This is the memorable message sent by Lord Russell, the world’s greatest living philosopher, to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in New York Dec. 15 on the presentation to him of its annual Tom Paine award:
You honor me in a way I deeply appreciate. Tom Paine symbolizes for Americans the articulation of a radical consciousness that human welfare and intellectual integrity depend upon courageous insistence upon freedom for men and women. Freedom can not effectively exist where it is understood to mean no more than the toleration of occasional differences about matters which are of small importance.
Disputes, for example, about the comparative merit of consumer produce or the total of farm expenditures may be cited as examples of freedom, but only by those who are dead to its life and deaf to its death. The vision of Tom Paine was that of a serious public involvement in the direction of those affairs which affected peoples’ lives. He struggled for the right to partake in radical change and in the constant debate as to how the good life might be provided for the American people.
Our Fossilized Civil Liberties
Values and great beliefs live on after their institutional expressions have ceased to live. So it is with the nominal civil liberties enjoyed today either by Americans or by citizens of other countries.
Thousands of years of human effort, of great suffering, of unique achievement are in daily jeopardy because the absence of the freedom striven after by Tom Paine prevents men from forestalling consummate folly.
Today, the exercise of power is so remote from the daily lives of men and women, and the control of the very springs of thought so concentrated in the hands of those sycophantic to power, that freedom is increasingly an abstraction with which we are deluded.
Delusion takes the form of public incantation over values and beliefs which are dishonored even as they are invoked. President Kennedy speaks of human freedom as he takes actions which may condemn hundreds of millions of human beings to agonizing death. Future generations are forfeited to the paranoia of those who compulsively act for garrison states.
So it is that power possessed by the few condemn us all to futile death and empties our formal rights of meaning or of viable life. Only to the extent that we are able to remove those who would perpetrate this crime against humanity can ‘Freedom’ be seriously our possession of our right.
I feel honored in a way I do not find easy to acknowledge. I am an Englishman and so was Tom Paine by birth. I believe that human freedom and the civilized ends to which that freedom was to have been directed, are not spoken for by the Governments of either of our two countries. I find it difficult to express the feelings I have upon receiving this award because I know how Tom Paine would feel about the country he left and the nation he helped to found.
The pity of it. The disgrace to all that is best in man’s long odyssey. The intolerable affront to the dignity of us all, contained in the readiness to annihilate whole continents in pursuit of the insane dictates of power.
If there is one message, one sentiment I should wish to give to you, it is that I can not bring myself to believe that mankind is so base that none of its representatives will struggle for a more excellent way of life, no matter the chances of success. Thank you for your honor to me. We share the conviction that the struggle must go on.”
Bertrand Russell, December 15, 1962