Friday, December 19, 2008

The Four Freedoms Redux, or How to use cheap oil to win the world for western thought

I'm fairly conservative in some ways, indeed in lots of ways. For one, I firmly believe in western liberal democracy (using the word liberal in the old fashioned Adam Smith sense, ie, economic and social liberty). I am an unabashed occidentalist. I look around the world, and while I can admire China's stupendous recent economic achievement, or the impressive three-thousand year Persian cultural history of Iran, or the earthy simplicity of Native American spirituality, or a dozen other profound cultural and economic cultures not of the west, I don't at all wish to ape their dignities, nor live under their constraints.

Some of my friends and colleagues in academia see this trait of mine as misanthropic or even bigoted. I don't care very much about that. My defense is that I'm a bloody-minded Yorkshire Englishman, from a very long line of Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Roundheads, Chartists, Fabians, Kinder Trespassers, and Sheffield steel small "s" socialists, the same bloody-minded so-and-so's whose thought and doughty northern ways were in my humble opinion behind every serious foreign and civil victory for liberty of thought and action in Anglo-America from Cromwell through Paine to Lincoln, and further that if you can admire a Soiux Indian or an African freedom fighter for being in touch with his cultural heritage, then you shouldn't criticize me for doing much of the same.

All I want is to see the west tread as firmly as it can the path of liberty while also supporting democracy, education, and development elsewhere in the world with as much energy as we can afford.

This leads to me occasionally siding with the right wing. For instance, I don't like Dick Cheney very much at all, but I think Natan Sharansky has a point. I don't think we'll ever see, for instance, a truly democratic Islamic state. I feel sorry for the Palestinians but feel that many of their men for generations have overly confused murder with resistance and made simplistic and ridiculous excuses for their own failures in government. My favorite world leader of all time is Winston Churchill, not Che Guevara. My favorite historians are Simon Schama and Kevin Philips, not to mention Churchill himself (although I just did), not Howard Zinn or Todd Gitlin. I admire Gandhi more for his work within the western tradition, for his doughty use of the common law he learned at the Middle Temple and the freedoms it enshrines, than for his sainted guru-ship.

It will be a good day, in my book, when we can do without gurus.

We didn't do gurus in 1960s Yorkshire, at least pre-Beatles. We did brown bread and bacon and eggs, also brown, school milk, Sheffield steel and coal, and council houses and grants for university instead.

What my grandfathers stood for.

In my worldview, it will only be when the states of Islam discover the separation of mosque and state that repression and torture will end in Iran or Pakistan or Palestine, and it will only be when China frees up business enterprise and democratic thought that that it will begin to meet my standards. While Kim Jong Il simply fills me with disgust.

And while I'm happy to read all their history and thought in order to understand them, perhaps I'm reading them more to know how to change them than to excuse them.

All this makes me a fairly strange environmentalist, although not such a strange Quaker, the example of Thomas Paine being a case in point, also Nathaniel Greene. It made my participation in Peter Brown's new book a tad strained at times, since many of the participants were more conventional liberals and socialists.

What I really want is for the deep liberty that is at the heart of the western, and particularly the Anglo-American worldview, to spread widely, including important concepts such as freedom of speech and thought, freedom of religion, economic freedoms such as the freedom to start your own business or run your own farm or firm, but most of all, freedom of conscience.

What I want is to live in a pluralistic democratic society based on debate, a free press, with a strong role for reason and science. This is neither the gated and middle-class-suspicious western community that Dick Cheney or Rush Limbaugh inhabit, where science and reason are replaced by cronyism and spin, but neither is it the soft-minded, New Agey silliness, and fake or invented community, that often pervades the liberal left. It may take a village to raise a kid, but it will take more than Hilary Clinton saying so to make a village work. It takes actually getting your hands dirty with your neighbors, doing your bit.

So when I read in the Guardian that low oil prices are putting strains on OPEC and that Iran is having trouble balancing it's budget, I want our leaders to see that this is a strategic opportunity for the west and for the liberal tradition.

What we need to do with what will likely be the last few years of relatively cheap oil, is use that as the fuel to retool industry to turn out the renewable energy and energy efficiency equipment we need to wean ourselves off OPEC's oil once and for oil. It would be a good thing if we could win this green space race that the Obama team intends us to run, but I want us to win it as much to make a planet that is run by liberal democratic countries as I want us to win it to save the planet and biological and cultural diversity.

If we were really doughty and somewhat self-sacrificing, and had excellent planning and forethought, starting with energy efficiency and moving to renewables and small scale Hyperion nukes, we could control oil price from the demand side, a reverse OPEC of the western countries plus India, and Japan, possibly even China, and never let it get above $60 again, which would be a boon to our relationships with Iran, Russia, Venezuala, and to democracy everywhere.

Now that's a strategic idea.

This is our second big chance.

Recessions spell O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y to those who can think out of the box. An example would be the first New Deal and the "Good War" that replaced it as Keynesian package. Because of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, because of their great respect for freedom and the western tradition, when the dust had finally settled on the decades of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, the west was undoubtedly supreme. If it had not been for Stalin, the Soviets and the western traitors that supported them, particularly Fuchs who gave them the bomb, the western project would have likely succeeded, through the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, in creating the liberal democratic world I want to live in, a world where all kinds of ignorance and mind-control, from religious totalitarianism to fascist or communist totalitarianism, in fact any kind of fundamentalism at all, would have finally been on the run.

At the beginning of the Great Depression, no-one could have foretold that this is the way it would all end in 1945. Many western thinkers were throwing their hat in one or the other totalitarian ring, throwing Bill of Rights baby out with Magna Carta bathwater in their fawning admiration for dictators.

Habeus corpus? Only a few million, courtesy of Adolf, Joe, and Chairman Mao.

Now we have another recession, but we also have another opportunity to build a world that can leave Vladi Putin, Kim Il Sung, Hugo Chavez, and a host of other tinpot threats to human dignity in our dust.

A do-over. Let's not screw it up this time.

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