Rising above the bustle brings the obvious into view - Business Day

Jan 18, 2018
18 January 2018 - Where freedom has been fought for and won, it is ironic that choices are so often reduced rather than expanded by the very environment that is meant to guarantee them


By Michael Morris

There’s a lot to be said for trying to get above the bustle to exploit the advantage of seeing things all the more clearly for just what they are.

On a recent flight to Johannesburg, a brief glimpse of the landscape on a banking turn yielded an unexpected insight into what it means to be free to choose and, in a sense, to be uncomplicatedly human.

Far below, the unmistakable geometry of peri-urban settlement registered as a neat patchwork of lines and squares, of dusty fields and ruler-straight roads cleanly intersecting at junctions and nodes of habitation.

Here was a picture of the landscape brought to order and made useful by a plan; the stamp of authority. But it was the subversive element in the outline that was at once arresting and thrilling.

A tracery of footpaths, defiantly at odds with the regular geometry, evoked the truer human presence. The paths cut corners, snaked across open ground, converged on junctions of their own, revealing people’s daily choices in determining the most efficient and convenient ways to get around in the least time, with the least effort.

The image offered itself as a metaphor for a kind of wisdom, and for freedom, the abandonment of the approved form for the freely chosen one.

This fleeting glimpse of the veld south of Johannesburg took me back to a fondly remembered story from my childhood, an account by my grandfather of events that, even in the 1960s, seemed to belong to another world.

The muddied, bloodied western front of First World War France was a theatre my brother and I innocently and often revived, flying sorties with our Airfix models of Sopwiths and Fokker triplanes over our Kimberley garden.

But it was quite something to hear about the real thing. Newly commissioned in 1916, grandfather Morris had been ordered forward just outside the city of Arras with an anti-aircraft searchlight section of the Royal Engineers where, despite hiding their apparatus under trees and camouflage netting, they endured repeated pin-point bombing by the German aircraft.

Realising that if he could see the battery the way the German pilots did he would better understand the drubbing his section was receiving, Morris asked a friend in the Royal Flying Corps to take him aloft.

From the observer seat in a Farman biplane, it became all too clear what had not been obvious on the ground: in their to-ing and fro-ing between stints of duty, always following the most direct route, the searchlight crews had made paths of flattened grass which, from the air, were vectors indicating the precise location of the hidden searchlights.

Undoubtedly, in wartime, such elementary freedoms as getting from A to B with the least fuss can come at a cost. But where freedom has been fought for and won, it is ironic that choices are so often reduced rather than expanded by the very environment that is meant to guarantee them.

The agency of the wisely choosing footpath maker – the impulse of the individual – is too often restrained and subjected to the intolerance and assumed authority of the greater plan and those who insist they have created it to serve the common interest.

True enough, the dirigiste inclination to impose order can sometimes seem like a good idea. If people are left to their own devices, this reasoning goes, the free-for-all that must ensue is surely dangerous.

A clinching riposte to this tepid conviction that real freedom is not good for people comes from a man who stood firm for liberty in the 1970s. Cushrow Irani, the veteran editor of one of India’s leading newspapers, The Statesman, crafted it in response to premier Indira Gandhi’s enthusiasm for censorship in the name of the national interest.

"There are no freedoms so dangerous," Irani told her, "as those that are not exercised." Perhaps one needs to rise above the bustle to see this truth for what it really is.

*Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. 

Read the article on BDLive here.

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