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Freedom, Fear, and Catalonia

There are a lot of depressing things in the news. There are terrorist attacks, criminal acts of unbelievable depravity, natural disasters that cost billions of dollars and ruin many lives. That’s not all, either. Our political system is hopelessly corrupt, dominated by lobbyists and interest groups who will block any compromise that threatens their power. Gigantic, soulless, impersonal megacorporations are using market power to choke the life out of small businesses and wring every last drop of profit from their customers. We live in a world, and a culture, without a spiritual center, dominated by greed, selfishness, and the desire for power over others.

Every so often, however, I see signs of change, reminders that everything balances over time. My core principles are driven by the principles of individual freedom. I believe first in freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of action so long as that action does not directly harm anyone else. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I find this world highly disturbing. Today is not a good day for individual freedom. Most of the trends are running against it, because people are afraid, afraid of terrorism, afraid of nuclear weapons, afraid of global warming, afraid of changing technology, and afraid of all those other things they have no control over. Fear has always been, and always will be, the greatest enemy of human freedom.

Against such threats, people naturally try to control collectively what they can’t control individually. Governments get bigger, regulations get more stringent, people start blaming each other, lumping one another into groups, labeling, stereotyping. A new narrative grows, us against them, the people causing problems versus the people with solutions, both within nations, and between them. Conflict ensues. Increasingly severe measures are needed just to keep people from turning on one another, and the vicious cycle continues.

Still, the universe loves balance, and when there’s a force, there’s always a counterforce, even if its hidden beneath several layers of chaos. There’s always a new trend, a next wave, that will eventually overcome the current cycle, no matter how vicious. I see signs of the coming counterwave already forming. It’s further along and closer than you might imagine. How quickly it overcomes the current cycle depends upon the usual variable, how decent and open minded people are willing to be.

Among the awful things in the news the past weeks, I came across a somewhat obscure story from a foreign land. A small region in northeastern Spain, Catalonia, recently declared independence from the central government, a bold move. Naturally, the central government objected, and only time will tell whether the conflict is resolved peacefully or otherwise.

I don’t know enough details about the Catalan movement to say who’s right or wrong. Both sides will claim to have the majority of people’s support, both will attempt to claim the moral high ground, and both will blame the other side for all the conflict. The truth will be more convoluted, the people will have many different opinions, and neither side will be pure as driven snow. There may be violence and death, or there may be only votes, marches, and people carrying signs. It all depends on how reasonable people are willing to be, and how far those in power are willing to go to keep it. One side will eventually be declared the winner, and the other the loser, but that matters less than people think. The important thing is that questions will be raised, grievances will be aired, and change will eventually take place. Whichever side wins, at least they’re asking the right questions, and fighting the right battles. Only honest conflicts can produce any real resolution.

In any conflict or debate, I personally favor whichever side gives the individual more freedom, and as I see it, as an admittedly uninformed party at a great distance, I tend to believe that smaller government, closer to the people, produces greater freedom, so I applaud the declaration, and I earnestly hope that the leaders of the independence movement are acting for the right reasons and with the people’s interests at heart. I earnestly hope that a resolution can be reached without violence, because armed conflict is usually unnecessary, and always costly. That said, I won’t automatically condemn people for taking up arms against their government. Sometimes people in power become so entrenched, closed minded, or selfish, that they cease to be thinking people, and become obstacles, and some obstacles can only be removed by force.

I hope it doesn’t come to that, but whether the conflict is resolved peacefully or otherwise, this conflict is particularly noteworthy. Civil wars are not uncommon, and nations are always rising and falling throughout human history. This, however, feels different. During my life, many, many new nations have come to be, some came to be with the stroke of a pen as a result of the breakup of the former Soviet Union, while others took shape as third world countries split along ethnic and racial lines. These were a result of old conflicts, the last shots fired of the cold war, the long term damage of European colonialism from the previous three centuries.

Catalonia is not a result of any of these processes. The Catalans do have their own language and culture, but that’s been true for centuries. Catalonia has had varying degrees of autonomy from the Spanish Crown and later the Spanish government throughout its history, but this dynamic is not unique. This pattern goes by many names, our founding fathers called it federalism, but the idea of dividing power between local and central authority is not new. Most nations have significant numbers of residents who speak other languages, including this one, and many have regions which are autonomous in many ways. Catalonia has been a part of Spain since the country itself was formed by a unification of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, facilitated by the marriage of the co-monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. Catalonia has, thus, been a part of Spain since the voyages of Columbus. It has been with Spain through kings and monarchies, revolutions, civil wars, religious wars, and world wars.  Whatever those differences between Spaniard and Catalan, they were never significant enough before to warrant something as serious as a declaration of independence. Why is this happening now?

The answer, I think, lies in the problems with too many people trying to do too much at the collective level, at the expense of individual freedom. People don’t like being told what to do, what to think, how to act, or what language to speak. People don’t like having someone who they consider ‘not one of us’ deciding their fate. They certainly don’t like being ignored or having their voices drowned out by an increasingly large and noisy crowd. Having government closer to people gives them a sense of control, of having power over their own lives, of being a part of a unified community, not just a number on a tax roll or name on a census form. It gives people a sense of self determination, and considerable blood has been shed for the sake of self determination through human history. People will feel better about their government when their rulers are their neighbors, not people so different they may as well be foreigners. Their capital is a few hundred miles away instead of a few thousand. Their laws reflect their own values, not some abstract lowest common denominator compromise, or the whims of giants who take their profit and their power from a world of borderless gray sameness, a world without color, without character, a world without differences, without unique cultures, unique peoples, unique individuals.

I’m no prophet, but I’ll take a shot at making a prophecy and state succinctly, that that gray borderless utopia, or dystopia if you prefer, isn’t going to happen. There’s never going to be a one world unity where everybody gets along because everybody is the same. Oh, there may be a “world government” at some point. Some would argue the UN already constitutes such a body, albeit one with a very limited ability to accomplish anything substantive. Still, there’s never going to be a world without differences, without conflict, without distinct cultures, or without borders. The boundary lines can always be redrawn, and we can always change exactly what those lines mean, but they will always be there. I personally think that’s a good thing. I don’t want to live in a world without differences, without conflict, without arguments and debates. I don’t want to live in a beehive, an ant colony, or a Borg cube.

The counterforce is already there, and it’s beginning to surface. Brexit was an early sign. The Catalan independence movement is an early sign. At this moment, there are several groups advocating for the independence of California, and that too, is a sign of the coming counterwave. There are subtler signs as well, a preference among hipsters for microbrews and small batch roasted coffee, a growing resentment of the powers and practices of the largest corporations. Those waves are yet small, but they’re growing, and one day, sooner or later, they will topple giant corporations and sweep governments aside.

The forces are beginning to shift, and new conflicts are taking shape. The next era will be a conflict to decide how much we want to be unified as a species, and how much we want to be divided. We will have to decide how much power we’re willing to cede to megalithic organizations and how much we’re willing to fight to keep. We’ll have to face our fears, and decide how much we let them rule our actions, because there will always be a pied piper willing to free us from our worries in exchange for our freedom, always a tinfoil savior willing to rescue us from whatever enemy is at the gates, if we but bend a knee.

Freedom requires courage from those who would practice it. We may have to accept that we can’t prevent every terrorist attack or mass shooting. We may have to adapt to a world with a higher temperature, a higher sea level, and all the associated problems. We may have to accept people who will never agree with our values and who see the world in a different way. We may have to pay more for bread, televisions, plastic, or gasoline. We may have to accept that our collective fate is beyond our collective control (the wiser men and women among us already understand this basic truth). We may have to accept, or at least ignore, those who hate us, those who condemn us, those who don’t accept everyone, those who want their own territory reserved for those like themselves. It may cost us time, money, and blood. Like anything of value, freedom isn’t free. To quote a favorite super hero movie, “The price of freedom is high, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay.” So let freedom ring.

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