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Seven paths to peace

The Path of Freedom

He will defend the rule of law and order to preserve the liberty of the individual so that he may enjoy freedom of thought, speech and assembly, freedom from persecution and aggression, and freedom from want and fear.

(From the Outline of Policy in International Service.)

FREEDOM IS A basic element of civilized society; it is one of the principles enunciated by most governments today. More words have been written and spoken about freedom than about most subjects – and, yet, few topics have suffered more in the hands of men who, consciously or unconsciously, have used, and are using, it as an ideological tool to advance selfish causes.

The political, economic, and religious implications of freedom must be left to larger volumes and to more philosophical discussions, but Rotarians are deeply concerned about freedom. They have expressed themselves in word and deed about it.

The importance attached to freedom by Rotarians is amply demonstrated by the amount of attention given to it in the Outline of Policy in international service. Preceding the most pointed statement, quoted at the opening of this chapter, is a full delineation of what Rotarians mean by “freedom”:

The Rotary ideal of service finds expression only where there is liberty of the individual, freedom of thought, speech and assembly, freedom of worship, freedom from persecution and aggression, and freedom from want and fear.

Freedom, justice, truth, sanctity of the pledged word and respect for human rights are inherent in Rotary principles and are also vital to the maintenance of international peace and order and to human progress.

Why this deliberate emphasis? It can be explained only by the importance that the compilers of the Outline, fortified by their consultation with Rotarians in many parts of the world, attached to the principle that is invoked. Liberty of the individual, his dignity and freedom of thought, have special meanings for Rotarians. When freedom is destroyed, order and progress go with it.

With the growth of totalitarian governments in Europe and Asia between the world wars, Rotary clubs became targets of persecution. In one country a policy of total regimentation led to the disbanding of Rotary clubs. In another, Rotarians were jailed for “dangerous thoughts” because their membership in and “International” was suspect. In another place Rotary was suppressed by “a new political philosophy which has overcome individual thought as the structural defect of a whole epoch, and has replaced it by community-conscious thought.”

The challenge to the integrity of Rotary was confronted squarely and openly in annual convention – the only place and time where the organization takes concerted action. At the Havana ( Cuba ) convention in 1940, a resolution declared that where freedom, justice, truth, sanctity of the pledged word, and respect for human rights do not exist, Rotary cannot live nor its ideals prevail.

Although Rotary has no secrets, no ritual, no rigid uniformity, it was in fact a symbol of freedom to dictators. Retreat rather than advance became the order of the day in countries where governments assumed totalitarian powers and recognized in Rotary an agency that could not be controlled for the purposes of propaganda and persecution. Before the outbreak of the second world war, Rotary was the target of official directives in several countries.

In spite of obstacles produced by daylight raids, blackouts, and flying bombs, many Rotary clubs continued to meet. The stimulus to thoughtfulness and helpfulness increased as Rotarians picked their way among the ruins. During the blitz itself the Rotary Club of London formed several new clubs within the territory originally assigned to it. Around the world, great international projects were initiated for the relief of victims of war, and for aid to prisoners and extending hospitality to troops far from home. Most dramatic picture, perhaps, of Rotary in a world at war was the report of an eye witness of a Rotary meeting that took place during an island invasion:

“In the semi-darkness of a stinking tunnel, met a group of seven Rotarians, with wounded men writhing in agony around them. The only civilian with them was the club president who had escaped … in a small boat. He rapped the table with his gavel, the butt of a pistol he had snatched from the soldier next to him, and called the meeting of what was left of the Rotary club to order.”

So, in the face of struggle and suppression, the concern remained for something which meant freedom. Some Rotary clubs continued to meet secretly under other names. One club, for instance, became a choir and named itself for the grouse – which does not sing. Another club met regularly in a restaurant frequented by enemy officers. The records of many Rotary clubs were seized, and the president of at least one club was imprisoned for being a Rotarian.

After the war there was a rapid revival of Rotary in countries where it had been suppressed. The eagerness with which clubs sought the restoration of their charters after the war can be attributed partly to the stand taken by Rotarians in convention at Havana in 1940. It was clear that, once conditions were right, nothing need delay the resumption of fellowship and voluntary service. The much-lamented absence of Rotary clubs in certain countries does not represent any decision by Rotary International; it is the conditions in these countries which exclude Rotary.

Obviously, the Rotarian has a special reason for being drawn toward the path of freedom; namely, the preservation of Rotary, besides much else that he holds dear – perhaps all else. Never in human history was the issue more clearly drawn. Between a dark age of despotism and a golden age of freedom every man must choose, and often he may find that the foes of freedom are “they of his own household”. The battle is not only along national lines. There is a fifth column within the gates – perhaps within his own mind. There is the temptation to defend freedom by denying freedom to those who seem to betray it.

A visitor to the unpretentious flat in Rome where lived Prime Minister de Gasperi was shocked by the blare of a phonograph in the next apartment. It was playing “Giovinezza”, the Fascist anthem, the marching song of the party which had imprisoned de Gasperi and reduced his family to starvation. The prime minister shook his head ruefully. “It’s the Countess”, he explained. “She’s trying to relieve my boredom and solitude by playing her records. Until now, she only played them at seven o’clock when she knew I was getting up to go to the office, and again at nine in the evening when I cam home for dinner. But since my illness she plays them all day long; ‘Giovinezza’ … ‘To Arms’ … ‘Hymn to Rome ’ … ‘The Empire’.”

“You should complain!”

“I have,” replied de Gasperi. “I even wrote a letter to Premier de Gasperi, signed by myself and all my family. But Premier de Gasperi answered that as head of a free government he is bound to respect individual liberties, including the right to play one’s favorite songs and that therefore he could not possibly interfere in any private citizen’s affairs.”

How far should, or can, a free society go in giving personal freedom pre-eminence? Teachers often illustrate for children by saying that “your personal freedom ends where your playmate’s freedom begins.” Where is that? At what point must individual freedom be subjugated to the will of the group?

What, indeed, does freedom mean in the diverse regions of the world?

At the end of the second world war an American correspondent attended a luncheon in Europe where several Russians were also in attendance. He found himself seated between a Russian military photographer and a Russian interpreter. The photographer was recounting achievements of the Russian army, and the American turned to the interpreter: “Ask him what he thinks this war was all about.”

The interpreter asked the question of the photographer, and the answer cam forth like a bullet. “Svoboda!” said the Russian – “Freedom!” As if to say to the American, “Didn’t you know – you poor ignorant fellow.”

“Ask him – what is freedom?” the American said.

“Freedom?” answered the Russian, hesitating, then firmly – “Freedom is knowing how to help the other fellow. …”

Around the world in scores of places men are struggling for freedom, and the goals of freedom have been confiscated by men whose actions contradict their concern. Admitting that part of the problem is one of semantics, the fact is that freedom means a hundred different things to a hundred different people.

The problem of definition was demonstrated when representatives of 58 nations joined to explore the meaning of freedom. They combed through history and traditions, through famous documents in the struggle for liberty around the world. They disputed over phrasings and implications, and although after more than two years their Declaration of Human Rights was approved by 48 nations and opposed by none (10 nations abstained), the dispute is by no means over.

For the Rotarian who would “defend the rule of law and order to preserve the liberty of the individual” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights presents an interesting opportunity. Rotary International was among the first organizations to provide copies to its member clubs for discussion. Rotary clubs in many countries organized debates in their communities. Studies by international service committees were published in pamphlet form. Scores of radio stations broadcast panel discussions by Rotarians on the theme of human rights. Schools were invited organize essay contests with prizes awarded by Rotary clubs, and the anniversary of the Declaration’s adoption (10 December) has been observed in various ways.

While defenders of freedom have made abundant use of the Declaration as an educational device for clarifying and confirming the concept of freedom, subsequent attempts to establish the rule of law through an international covenant of human rights and measures of implementation have aroused the disquiet of some. A primary objection is that different nations have advanced further than others in giving effect to different aspects of freedom through domestic legislation and popular consent, and, under these circumstances, to agree on a legal formulation acceptable to all nations tends to produce the lowest common denominator. If it is to be acceptable to all, it is likely to be satisfactory to none. Such a watered-down formulation of freedom, it is alleged, might actually weaken the existing protections of human rights in some countries.

Rotary clubs which have proved their vigilance in pointing to this danger also suggest that public opinion in the community is the critical factor in preserving freedom. International agreement on definitions of freedom and procedures of implementation have little or no meaning unless there is capacity and willingness to understand the meaning of freedom at the community level.

Rotary clubs provide a forum in which freedom and human rights can be thoroughly discussed. From such deliberations the individual Rotarian can form his own conclusions based upon the principles of Rotary, upon conditions in his own community, and upon his own – and his friends’ – insight. He will, or will not, defend the principles of freedom where he is. No international policing could possibly protect the rights of almost three billion persons – 3,000 million individuals. Primary responsibility, therefore, must be in the local community and it is there, in his own home town, that the influence of the Rotarian in defense of human rights can be most usefully exerted.

One line of the defense of freedom – freedom of discussion – is in the weekly meeting of the Rotary club. Here, in the friendly atmosphere of Rotary, is a proper place for exchange of views. True, the controversial nature of many problems – especially international problems – presents difficulties and dangers, but is it not one of the goals of Rotary membership to replace political passion with a desire for membership to replace political passion with a desire for understanding? We cannot escape controversial issues. How we face them is one measure of the club’s mettle.

“I love the subdued chuckle that runs through a club,” said the president of a Rotary club in England . “I love the subdued murmur of dissent.” This is the atmosphere of Rotary – friendly, familiar fellowship which bears up under strong difference of opinion.

A past president of Rotary International declared:

Divergence of view is the very pith of Rotary. In church and trade association we explore ideas with people we agree with. The germ of Rotary is bringing different kinds of men together; the butcher, the baker, the lawyer, the doctor. Through differences, not similarities, Rotary seeks understanding. Because in Rotary we disagree without being disagreeable, many differences are resolved. But the fundamental is not that we must agree, only that we must explore and inform our minds so that our service to society as we go out of our meeting may be informed, intelligent service.

Rotarians have not only used the weekly meeting to stimulate thinking and to demonstrate the use of freedom; they have also adopted – or adapted – other types of meetings for the same purpose. The “fireside meeting”, or “porch meeting” in warmer climes, has become a basic part of the techniques of rotary. A wide range of topics has claimed the attention of Rotarians and their families in these informal, home meetings. The same is true in inter-city meetings, in inter-city general forums, and in other similar meetings organized to meet local needs and tastes.

In all such assemblies Rotarians have learned the value of personal participation; they are in increasing numbers substituting their own members for the imported “expert speaker”. Experts have their places, but Rotarians have learned that in this age of wide and rapid communications, with the availability of books and magazines and with easy access to other Rotarians in other lands, more Rotarians can – and must – become experts themselves.

An editor of a weekly bulletin in one club which made this discovery wrote:

We should have no attendance problems if all our programs were like the one we had last week. It was a surprise for many of us to discover how much talent and wisdom there is among our own members. And best of all, we need have no hesitation in getting back at them. Last week’s discussion went on long after the meeting. It is still going on.

If Rotarians are convinced that what they think is important enough to be stated publicly, they are likely to attach more value to what others think and say, and urge them to say it – which may be as important a facet of freedom as any other.

Adolphe A. Berle, Jr., for example, opines that all that constitutions, statutes, and courts can do is to preserve “rights” as permissions. The more dangerous threat, he says, is the piling up of forces in society which influence men not to make use of these permissions:

They are the deadening forces which give every motive to an individual not to let his thought range, not to disagree, not to open unpleasant questions, not to shock or displease the group in which he moves. They add up to a sort of paralyzing miasma of opinion which seems to think men’s lives and thoughts should come into the world without shock and leave it without velocity …

In the more sophisticated societies, the danger to freedom comes from lethargy and conformity – what Goethe called “the deadly commonplace that fetters us all” – while in many parts of newly developing regions the danger comes from too aggressive a concern for freedom – a passion for forcing freedom upon men who are not prepared to use it wisely and well.

Whatever may be the situation in a given nation, Rotarians in more than 100 countries and geographical regions are in a challenging position to demonstrate and to transmit principles of freedom on whatever level is called for – always within the framework of Rotary policy.

Since the end of the second world war more than 650 million people have been given independence – freedom. And there are millions more who are gathering to march toward freedom. There was a time when these millions received their freedom from others, but now the cause of freedom has become, in the words of Tom Paine, “the cause of all mankind.”

To millions who do not have it, and want it desperately, freedom is a bright hope and a rallying cry; to the few who fear it, it is more terrible than death; to those who have it, and cherish it, freedom is the foundation of human dignity and one of the paths to peace and plenty.

But there are those who fear it – even though they give lip service to it. During the years that 650 million persons received some kind of freedom in the form of independence, the same number, or more, were slipping behind various curtains of totalitarianism. Further, millions of persons in newly developing lands who wanted, first of all, to be themselves, were confused as to where they should fit in the world scheme. The problem was fairly stated by an American, the late Russell Davenport, who wrote: “Our idea of freedom does not seem to fit either the needs or the ideals of most of the people of the globe. There is something lacking in it that people want, something that they need, something that must sound in our words if our doctrine of freedom is to ring true. And we had now better find out what that ‘something’ is. For unless we can produce it communism will wholly capture, and will absorb, the cause of all mankind.

“There are ‘experts’ in the theory of freedom,” he continued, “as there are today experts in everything; but they are inclined to speak a highly specialized language of their own, a step removed from the ken of ordinary mortals. It is to the ordinary mortal, not the expert … to whom we refer … We have in mind those millions of persons who do not pretend to any special learning outside of their own professions, but who are nevertheless forced by the exigencies of democratic life, not only to think of themselves, but to provide leadership for others … “

He might have been speaking of Rotarians – Rotarians who assemble, discuss, write, worship, work and lead. They are in the vanguard of those who understand freedom, those who know that freedom, in the words of Thornton Wilder, is “a severe summons”. If freedom is to be held against surprise attack or against the insidious encroachments of conformity, the cost will be more than the proverbial “eternal vigilance”. The price has gone up.

The price is study, search, defend, serve – and the realization that freedom is more than having something: it is living something and wanting others to have it, too. Freedom is action for – not against; it is positive, vibrant, meaningful. It is indivisible, for in this age whenever freedom is denied to anyone anywhere, the freedom of everyone everywhere is in danger.

No nation can claim that it fully guarantees freedom and the protection of individual dignity. True, some are trying harder than others, but no person, no nation, has a right to boast. Freedom is a developing concept – a goal far out in advance of society – at the end of a path strewn with rocky detours. But that path is worth following, for it leads upward.

One of India ’s great poets, Tagore, said it well and for all mankind when he wrote:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Into that land of freedom, my Father, let my
Country awake.