Ukraine is stirring us out of our stupor. The West suddenly has had a ringside seat, watching a European country fighting for its life. The Ukrainians are not frightened so much as outraged. Somebody is trying blowing up their new democracy – their country, their towns, their home, their relatives.
To the Ukrainians, a fight for liberty, sovereignty, democracy and self-determination is a fight worth fighting for, a fight worth dying for – nothing less than a classic battle of good versus evil.
So imagine for a moment, that your country were invaded by a major military power seeking to take over and create a totalitarian puppet state. What would you be willing to do? Would you stay in order to defend the cause of freedom, sovereignty and self-determination as well? Would it even matter to you?
In fact, would it be that important to you that you’d allow some members of your family to flee while you stayed behind? Or even having already left, would you turn around, grab a gun and run right back into the eye of the storm in order to fight for those freedoms?
A recent US Quinnipiac poll asked just that question and found that 52 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans said that if invaded by a military power seeking to take over America, they’d pack up and get the hell out of the country.
Overall, some 38 percent of those polled said they would hightail it to the border and beyond.
I’m not judging, and I certainly can’t tell you what I’d do when faced with those circumstances.
I also don’t think this result suggests that Americans are selfish (I remind you – I am an American).
But it begs the bigger question of what values, besides the desire to care for our own loved ones, we would be willing to defend, even die for.
The results suggest that Americans no long find such values in their country.
That feeling may have a great deal to do with what we’ve done with our own democracies and also what we’ve failed to do with them.
Virtually all developed countries have been founded on a culture of individualism and individual gain. This paradigm of competitive individualism offers us a view life as a heroic struggle for dominion over hostile elements and a share of strictly limited resources. There’s not enough out there and others may be fitter than we, so we have to do our damnedest to get hold of it first.
The representation of life as a race to the finish line has been used as intellectual justification for most aspects of modern industrialized society, which regards competition as society’s perfect shakedown mechanism, separating out the economically, politically and socially weak from the strong.
The winners have a right to winner take all because the race as a whole would benefit from it.
Although our vantage point has afforded us technological mastery over our lives, on a personal level it has left most of us with a distinctly hollow feeling, as though something profound — our very humanity — has been trampled over, in our daily wrestle with the world.
Although one of the wealthiest countries in the world with half the world’s billionaires, America has far and away the highest level of all social problems — crime, lack of education, mental illness, suicide, disease of all varieties — of twenty countries, and the United Kingdom is the third worst. Although one in every thirty-nine Americans is a millionaire, one in seven, or 39.1 million Americans, live below the poverty line.
So most of us feel that democracy has failed us.
As Sherelle Jacobs recently wrote: ‘The challenge for Western civilization is. . . to construct a new system that can deliver progress and freedom to all within it, not just a privileged few.’
But Quinnipiac raises something even more fundamental. It suggests that we’ve gotten so complacent that we’ve forgotten just how essential individual freedom and free speech actually are to our lives and how we can no longer take for granted the incredible gift we already have.
In the wake of recent crises like 9/11 and Covid, we’ve allowed our governments to impose certain restrictions to our freedoms that may have been necessary at the time, but are no longer necessary now.
We’ve allowed the passage of laws that curtail the right to assembly and free speech – laws that are no longer necessary but haven’t been repealed.
What is happening in Ukraine is an opportunity for us to assess how important and essential freedom and free expression is. And how easily it can be taken away.
We urgently need to revise the story we live by, but also to hold tight onto the most important chapter at the heart of it.
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