Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Milton's Birthday

John Milton was born 400 years ago today.
"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to my conscience, above all liberties."
"No man who know aught can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free."

The world of words-on-the-page, the world of ideas, of the free expression and exchange of ideas is being perverted and stifled perhaps as never before. The increasingly less subtle domination of reports by an official line, by the apparatchiks of the new-establishments whether in the UK or the USA, is becoming more effective and extensive with access to tools beyond the dreams of the more primitively effective practices of a Third Reich or a Soviet system.

We live in a sound-bite culture in which shortened attention spans and a reduced capacity for recollection and linkage has its effect. Shifts in the priorities of a profit-led education sector have reinforced the roll-back of the development of a free mind. By way of one example, I suggest a brief reference from which I quote: "The nation’s elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent and often subversive." This from the USA rather than the UK , but there are UK commentaries on the perversion and erosion of our Education system from Gold Stars in the Nursery to the award of a Master's. And now, as a part of the “Every Child Matters” programme, the Common Assessment Framework begins with the unborn (Contact Point, the associated widely accessible database on our children, goes live in January). Supposed to be selectively applied , the practice of this Social Policing will become commonplace. Even Thatcher would be spinning in her grave (whaddya mean she's not dead yet?).

The dilution of a rooting of human understanding of the world we occupy, its histories, its context, is a part of the "empowerment" of Authority as the source of wisdom and a reduction of the capacity to challenge. We have for many years had a range of observations on what is going on. Suddenly, the integration of what is going on is accelerating. And it is beginning to be evident that these people are now so certain of their rectitude and power that they no longer much care that we know it - they have enough people who are sufficiently ignorant, self-obsessed and with the attention-span of a jellyfish for then to get away with it.

We yet retain the liberty to speak and write, although that is under threat. We no longer have the liberties of public demonstration. Parliament itself is at risk and might be seen by some as on the brink of becoming defunct; the nu-Labour Members are willing to sacrifice the authority of their House and Constitutional protections on Parliament to the Party and its Government. But it is not just through political action that ideas which change a world view can come to influence.

My view that the fifth world war progresses might come to a conclusion without hope - that the play upon the greater stage will dictate the shape of the future and that the performance precludes other than tinkering with the script. Yet I would retain hope while we have the power of expression. We must needs use that in what way we can be that direct politics, life example, creative expression or the (reducing) capacity for conversation in the local pub. We can write our own small scripts. The Fringe Performers. Else “The truth is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie.” - Yevgeny Yevtushenko. But be aware of the utter ruthlessness of the censors, the critics, the audience. To resist the established, to challenge the zeitgeist requires that you cease to value your position, your job, your comforts, your preconceptions, your physical liberty, your reputation, your home, all that represents your material welfare. This is not that you necessarily relinquish them. It is that you cannot value them for it might be necessary that they are relinquished. To give value to them other than as any more than passing tools precludes the logic of resistance. I might prefer to echo Blake: “What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song? Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price of all the man hath, his house, his wife, his children. Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy ...”

To return to Milton, whose conception of freedom of expression was rooted in freedom for the exercise of God's Will and might be tainted by that for the modern reader. Many of his arguments in Areopagitica stand beyond that limitation."I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat." And who, then, might we be to refuse to accept "God's Will" (alternatively faith in the power of reason and conscience) for ourselves and in our applications of wit? To refuse the courage to articulate our visions of the world? For there is always another way of looking at that world. If we seek to silence that, whether in others or in ourselves, we are diminished.

"What did 'Liberty' mean, grandad?"



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