Thursday, 18 November 2010

On freedom of expression

Freedom. That’s a word that I’ve come to think about a lot in this last 11 months here in Budapest.

Not that I didn’t worry about it back in the UK, as we seemed to constantly hear about the need to protect ourselves against terrorists being used to justify ever more restrictions on our personal British freedoms. And yet, elsewhere things can be so much worse.

Here in Budapest I’ve read a lot about the history of the country over the last 50 years, about the Fascist period before WW2 and then the Communist era, each with their repression of free speech and dissent. Here it seems to have left its mark on the people of my generation and older; wary, suspicious of strangers and reluctant to express an emotional reaction.

I remember feeling moved standing on the Hungarian-Austrian border at the site of the Pan-European Picnic, where East Germans and Hungarians had come together and faced down the border guards and the regimes they represented back in 1989.

In Syria one person we spoke to told us that several members of their family had been imprisoned by the government for having non-official thoughts, and how gatherings of more than four people were illegal. Many people there live with a nagging worry about being picked up and being jailed on a whim.

Now I’m reading Mearsheimer and Walt’s book on the operation of the Israel lobby in the United States and how the lobby seeks to prevent a discussion of the Palestine situation from anything other than an Israeli perspective. Politicians trying to explore Arab perspectives find their campaign donations and other support drying up, academics are verbally attacked if they are thought to favour the Arab position in the Middle East, and so on. The lobby does this because it is trying to protect Israel’s position, but really, in the longer term can the aggression and unfairness that it condones and encourages be sustainable? How will this play out for the United States in the longer term? I can't see it being a great strategy as peak oil plays itself out.

It’s made me very grateful to have grown up and lived in a country where, for all its growing restrictions, free speech is pretty well tolerated, and I can see why oppressed people from different parts of the world try to find asylum in Britain. Not having freedom to express your thoughts is corrosive and ultimately destroys a society’s cohesiveness, so in the UK we need to put up with extremists from whatever direction expressing what we think are lies and ignorance: sooner or later they are exposed and they sink.

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