined and ratified by history, the concept of government that guarantees individual liberty has defeated despots time and again.

In the streets of Baghdad and Kabul and the corridors of power in Tehran and Beijing, there are many who would crush the best hopes of humankind. But, as Blair said in his seminal speech to the United States' Congress in July of 2003, "In the end, it is not our power alone that will defeat this evil. Our ultimate weapon is not our guns, but our beliefs."