“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thus the second sentence of the American Declaration of Independence signed by the 56 members of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on 4th July 1776. And as I write these words, on 4th June 2014, one month short of 238 years later, Poland marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of freedom from communism following the victory of the Solidarity candidates the elections held on 4th June 1989, with the United States President present in Warsaw to join in the celebrations.
And there is much to celebrate. After 25 years of freedom and ten years a proud member of the European Union (please see Ten Years After) Poland is completely (well, more or less) transformed from the archetypal grey communist to the colourful democratic. Then the Warsaw Pact and shortages; now NATO and abundance. Then subject to the whims of an unelected and unaccountable politburo in Moscow; now subject to the whims of an unelected and unaccountable commission in Brussels (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – an exaggeration, perhaps, but no less irresistible for so being). A Poland once more proud to take its place at the centre of European events, and a Poland confident enough to celebrate its success with the delightfully obscure “Polska. Spring Into” advertising campaign (please see It Pays to Advertise).
But I wonder if we are not in danger of letting the meretricious pursuit of happiness obscure the threats to life and liberty. Here we are celebrating a quarter century since Poland’s first free elections not two weeks since less than a quarter of eligible Poles voted in the elections to the EU parliament (please see Election). Whatever may be one’s views on the EU parliament – and Poland was by no means the worst offender amongst the CEE countries – apathy is not generally the best way to preserve life and liberty. And those wonderful folk for whom we decline to vote are quite merrily dismantling long standing freedoms without so much as a by your leave.
And, sad to say, the two countries which should know better than any others, the United States and the United Kingdom, which have been beacons of hope and monuments to the rule of law, have been leading the sleepwalk into the new dark ages. Under the excuse of the need to fight the Orwellian sounding “war on terror” and accompanied by the chilling slogan “the innocent have nothing to fear” freedoms we have taken for granted – and more fool us for so doing – are being eroded.
Of these, freedom of speech is paramount. The subject of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, affirmed in England’s Bill of Rights in 1689, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted during the French Revolution in 1789, the Universal Declaration of Humana Rights adopted in 1948, the European Convention of Human Rights of 1953 to name but a few, freedom of speech is under attack as never before outside totalitarian states. Without freedom of speech there can be no real freedom.
Yet increasingly, and alarmingly, we are simply not able to speak freely or to express opinions which offend the prevailing group-think of the ever-widening coalition of the thin-skinned. Thus those who have the temerity to express any widely held and long standing opinion which offends against the political correctness of the small detached minority which seems to dominate popular culture are denounced as deniers of this or that, condemned as “…ists” guilty of whatever “…ism” is the flavour of moment. Asked to deny the evidence of their own eyes, as politicians bend over backwards to excuse the inexcusable, to accommodate that which will not be accommodated, to impose a diversity and tolerance which itself excludes and will not tolerate any different opinion. Or in the words of the philosopher Roger Scruton: “A political culture in denial about a serious social problem will condemn those who seek to discuss it, and try its best to silence them.”
Be that as it may, we might be forgiven for taking one day off from the struggle to mark the great achievements of Poland’s 25 years of freedom, wish it well for the future. But let us remember also that 25 years is only the beginning. The pursuit of happiness is nothing without life and liberty, and life and liberty are fragile flowers which have been plucked from this ground more than once.