A neglected field of study in our schools is the history of ideas, which looks at how vital concepts emerge and evolve. This includes looking at the background and motivations of people who first propose these concepts, and how the ideas are propagated and transformed.
I’ve written in several columns about how it took the Enlightenment, and the idea that humans had values as individuals, to allow people to marry for love, rather than marrying someone chosen for you. This idea of the value of the individual was unthinkable when monarchs ruled with absolute power.
I wanted to focus today on another aspect of the long evolution of human rights, taking off from the famous “Four Freedoms” speech delivered by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Jan. 6, 1941.
The four freedoms are familiar to many of us because they are taught in schools all over the world: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
The four freedoms became a useful reference, even a core, for the much longer Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 70th anniversary of which was marked this week, on Dec. 10. Playing a key role in formulating and pushing for that universal declaration was Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of the US president who delivered the “Four Freedoms” speech.
Researching into the “Four Freedoms” speech, I was surprised to find out something that isn’t mentioned in schools: The speech was, in fact, intended to convince Americans to go to war.
When Roosevelt delivered his speech, actually a State of the Union Address for a new Congress, the Nazis had already invaded several countries in Europe and the Japanese had occupied much of China. With memories of World War I and its carnage, Americans were opposed to getting involved in another international conflict, but Roosevelt argued, in so many words, that Americans had to go to war for “the maintenance of American rights and principles of peaceful commerce.”
Roosevelt’s speech latched on four freedoms to which Americans could easily relate. Freedom of speech and freedom of worship were already familiar to Americans, given that they were enshrined in the US Constitution. Freedom from want, or economic security, resonated with Americans because they had just gone through the Depression, a time of great economic crisis. Freedom from fear was a promise for the future where global disarmament would reach the point where wars could no longer be waged.
In the end, though, it was less the “Four Freedoms” speech than the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, (Dec. 8, our time) that led to American (and Filipino) involvement in the
Second World War.
I am not saying the “Four Freedoms,” and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are “tainted” and should be discarded. In fact, now more than in 1941, human rights have become even more important for human survival.
As in 1941, the concepts of “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” need to be discussed more, especially in the ways governments and ruling political parties distort and use these concepts to justify oppressive policies.
With populist leaders emerging in so many countries, we often hear this argument: “Let’s dispense first with all this talk of human rights and democracy so we can develop, so you will be free from want.”
We heard that during martial law. We hear that today—empty promises of better times coming ahead if we would allow authoritarian rule. In the end, we are left without democracy, and without any improvement in our economic circumstances (or, worse, an economy in shambles).
Freedom from fear takes on new meanings in the Philippines, where we have been told and continue to be told that we need fear to discipline Filipinos and allow us a better life. Martial law should have taught us that fear is, in fact, the most powerful weapon for dictators to keep a nation in shackles—first fearful, later no longer caring as long as our own narrow interests are not compromised.
A history of ideas approach will show that concepts of human rights emerged across many cultures. In the Philippines, we will find that concepts of freedoms, and responsibilities, offered powerful inspiration to the Katipunan and the revolt against Spain, continuing all through the Philippine-American War and the struggle to regain independence. People died for those freedoms all throughout those struggles and into the Japanese occupation, and into our republic, through martial law, and the continuing long dark nights of our times.
If we were to seriously look back at the “Four Freedoms” in the Philippine context, we may well argue that a brighter future depends not on choosing between, but fighting for both freedom from want and freedom from fear.
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