But it is worth asking: are we free?

Are we co-responsible for the partial or progressive loss of individual or collective freedom?

There is a phrase attributed to Adolf Hitler that, if not his, it's ben trovata: “I relieve you of the heavy burden of freedom because you are not able to bear it”.

Whether it's him or not - I haven't found anything similar on the pages of Mein Kampf –, this horrendous statement takes up the following thesis of the Grand Inquisitor, by Dostoevsky (n' The Karamazov Brothers): “Never have men thought themselves as free as they are today, and yet they obediently laid down their freedom at our feet”.

In the novel of the brilliant Russian writer, this phrase appears in the mouth of the representative of the Inquisition during the harsh dialogue he has with a reincarnated Jesus Christ, in a Seville of the XNUMXth century, and after which he has him arrested, but it amazes her ability you still have to talk to us today, in a context so different from that.

The paradox in which it stretches us almost to the tear has perhaps never been as acute as it is today, especially in democratic societies: we have never considered ourselves as free as we are today, while freedom is abdicating a little bit every day.

And, since freedom is one of the main foundations of democracy, all of us who are aware of this paradox are afraid to respond negatively to the question “are we free?”, even when we feel it is increasingly threatened.

We prefer a reassuring “yes, we still are”, followed by a list of signs of its permanence in the society in which we work, consume, love, generate, live. And so we keep it up until the moment it dissipates. The truth is that the past has taught that, unless there is a bloody disruption, the disappearance of freedom becomes palpable only after it has been totally lost and populations are already overwhelmed by the effects of that disaster.

I am, in many dimensions of my life, a convinced believer in the “glass half full” perspective in the face of adversity, problems, obstacles. I learned, through suffering, that being able to give more importance to the “glass half full” than to its opposite relieves the torments of the soul and helps to overcome situations that seem impossible to overcome. However, it seems to me more and more imprudent to transpose this tool from psychology to the political plane.

In fact, with regard to this matter, I have successively preferred to look at the “half empty glass” as a surveillance mechanism. In this perspective, each regression, however small, marks a departure from the founding ideals of liberal democracies, programmatically created to promote the opposite of this.

In this context, the monstrous claim attributed to Hitler puts its finger on a painful wound: are we co-responsible for the partial or progressive loss of individual or collective freedom? It depends.

The truth is that, in this demand, we are not all on an equal footing: a precarious worker is not on the same level as a worker with a secure bond (which successive amendments to the Labor Laws have been weakening); a liberal professional who depends on a good relationship with, for example, government agencies, neither; a worker from the base of the organization does not have the same means as their bosses; and so on.

One of the aspects that most impressed me in exercising the position of dean was the myriad of times I felt the need to reinforce, among students and workers at the University that I often received, their right to speak freely with me. More than that impressed me and made me reflect on the countless times that my genuine appeal didn't work, no matter how much I did.

Direct observation of this enormous pathology of our democracy – very symptomatic whenever the fear of speaking or acting, for reasons of survival, takes precedence over the right to intervene, to denounce, to criticize – made me more aware of the advantage of focusing on my attention on the “glass half empty”.

Therefore, I left the rectory even more convinced that the more powerful we are, the more responsibilities we have in the imperative task of defending our freedom, it is true, but, above all, that of everyone else in a more fragile position than ours.

When the exercise of power, in top or intermediate positions, in government, public administration, companies, associations, schools, communities, does not integrate this dimension, it is necessarily malignant and is emptied of legitimacy, even if apparently seem not to miss it.

Letting democracy live in this guise is halfway there for someone to be more tempted to take away our freedom, because we have not been able to bear it. And, in reality, no dictator has ever withheld the freedom of a people without the explicit or tacit connivance of the powerful at various levels. The dictator is always a historical and social extension of the little dictators.

I cannot conclude without reminding us of a difficulty inherent in the daily and persistent struggle for Freedom. Its enemies are so sly (ah, how luminous that line by Sophia that I never tire of quoting: «The old vulture is wise and smoothes his feathers») that they claim this word for themselves. Take the name of the newly created extreme right-wing alliance in the European Parliament, "Europe of Nations and Liberties", in which, among others, the parties of Salvini and Marine Le Pen, the German AfD, the Finns and the Danish People's Party, under the baton of the invisible conductor who managed to bring Trump to power: the unspeakable Steve Bannon.

So let us ask ourselves and others every day: "Are we free?" And let's not be afraid of the answers, no matter how ambiguous, reckless or frightening they seem to us. And let us dare to find ourselves on the margins of uncertain time, with those answers in our eyes, in our mouths, in our hands.

The gain is in the collective consciousness, because only the union makes the strength.


Author António Branco is a professor and was rector of the University of Algarve


Note: The title of this chronicle adapts a verse-chorus of the song “A Noite”, by José Mário Branco