Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"The Birth of Freedom": how political democracy transcends "individual inequality"

Recently Howard University Public Television aired the one hour documentary “The Birth of Freedom”, directed by Simon Scionka, from Action Media and Cold Water Media, 2008.

The film starts with an existential philosophical question. How can people be regarded as equal, or at least of equal rights, in a world where they are so obviously unequal as individuals in ability and circumstance.  In ancient times, philosophers – even the Greeks – often justified the idea that people naturally fit into different stations in life, hence slavery. But the position of the film, somewhat conservative in tone, is that religious Judeo-Christian values during the middle ages really did set the stage for modern individualism and innovation, even if it had to go through many stages, such as feudalism (as opposed to slavery),and even if slavery would return and become controversial.

In fact, the filmmakers believe that the American Revolution was closer in nature to moral truth than the French Revolution, and therefore settled into a productive end.

The film also offers explanations of ancient experiments in democratic institutions and their tendency, as with Rome, to fail. 

Values associated with Christianity eventually allowed the idea of the rule of law and the recognition of contracts, which would help encourage gradual innovation, probably from about the time of Leonardo da Vinci  (and lead back to early episodes, such as the signing of the Magna Carta).

The film covers, quite telescopically, hundreds of years of history, leading to the modern civil rights movement.
The film paid particular heed to the history of William Wilberforce and his actions in Britain to eliminate the slave trade and then slavery in the colonies, as dramatized in the 2006 film from Michael Apted and the Samuel Goldwyn Company, “Amazing Grace”, with Ioan Gruffuld.

I think it’s interesting to look at the implications of democratic value systems for individual’s own value systems in interacting with other people.  If it is OK to exclude people from one’s life on the basis of arbitrary characteristics (and view them as “deficits” that could be scored), then democracy itself could be undermined, because eventually many people would sink out of sight (as “unworthy”).  My own father used to talk about this idea in terms of "seeing people as people" rather than as foils.  (Katherine Kersten of the Center for the American Experiment in Minneapolis had weighed in on this in a 2000 book; see my "issues" blog Feb. 3).  The film talks about the idea of “social contract”, as an agreement of rights and responsibilities among a community (its leadership) and its individual “citizens”, as needing the “checks and balances” of American republican government.  But some social conservatives have talked about “social contract” in terms of family and community responsibility demanded of everyone, regardless of personal choice.  The strange paradox is that some sort of social structure is necessary to sustain individual freedom.

The website for the film is here

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