The character of a great civilization is that it strives for a better tomorrow. It will be a lovely day tomorrow.
I recently heard a stirring speech:
“Little does he know the spirit of the Ukrainian people, or the tough fibre of the Kyiv residents… who have been bred to value freedom far above their lives. This wicked man, the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul-destroying hatreds, this monstrous product of former wrongs and shame, has now resolved to try to break Kyiv by a process of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction. What he has done is to kindle a fire in Ukrainian hearts here and all over the world which will glow long after all traces of the conflagrations he has caused in Kyiv have been removed. He has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of tyranny have been burnt out of Europe.”
Actually, I heard no such speech recently. These are the words of Winston Churchill as England’s capital city suffered a blitz of Nazi bombs in 1941. I swapped a few words here and there but the speech is apposite in its clarity, the situation in which it was delivered, and in the fundamental message that hatred and terror will always yield to a better tomorrow so long as the love of freedom endures. British songstress Vera Lynn understood this, expressed in her sonorous little ditties. I stole the title of one of them for this essay (sorry, Vera).
When the bombs have stopped falling, when the fist-shaking and teeth-gnashing of the propagandists has calmed down, and when history has transformed the momentary terror of war into a fleeting moment in the human past, you cannot escape the need to ask the question: What vision was each side offering humanity? What good was being proffered to advance the human condition? Future generations will ask this. It’s as well for any world leader to answer this question for themselves before they engage in a rampage.
Those who are not motivated by the idea of a free society, however imperfect, always make one crucial mistake, the same mistake that Adolf Hitler made in those dark days of 1941. They fail to grasp that within the bosom of freedom is an intensely personal feeling of self-respect. After all, that is what ultimately characterizes the center of a free society – the dignity and respect that surrounds individual agency and a government that sees itself as the protector of that bastion, not its nemesis.
Out of the deeply rooted jealousy for the private emerges an anger when there is an attempt to violate it, particularly by physical means. Thus, bombing the cities of a free nation never leads to subjugation, but to a greater passion for liberty, to a fury fed by the tyrant’s brazen arrogance and contempt for the peace and privacy of life. The spirit that stirs in the heart of Kyiv today is the same as that which took root in the collapsed houses, bombed buses, and raging fires of London. It cannot be extinguished by further terror; it can only be roused to greater action.
Freedom’s intensity can never be understood by the tyrant because, by their nature, and more prosaically, by their career path, they have only known the success of brutality as a means to bend the human will. The edifice of a dictatorship is arranged around the state’s monopoly on the use of violence and the application of this power for internal subjugation, not only in defense from external threats.
Even when the dictator does advance a vision, it is usually one saturated with the rantings of nationhood, the fatherland, force and ego. It is ultimately repugnant to the gentle, kindly character of individual humans, their lives, their children and their families, even if for a brief historical moment they get swept up in its talismanic aura.
The impotency of such terror lies in the reality that alongside it no glimpse is offered for a better tomorrow, no structure and idea for a society that can shore up the essential desire to be free of terror and state oppression.
That power of freedom should not be underestimated. Many people point out that Britain no longer has an empire, and it is a political strength in decline. Yet, so long as a country retains a fierce belief in accountable government with credible political opposition and the pursuit of individual freedom of expression, religion, and assembly, it will always have potent soft power in its core. The same is true for Ukraine.
How else can one explain Russia’s interest in the subjugation of a nation with an area twenty-eight times smaller? How could Ukraine possibly represent a threat to the mighty Russia? The answer is simply the idea of freedom. Its capacity to inspire terrifies and threatens any mind that does not love the idea of escaping the clutches of state power or that has a vested interest in clinging on to a dynasty.
As for those people called up to fight against a population inspirited with the idea of freedom, there are few creeds that can suffice. Laying down one’s life for the fatherland or motherland can only have meaning for the individual if that fatherland or motherland itself stands for some morally persuasive principle, since otherwise these epithets are a mere statement of geography.
The most stalwart defenders of these ideas in recent years have been the Western nations. This often leads to the incorrect conclusion that freedom is a distinctly Western idea. In fact, so strong is this delusion that even former colonized powers will side with an autocrat, or remain passive, simply for the sake of displaying an apparent independence from the West. However, as India’s first prime minister after independence in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, said about freedom and autocracy in his remarkable book The Discovery of India, conceived and written during imprisonment by the British Raj, “That conflict is not of India only; it is of the West and also of the entire world, though it takes different forms there.”
Freedom is not a Western thing. The desire to live untethered from the coercive impulses of rulers and to hold on to a citadel of individual thought can be found in the history of all humankind, in all ages, even before the birth of the modern conception of the nation state. Today it courses through the blood of Ukraine’s antagonist: In her Dostoevskys, Solzhenitsyns, Mendeleevs, Tchaikovskys, Shostakovichs and others, Russia is awash with the glitter of genius, the bubbling froth of mental freedom given expression in some of humanity’s most impressive scientific and cultural works. If only she could energize that spirit in the political sphere. If only all of us would expend more energy to accomplish this in our political arrangements. It is an ongoing project.
Imagine a world of civilizations, all distinct in their influence, a world of colour and variety in our outlooks, but all fused together by a universal desire to see people live in mutual respect and liberty.
Unless we believe in such visions of our future, and I think they are not unrealistic, then we will live in an autocratic bleakness that humanity will long endure. There is no reason to resign ourselves to such a future.
So in the here and now, as the drones buzz, the missiles fall, the battles rage, and grief hurts so much, remember that better times will come. “If today your heart is weary, if every little thing looks grey, just forget your troubles and learn to say: Tomorrow is a lovely day.”
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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