By JONATHAN POWER
The human conscience is the most supreme and sublime element in creation. It embraces and embodies the impulses of both the animal and the divine. This is the switching mechanism that determines whether the individual will advance towards civilization or regress towards barbarism. It is the spring, the tension, that everyone lives with every day, in small things and in big.
Ideology that allows the individual conscience to be subsumed into a greater collective cause simplifies the individual's choices, hence its attractiveness, particularly in a time of turmoil, ultra competiveness, stress and anxiety. Unemployment and national humiliation drove Germany and much of Europe into the arms of National Socialism and the world's single most destructive war. Poverty and its bed-fellows, greed and gross maldistribution of income, drove Russia into Bolshevism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, a soul-destroying form of governance that still in China dominates the lives of one fifth of humanity. In America, an ideology of national hubris allowed the "defense of liberty" to be taken to the extremes of Armageddon. The Manhattan project's atomic bomb, while perhaps shortening the war with Japan by a couple of months, left humanity with a legacy whose evil consequences hover over us every moment. Nuclear war with the Soviet Union may have just been avoided, but we know that accident and misjudgement nearly triggered it half a dozen times. For the future the chance of nuclear war between Pakistan and India or between Israel and an Arab nation or, more likely, the deployment of a terrorist nuclear device in a major western city is a terrible danger we both inherit from our parents and bequeath to our children. Yet America, Britain, France and Russia still hang on to, and therefore legitimize, this Promethean fire because the western conscience is still unable to rise above the petty notions of power and prestige and say "no."
This is the human animal--pulled always towards the abyss, yet saved time and time again by good men and women who pull it back. We are progressing. Late twentieth century liberal society is, on balance, more successful than its predecessors. There is less poverty, greater life expectancy, more democracy, a greater application of the rule of law and less war than any previous generation has experienced. The liberal, civilized, impulse has never been more in the ascendancy than it is today.
The danger, as the millenium's midnight approaches, is that this prevalent ethos becomes too captivated by its success, too beholden to the creation of free-wheeling liberty, to the point when the national preservation and conservation of ancient time-tested core values becomes secondary.
Liberty of speech and the liberty of the market have indeed brought us bountiful rewards. There have been those on the left, in particular, who have waged a tireless battle to constrain the market place. That battle has been largely lost. Most of us now see that Adam Smith's perception of the golden hand was largely right. But the battle against liberty of speech continues. Powerful vested interests of government, business and even the professions resent the intrusion of questioning, doubting, journalists who expose their judgement to a critical eye and are all too ready to reveal their inconsistencies, hypocrisies, not to say malevolences.
This battle for liberty of speech, however, is not to be as easily won as that for the liberty of the market, for one very good reason. It is still very unclear if this total freedom, especially when combined with the might of the market, is always a very good thing. Both the free market and free speech on their own are sanctionable. Together, however, they are a combustible, often destructive, mixture, as we have now witnessed in all its highlights.
If there is one great outstanding liberal dilemma this is it. It involves not just privacy, but child pornography and the incitement to violence too. The conscience of the media and the entertainment industry is now pricked by great tragedy to think at last of saying "no."
The media and the entertainment world have a choice. They can listen to their own conscience. Or society can do the job for it, by law, preferably international law, sufficient to make sure that media cultivation of pornography, violence and sensationalism no longer can be rewarded in the market place.
September 3, 1997, LONDON
Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER
and e-mail: JonatPower@aol.com
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