The Random Comic Strip

The Random Comic Strip

Words to live by...

"How beautiful it is to do nothing, and to rest afterward."

[Spanish Proverb]

Ius luxuriae publice datum est

(The right to looseness has been officially given)

"Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders," wrote Ludwig von Mises, "no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interest, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle."

Apparently, the crossword puzzle that disappeared from the blog, came back.


Monday, December 14, 2009

What's in a word?

Words are interesting things and they intrigue me. They convey thoughts, concepts, and actions. But they also have meanings that are not easily defined, we call these meanings connotations. For example, "sort" and "ilk" have the same meaning. "Sort" means a "kind" or "type"; that sort of thing or he is the sort of person I like. But so does "ilk" in terms of people. Except that "ilk" has a negative connotation. When you attach "ilk" to the description of a person, you are not thought to be speaking well of him (or her).

I bring this up because I got a little involved in a discussion about bravery by a small group of people in Germany in 1942 and 1943. This group, called "The White Rose", spoke out in leaflets about the abuse of power and murderous actions of the Nazi regime. They did this anonymously, of course, or they would not have lasted more than a few days. And the group is little known outside of Germany. The link above will take you to that blog with that discussion. I highly recommend it (in particular and in general).

But it got me to thinking about bravery and what that means. Certainly these people were brave to resist that brutal regime. But they did not do it openly. They were careful to avoid being exposed. They called on others to rise up, to resist, to engage in acts of sabotage; to risk exposure and capture and punishment (certain death) while they did their best to avoid that. It is not clear to me that these people, the White Rose, engaged in anything other than encouraging others to physical acts of resistance. That is, I don't know that they did anything other than write up and mail out leaflets until the the very end of their organizations' existence.

And that is when they were brave. Some of them anyway. A few of them (a brother and sister and a friend) acted in public. That is when they threw off the protection of anonymity and exposed themselves. Until then, I don't see much bravery. Once they exposed themselves, they were quickly dealt with, tried (merely a formality) and then executed by beheading all within a few days. And this led to the rest of the group being caught and also executed.

What did they accomplish? Nothing, really. No resistance movement grew out of their actions, no known cabal of saboteurs appeared on the scene to cause problems for the Nazis.

So, what is the point of bravery? The soldiers who win medals are said to be brave. But, if you ask them, they will tell you (almost to the man) they weren't brave. That they were scared out of their wits or oblivious to what they were doing or that they only did what they were trained to do. I sometimes think there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity.

Then there's that pilot, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger, who successfully landed a plane in the Hudson river after its engines were knocked out by geese. He was praised as a hero, for his bravery, for his ability in such an adverse situation.

Wasn't he also doing his best to save his own life? We don't usually see that as bravery. It certainly not stupidity in this case. It was skill, knowledge, and probably a great amount of luck that conditions were just right. On the other hand, there wasn't much good luck involved in getting hit by those geese. I suspect "Sully" wouldn't (or didn't at the time) think he was all that brave.

But to get back to the White Rose, one of the members was reported to have shouted (just before being taken out for his execution) "Long live freedom!" Who reported this, how it could have been corroborated, I don't know. But let's assume it's true.

What did this person understand about freedom? A good third of his life had been lived in a dictatorship. He only began to see it after he had been sent to the Eastern Front. What was his reference?

I have a book by Orlando Patterson called "Freedom; Freedom in the Making of Western Culture". I am nowhere near finished with it. In fact, I haven't read more than a third of it. Ok, it is not exactly exciting reading. But what I have read is fascinating and informative. He tries to define freedom and liberty. Now, you might think these are the same but they aren't. But they do interact, do coexist.

The ancient Greeks spoke of these concepts, as did many other cultures. But they didn't mean it the way we do. We, in the US, fought for it in our American Revolution. And then denied it to two whole classes of people; slaves and American Indians. Not to mention women of any race or class. Even while oppressing so many, we put ourselves up as an example of freedom. And were believed by so many to be a Land of Freedom.

Even after we ended the practice of slavery in our country, we still granted only limited liberty to those once enslaved. And, of course, continued to deny liberty to women.

When I was in the Navy, I had a friend (Herb) who taught me a lot about freedom. I once witnessed an argument he had with another shipmate about it. The argument concerned the draft and some called the "military obligation." The shipmate argued that we had an obligation to serve (hence, the draft) because we were "free". Herb argued that having an obligation negated the idea that we were free and, therefore, had no obligation.

I liked Herb. I should write a whole blog piece about him. They threw him out the second year I was in.

But it all comes back to concepts and connotations that we, individually and collectively, accept. And I still cannot really grasp the concept of freedom. Or liberty.

Do you know what they mean?

4 comments:

Gregory said...

very interesting, got me thinking...

I know the last line is more rhetorical but.... freedom is the ability to choose, liberty is to have freedom...
almost the same, but a little different

andreaskluth said...

That debate between Herb and the other guy was a naval equivalent of Socrates' old debates: They got to the core of the dilemma.

If freedom = not being coerced, and
the draft (or jury duty, etc) = coercion, then
a people with a draft cannot be free.

Unless, that is, Herb wants to qualify it by saying that coercion is sometimes necessary at the small scale to prevent it at the large scale. This would be a utilitarian argument. Draft a minority of individuals to preserve the freedom from coercion of the majority at home.

Herb and his interlocutor might have tackled another seeming paradox:

If America = the freest,
then how can America be the country that locks up the largest share of its people (where prison is the ultimate "non-freedom")

Teh more you think about it, the more the paradoxes abound. Freedom is fiendishly slippery. (Security is much easier as a concept)

Douglas said...

Greg, it actually wasn't rhetorical. It was meant as a philosophical question, a question we each should ask ourselves.

Andreas, Welcome! And such good questions and observations. I ask what is freedom because I am sure I have freedom... within my mind, maybe only there. Liberty is something that, to me, is granted by an authority. It can be taken away, or restricted. I have seen that done many times. Freedom is more of a state of mind. We all live in prisons. Only some are concrete and steel and have guards. Most are constructed of walls we build ourselves inside our minds. Herb was/is a very smart man, the shipmate more of a "robot", repeating what he was told, what held his personal prison walls in place. Herb once lamented to me that he wished he was stupid. He felt he would have been much happier then.

Douglas said...

Greg, it actually wasn't rhetorical. It was meant as a philosophical question, a question we each should ask ourselves.

Andreas, Welcome! And such good questions and observations. I ask what is freedom because I am sure I have freedom... within my mind, maybe only there. Liberty is something that, to me, is granted by an authority. It can be taken away, or restricted. I have seen that done many times. Freedom is more of a state of mind. We all live in prisons. Only some are concrete and steel and have guards. Most are constructed of walls we build ourselves inside our minds. Herb was/is a very smart man, the shipmate more of a "robot", repeating what he was told, what held his personal prison walls in place. Herb once lamented to me that he wished he was stupid. He felt he would have been much happier then.