unfit for liberty

A people may prefer a free government, but if, from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet even of a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions; in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty: and though it may be for their good to have had it even for a short time, they are unlikely long to enjoy it.

I typed these words this morning as part of my daily program of transforming the highlights of books I’ve read into Word documents, in turn part of my own program of amassing a personal computer-based reference library. The words were written by John Stuart Mill, and they were quoted in the introduction to the chapter on Courage in volume 2 of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World. And as I typed them I got a strange feeling—not a good feeling.

For I think that Mill’s words, written, I think, sometime in the mid-19th century, are a pretty apt description of my own society today. When I glance at my Google News page, the top headline reads, “Barack Obama hits Iran’s central bank with tough new sanctions”—essentially an act of war, one of a series. These were measures used against Iraq in the run-up to its invasion.

My own country, Canada, has also become more bellicose, assisting in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Libya, among other places (not Syria though—no oil there). We’re imperial stooges, I’m sad to say, and have been for some time. Although Canada did not directly participate in the Vietnam War, the special trade deal known as Auto Pact was a bone thrown to Canada by Lyndon Johnson in exchange for our support of America’s invasion of that remote place. We provide window-dressing for the imperial project.

I’m concerned that this imperial project is possible only because the people in whose name the money is being borrowed to prosecute these wars have become, in Mill’s words, unfit for liberty. What happens to such people?

I believe we’re going to find out—are in the process of finding out.

I can’t help but think of another quote that I captured some time ago in another context:

The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Hermann Goering was a lot of things, but he wasn’t wrong about how the politics of imperialism work. The “leaders” have interests that are different from those of the people whose money and blood they are spilling to achieve their aims.

But people who are fit for liberty wouldn’t let that happen to them.

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