Where are they? Not at the Moscow transit airport lounge nor at the London Heathrow!
In the world we are living through!
Nor at the ports, airports or airport lounges, as demonstrated by Edward Snowden and latest by the Brazilian journalist David Miranda!
Why the world is so unconcerned? About our own freedoms or democracy?
Why this wariness, this cynicism and disinterest?
There new books on Sir Isaiah Berlin come out. Before I go through the contents of these books, I want to raise certain current issues. In the world we live through at present there seems to be so many issues of grave concern.One, the latest pictures of two journalists, one Brazilian of the Guardian newspaper of England, the other also the Guardian newspaper, the two are held up at the London Heathrow airport for nine hours, of detention and threatened of arrest under terrorism act or acts.
The other picture is then-going crisis in Egypt (where I had to cancel our tickets for a journey just days before the coup broke out! And we lost heavily for cancelling the journey, the air tickets and the hotel bookings) and also the perceived silence of Barack Obama whose government had pledged a 1.50 billion dollar aid to Egypt.
Not less important, in fact the more relevant issue or issues I wanted to raise in this context is the goings-on inside India where Parliament is debating a range of issues like the disappearance of the Coalgate corruption files, the absence of the Prime Minister who was directly in charge of the coal ministry at the relevant time.
In fact, I was to give the subtitle top this essay like:
If Sir Isaiah Berlin were alive today?
If Mahatma Gandhi were alive today?
What relevance Sir Isaiah Berlin’s concepts of liberty would have today? Today’s world?
What would have Mahatma Gandhi did today? In today’s context of rising corruption and the rising obduracy of a democratic government to part with information? To allow freedoms to citizens to have their rights to know the truth or truths.
In fact, I would urge the readers, both Indian and foreign, to read through these lines with a critical eye on what relevance the many theories of freedoms, democracy and our own individual liberties would have when the super powers, others, USA along with UK are indulging in such extensive surveillance and snooping and also the Indian government is no less guilty in snooping individuals and also those who are perceived to be inconvenient to the individuals who are in power in New Delhi and elsewhere.
Dear readers, please keep these observations in mind when you read through the rest of the essay.
Oxford in the 1950s, 60s
Sir Isaiah Berlin was the most famous and most glamorous professor at my time in Oxford. By the 1960s, as the reviewer in the latest review of his three new books says Sir Isaiah Berlin was assured of his fame. He held the chair in social and political theory, he lived in the most famous of the colleges, namely, All Souls and he was a Russian Jew, fled Soviet Russia in the wake of Lenin’s October Revolution in 1917 and he was precocious and he came to England without a word of English and ended up as one of the much-feted intellectuals of his time.
In fact, I was lucky to listen to him and more so to see him often in my own college, New College where he was a teacher and a tutor before he went on to become the university professor and in New College, by the way, lived so many other brilliant men, Sir Jules Ayer, the famous philosopher, Anthony Quinton, later Lord Quinton, who was my philosophy tutor and other senior philosophers were all there and there was a raging philosophical revolution was going on when I went there and there were so many stories circulating about how Berlin and Ayer would engage themselves in conversations that would last for hours together at the College Quad etc.
So, I was very soon drawn into this philosophy controversy, I became more interested in philosophy than in the other two counterparts to my tripos, Philosophy, Politics and Economics, the famed PPE!
Sir Isaiah was a formidable figure, a very short and stocky man, I think, he was less than 5.5 ft in height and he was a very impressive figure given to fast speaking and it is a feature of his lectures (which we students invariably attended) to which so many students from other departments too were drawn. Such was his fame that by the time I went up to Oxford his famous inaugural lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty, was delivered and the first one or two books I bought there was Berlin’s lecture and the other was A.J.Ayer’s, Language, Truth and Logic.
Now, there are before me is the review of his latest three books, one his letters, the others, one a book on Isaiah Berlin and his fellow European Jew and equally a brilliant scholar, an authority on Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, namely, Isaac Deutscher about whom Sir Isaiah had serious differences of opinion. The third book is an intellectual biography of Berlin by David Cute, a fellow member of the All Souls and who knows Berlin so closely.
The important reason why I write this piece of essay is not to shed any more light on Berlin’s thoughts but to invite Indian readers largely to the world we live in, the India we live through and also the challenges we face as citizens of the world’s largest democracy.
Inside India, as I write these lines I see on the TV channel, the Indian Parliament is debating over the missing Coalgate files, as they are called. The files of the Indian Coal ministry which on the concerned date was presided over by the Prime Minister as in charge when the ministry was without a minister and Parliament is now debating after many years as to why the highly corrupt deals were struck under the very nose of the Prime Minister, so to say and why the files are now said to be missing.
Why the Prime Minister is not coming to the Parliament to answer the charges, thunders Ms.Sushma Swaraj, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
Freedoms in India
India is an open society. India is also a liberal democracy. Yet, there are serious issues, nay, and threats to individual liberty and citizen freedoms. Freedoms in India is fragile at best. At worst, there is a new sense of insecurity, fears and by whatever names you can call them, the freedoms enshrined in the Indian Constitution, are at best breached for various reasons. There is not genuine democracy, democratic norms; Prime Minister is not elected for many years. So also, the party president of the historic Congress party is also not elected in the traditional, if we can say, the Gandhian way.
A conscious dynastic, family regime is sought to be perpetuated. This, no one would call it a true democracy. Ideological questions are suppressed. There is a genuine need for some hard questions to be asked and answered.How far India is a genuine democracy. How far the deteriorations and contradictions have gone into the system?
There are questions that it is time to ask openly. Openly discussed and debated.
Corruption and criminalisation of Ministers, MPs, MLAs. Corruption destroys. Corruption had eroded the many institutions, from the Constitutional scheme, the various other institutions, like judicial autonomy to appointment of Governors, autonomy and independence of institutions like anti-corruption bodies, CBI. The long pending issues of Lokpal, the anti-corruption body at the all India level, for the last some 50 or 60 years is an indication how corruption had penetrated all aspects of national life.
There are various civil society bodies that have come out with detailed statistics about the large scale criminalisation of corrupt MPs, Ministers, MLAs and others. The government had not filed a complaint with the police; no FIR was filed, all these years.This is only one such complain. There are equally important other complaints too.
There are other equally serious charges of corruption, bad governance. At present, there are other issues like RTI Act under which the body ruled the political parties are obliged to furnish details of the party funds, the way the party affairs are run etc. Now, the political parties, as far as India, as the biggest democracy in the world is taken as a test case, are run as family dynasties, nay as private family property. The Congress party, the largest and the oldest party, has recently given Rs.100 crores to a Congress family-owned; Nehru founded newspaper during the freedom struggle, the National Herald, which is now defunct.
The Congress party had given this loan as a settlement with the old employees. Fine. But this is not a private affair. Take the money from the political party, with no democratic decision making and give away public funds to settle some other outside business transaction for all practical purposes, right?
Other political parties, the BJP party, the second biggest party, is constituted as a plain communal, religious divide, the Hindutva concept is plainly, to say so, is fascist. The history of the party is very different from other party histories. Other parties, lately, are plainly cattiest outfits.
More and more regional parties are drawn from castes, ethnic chauvinoism; some are plain and outright terrorist-linked even. In such an emerging context how to talk of democracy, political parties and even freedoms of the citizens. A political thinker or social thinker, scholars like Berlin are not even in any describable category. He started as a philosopher; the dominant philosophy at his time was what is called analytical or linguistic philosophy. The most famous in his time was Wittgenstein, a fellow continental, European Jew and Austrian like Freud.
In fact, much of what was called even in my time; the specific Oxford philosophy was Logical Positivism. It arose out of the Vienna University; the philosophy was called the Vienna School of philosophy. It was based on the sciences, there were many mathematicians, physicists, logicians and even Sigmud Freud can be added to this list. There are very many others, mostly they derived their thinking, their philosophical orientations(there are many names whom I don’t mention here for the simple reason, for the Indian readers of today, they might all sound like total unknowns). A.J.Ayer, for one, was the only one from Oxford who spent time in Vienna and came afresh to Oxford and when he was in his early Twenties, wrote the most readable, one of the most influential, because it was written in such trulescent prose style and it immediately became a hit publication. It sold copies in thousands, if not millions and it went into so many editions.
The one copy I possess dates back to 1959 and it was something like 20th or 28th edition!
The addition of Wittgenstein, a very lonely and very genius-like character who joined Bertrand Russell, first as a student and disciple and later as a colleague and Russell himself acknowledged Wittgenstein, as a genius. Thus Oxford philosophy in my time took a very virulent path, it called all philosophies, like metaphysics as “non-sense”, anything that didn’t make sense literally is non-sense, right?
This is how I studied philosophy under some of the epoch-making names. There was Gilbert Ryle who wrote an influential book, the Concept of Mind, in which he disproved so many long-held notions. Metaphysics was ridiculed by this group of philosophers. Now, what is Berlin’s seminal contribution or contributions?
Berlin called two kinds of liberty. One, negative concept. All through the ages, individuals were subjected to very many kinds of oppressions. In modern times, when Berlin was lecturing, around the aftermath of the Second World War, there was this cold war.
Soviet Russia vs. USA.So, authoritarianism was very much an accepted political reality. In the former Soviet Union states, there was no liberty as understood in the West. There was collective freedom, it was asserted. So that every citizen was equal.
But then, this attitude was ridiculed in the West. Negative liberty is a denial of choices for individuals. Then, in contrast, Berlin explained there is the positive liberty, there are so many ways in which, in the West, in democracies, and the individual citizens have capabilities. There are voting rights; citizens can, in theory, why even in practice, vote for a government and vote out a government.
In the authoritarian regimes, Communist, military dictatorship, in the very many Sheikdoms, Religious states (we are rather having them in more countries, ironically today, than in Berlin’s time) there is no such safeguards for citizens.
So, Berlin’s, these two types of concepts, were seen as refreshing.
But today, after Berlin’s tie, why even in his own time, he didn’t see what was happening in the larger world.Berlin, it seems to me now, didnt imagine there are countries like India and other former colonies in his scheme of things.
It is rather ironic. For one who is now considered as an Enlightenment ‘saint’ he was, to put it crudely, blind to a wider world. His vision, why even his own world view was confined to a narrow part of the world. May be Russia and may be UK and USA.
What a very narrow world view Berlin saw, it is sad and ironic. So, he was almost, if we can say so, an apologist for the imperial Britain? Yes, what else we can say now?
He didn’t even question some of the assumptions, as raised by the 19th century great English statesmen. Men like the radicals, why even such establishment figures like Gladstone and Disraeli who all saw the events ,such as Irish Home Rule, voting franchise to new industrial middle class, later working class.
Seen in this light Gladstone and Disraeli, with all their limitations, limitations imposed by their own time and political awakening, were really early visionaries. They foresaw a world without oppression and denial of freedoms for all peoples, for all nations. Seen in this light Berlin’s world view, his own understanding of the history of ideas, he was still a very narrow-focused and a very not-so-deep philosophical manner.
He is no inheritor of the great Greek or Roman traditions. He is no Platonist or Aristotelina. Nor is he an inheritor of the great Roman traditions, Republican, Rule by Law, the other ingredients of the great Roman civilization and civil governance.
In fact, seemed to have been untouched by the Italian Renaissance either. Except he was an admirer of Machiavelli. He seemed to have went with the hegemony of the UK, USA and their own material and military traditions of conquest and rule by force.
I am sorry to say this but for an Indian, an ex-colonialist citizen, how can Indians forget their imperial past?
How can Indians reconcile with what the British did while they were reading their Plato and Aristotle, their own John Locke and Edward Hume and others. So, we can see that the thoughts and reflections of Sir Isaiah Berlin might be stimulating to some intellectuals, Berlin’s writings and lectures and letters are really intellectually stimulating even today. He is a great conversationalist par excellence. He is a great letter writer, as theses collections of letters show.
He is a great essayist. His essays, more so, the ones on the Great Russian radicals and even anarchists like Alexander Herzin are absorbing. Berlin never sat down and really wrote any full-length book. I benefited much from Berlin’s lectures. I religiously attended his lectures. I was in fact, over-awed by his personality and his legendary conversations.
I have almost bought almost all his books and essays and I have a big collection which I accumulated even after I came back from Oxford. He was a rare phenomenon of an intellectual who, when he lived and even after had left a deep imprint of an independent thinker and who moved and shaken his immediate world and after.
But the questions he raised, our freedoms, our liberties, our democratic rights are all now in great danger of getting sabotaged by the rise of more inadequate leadership failures. The world is struggling to come to terms with the new challenges of new terrorists, new fears and disquiet among the older democracies, the rise in migrant populations in UK, why even in the USA, Germany, France and Italy and others.
How to come to terms with the rise in surveillance by the UK and USA agencies? How to fight for individual freedoms?
How to deal with the threats to media freedoms, journalists’s freedoms?
As Alan Rushbridger, the editor of the Guardian says, how to balance security and civil liberties? Freedom of speech and privacy?
As he says that perhaps today, London is more dangerous, the UK government had destroyed Guardian’s collection of papers (supplied by Edward Snowdon and WikiLeaks, while in New York, you can enjoy some freedoms and work from there. This is of course rather ironical and yet we have to see what little space, physical space, we are left with in the world today to live and nurture our own sense of freedoms!
Where is a free space? Not the ports or airports or certainly, airport lounges! As Alan puts it:”A transit lounge in Heathrow is a dangerous place to be!”
So, it seems our present and the future, as far as our freedoms and chances of enjoying democratic rights are as challenging as they were ever. As in the past, not just the immediate past but at present as well!
Journalist at Heathrow airport for 9 hours
UK defends detention!
Is it because he is a Brazilian, foreign journalist?
The Guardian editor, Mr. Alan Rushbridger, has written a long column which is reproduced in all major newspapers, says that the surveillance threat to newspapers and media is real and the British intelligence officials visited to the Guardian newspaper offices and also the detention of a partner journalist, the Brazilian, David Miranda, was detailed at the London airport for nine hours, which is described by the Brazilian Human Rights Commission as typical of the totalitarian states.
What lessons for others, other countries, other countries’ citizens?
What lessons for Indians, Indian citizens groups and various civil society groups?
What is the position of the parties, the ruling combine and the Opposition groups?
Time for thinking and debate.
My ideas of individual freedoms!
Under what conditions freedoms possible?
The historic context
The sociological context
The political context
Freedoms, individual freedoms were eulogised from Pericles days, in Greece to Roman Republic days. Now, the historic context for individual freedoms we have to understand more critically than what many writers, thinkers have contributed so far, in my opinion. For instance, in the 15th and 16th century Europe there arose the Italian Renaissance. What contributed to this fine flowering of individual geniuses like Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci? Sheer individual freedoms only, right?
Yes, there was feudal dictatorship under the Medicis and other Dukes in various others nearby cities. As it is pointed out, in fact, such renaissance of arts and culture and writing didn’t flower in other university cities like Bologna and even in Venice? Why? We have to think hard.
In fact, in such medieval societies, there were so many inequalities, inequities even. But only in such hierarchical societies, among the various classes, there are certain safeguards for new individual geniuses can flower.
Anyway, even in later periods, up to the French Revolution, there can be an atmosphere for freedoms and spreading of rights for citizens only when there are also various classes.
Communism is an anti-thesis of individual freedoms. This is true under Lenin, true under the present Chinese system of politics and economics. Economic inequalities too can guarantee freedoms.
British history, rise of industrial capitalism, rise of new classes, capitalist, bourgeois, labour, and working classes guaranteed the voting rights, various other rights like higher wages, education etc.
So, certain hierarchies, social and economic and even political, may be certain basic conditions for widespread freedoms for wider sections of society.
May be, the maximum spread of freedoms and various social benefits and opportunities for individuals to rise in life can be seen in today’s Nordic countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland and others.