14 January 2014

Tom Stoppard on what it means not to be free

From http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/oct/11/tom-stoppard-pen-pinter-lecture.

. . . Until I read Isaiah Berlin, I didn't know I could put a name to each: positive freedom and negative freedom. I had little reverence for positive freedom, the proactive freedom promised by a centralised state; freedom from unemployment, say, or freedom from exploitation by private landlords; or from vulgarity by newspapers, for that matter. Such freedom was concomitant with the withdrawal of negative freedom whose value, I thought then and think now, cannot be overstated: autonomous freedom, the freedom to think for oneself, to use one's discretion, to name things for what they are and not for what they purport to be, to apply common sense, and common humanity.
As it happened, positive freedom in the USSR meant empty shops, rubbish goods and rubbish lives for millions, but that was not the point for me, that was not the dystopia. The horror was the loss of personal responsibility, of personal space in the head, the loss of autonomy, of the freedom to move freely, and the ultimate Orwellian nightmare which is not to know what you have lost. In Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoirs she tells of a group of friends discussing the case of a one-legged war veteran who was given the special privilege of moving his abode across the country, so as to live closer to his sister. The group of friends wondered whether such permission would have been granted in the west. Mrs Mandelstam explained to them that in the west anybody could live anywhere, even if they had two legs. They couldn't get their heads round it. They were intelligentsia, and they didn't know what was lost. I was much struck by that story in Mrs Mandelstam's book. It was the touchstone of totalitarianism for me. I kept it in my pocket like a pebble to remind me of what we had to fear, to defend against, and it was also a rock on which I founded my sense of comfortable national superiority.

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