Copyright Estate of Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos via Brigitte Freed via Slate.
There's an old joke, retold by David Foster Wallace in his 2005 commencement speech to graduates of Kenyon College, that goes like this.
Two young fish are happily swimming along one morning when they meet an older fish coming the other way. "Morning boys!" booms the older fish. "Isn't the water lovely today?" The young fish swim on in silence for a minute or two. Then one looks over at the other and says, "What the hell is water?"
I thought of this story when reading some of the approving commentaries on our government's decision not to join America and France's military action in Syria. Of course, the most urgent and important question today is what happens next in Syria, but given I don't feel qualified to chew on that one, I'm going to be more parochial and talk about Britain.
A common theme among those who broadly approved of the government's decision was that we in Britain need to shed our delusions of power; that we should stop running around the world making arrests and issuing parking tickets, accept that we're just one medium-sized country among others, and stop pretending - particularly post-Iraq - that we have any claim to the moral high ground. It's the posh version of the mood in the country at large: let's just stay out of this stuff, it only leads to trouble. I think the real delusions lie on this side of the argument.
Marx was wrong: it's actually freedom that's the opiate of the masses. People who aren't free think about the meaning of freedom all the time: people who have always lived in free societies assume it's the natural state of being.
But it's not. It's very far from that. Freedom is an aberration. Societies where people are free to speak their mind, free from persecution, and free to vote their rulers out of power, are outliers. They are rare today, and, if you take history as your universe, almost vanishingly so. If human civilization in all its different forms is about 10,000 years old, liberal democracy has come along at one minute to midnight. This whole thing of people of different races and religions saying what they want and marrying each other and voting for their government and somehow rubbing along as equals without killing each other? It's an experiment, a novelty, a crazy idea.
And we don't know how it is going to turn out, this experiment. We just don't have enough data on it, because the dataset is too small to be definitive. Abraham Lincoln framed the battle at Gettysburg and thus the whole of America's Civil War as a question: can any free nation endure? We shouldn't assume his question has been answered.
Here's one thing we have established: free societies rest on the application of violence. Samuel Huntingdon remarked that "the West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do."
It's grim but necessary to remember that free societies haven't just sprung forth naturally, but have had to be fought for. Many thousands died in the Union cause, and this week's anniversary of Martin Luther King's speech reminds us that a century later, more had to die so that America could become free. In Europe, free societies only endure because millions died for them in two world wars.
I can't think of any fundamental reason why the future will be different, in this regard, from the past. Non-free societies tend to be quite trigger-happy, and their rulers more prepared to commit moral atrocities on their own people and on those from other countries. So somebody needs to stand up and fight for our fragile experiment or it will disappear.
Today, how many countries in the world are both benign (by which I mean, very broadly, sharing our commitment to a free society) and capable of applying organised violence? A handful: America of course. Then France, the UK, Canada and Australia. There are others, but we're talking about small forces, rarely deployed in combat. So if Britain withdraws from this tiny group, well, it's not like nobody will notice, like we can just slink out the door. Great work guys, keep it going, we're off down the pub.
We will be saying, effectively, "America - do you mind if you we freeload off you?" I think, eventually, America will mind.
It's not imperial self-delusion that should keep us prepared to engage in violent conflicts in which we have no direct interest. It's a commitment to this society of free societies, and the propagation of its most basic values, like respect for the lives of those who are very different from us.
It's also - ultimately, if not immediately - about self-preservation. The less we exert our power, the more others like China and Russia will step into the vacuum we leave. If we stop being prepared to fight for the freedom of others, we will wake up one morning and find that there is no water.