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Remembering freedom: a tribute to George Jonas
Remembering freedom: a tribute to George Jonas

Remembering freedom: a tribute to George Jonas 

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George Jonas, 1935-2016, was arguably Canada’s greatest polymath. Fittingly, for his great insights towards making ours a better country he was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2013. In 2018 he was further memorialized via the newly minted George Jonas Freedom Award, a now annual June event in Toronto.

It would be nice if freedom needed only yearly reflection, but these days there’s no shortage of issues and daily news that continues to beg the question, “What would George have said about that?”  

Such a question would not arise, the memory of a man so strongly linger, nor the need for an award even exist except for freedom being constantly under attack within our public discourse while too few Jonas-worthy sages remain to eloquently come to its defense.

The problem is that a basic tenet of our modern Western world, liberty, requires a basic foundation of that same world—enlightened rational thought. There’s an ever waning supply of this commodity now, seldom found in politician or pundit, rarely advocated by media or magistrate, and infrequently demonstrated amongst professor or pupil.

Enlightened (vs. naïve) rational thought requires a thorough knowledge of history and a deep insight into the nature of man. Learned on both fronts, George Jonas had the unique ability to look at the world and clearly see things for what they were. For example, when pundits and politicians became ecstatic that toppling of oppressive dictators would spring forth democracy far and wide, George casually pointed out that merely breaking eggs doesn’t lead to omelets (that’s been tried before); democracy does require one essential ingredient though—democrats.  

Rationality of the truly enlightened kind is not emotive.  Rather, it is clear and concise, eminently astute, and able to guard against being willfully subjective, wisely conceited or subconsciously motivated.  Such perspicuous thinking can be aptly demonstrated in George’s talent for aphoristic brevity: Totalitarianism—“coercion without cosmetics”; The Canadian version— “statism with a human face”; The Supreme Court’s definition of hate speech —“speech we hate”; The Academy’s curriculum—the dogma of the day.”

Rationality might invoke the notion of intellect (or intellectuals), but it’s really that of wisdom. No doubt a University graduate has intelligence, but their Degree confers no insight as to their sagacity.  Or as George would say, “You need a PhD to teach ‘the novel’ to graduate students, but for writing the greatest novel you need nothing, not even a high school diploma.”  

Well, perhaps nothing except wisdom and insight as evidenced by the non-PhD pearls from Jonas: “Right and wrong are only reflected by the laws, not determined by them.” Eradicating falsehood is not the same as finding truth. “If you write down your rights and freedoms, you lose them.” Do not choose something in the marketplace of ideas until you know both its value and its price. “Misdeeds don’t invalidate ideas any more than ideas validate misdeeds.”

A famous Declaration once stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, but unfortunately the concepts and complexions of liberty and good government are not self-evident (if they were, we wouldn’t have needed a Jonas to point them out to us). As such, we need to curate these ideas, cultivate them and pass them down to our children and grandchildren so that the next generation remains aware of freedom’s value (and forewarned as to the price of alternatives).

Some basics: our inherent rights are those of “freedom from” not “freedom to”; good government aims to conserve the citizen’s conscience, not compel it; a good constitution serves not to sanction the dogma of the day, but to safeguard against it.

Regrettably we’ve been long drifting away from this mind-set.  Today individual rights are progressively trampled upon by newly tiered collective “rights” with many political, corporate, academic and special interest groups toiling to impose their ideology on every man, woman, child and institution.  

To them, society is comprised of the oppressed or the exploiters; naturally this requires justice, and if you’re on the wrong side of this equation you lose. Losers need not appeal for recourse to the media or judiciary as these estates increasingly accredit this new math (or this old history).

The thing that enables this perspective is the establishment of preferred groups and favoured viewpoints, duly hierarchized from progressive deserving angel to anachronistic callous demon.  Since neither conceit nor compassion confer wisdom, this kind of calculus is not a product of enlightened rationality: for groupings and subdivisions are endless, life itself is simply imperfect, and the greatest enemy in a free society will always be oneself.  

George Jonas understood that if we’re going to have a ranking of values, we had better get them right.  For him there was no debate, freedom was simply, “the first in my hierarchy of values.” Further, Jonas was wary of wrapping up one’s identity too strongly in any group, and with good reason – membership in the collective tends to make one lose all perspective.

Group identity is divisive by definition, self-aggrandizing in affirmation, even fanatical in deportment.  With groups driven by a social agenda born of estrangement, disaffection, misguided virtue or simply meaningless ennui, mass movements can arise.  These justice-seeking movements (of any stripe or spectrum) can be quite pernicious, and their most obsequious, self-righteous or narcissistic adherents are no friend to freedom.

The result is the state of affairs we see today where thought is policed, speech silenced, ideas disqualified, private matters dictated, and if anyone steps out of line they’re to be deposed, fined, stripped of employment, boycotted, barred from commerce, disinvited, defunded, de-sponsored, de-accredited or de-platformed.

The most alarming thing about such conduct is when it’s no longer an occasional bullied response to caterwauling cabals, but contritely endorsed by a group’s targets and ratified by society as a whole out of a sense, as George observed, of being “socially concerned.” Once freedom has lost the higher moral ground, we are indeed susceptible to the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s “mastery of the consciousness.”

In an autonomous society views and factions will come into conflict, but they don’t have to end up in the illiberal outcomes we see today.  How properly then, as Solon penned, “to let not either touch the other’s right?”

The primacy of the individual is paramount to liberty, but with liberty properly employed, personal pursuits are tempered upon realizing there are also obligations, we’re all on the same side and there’s a greater maleficent foe to keep in check.  Even if a pursuit be born of piety and good intentions, take heed: the best of ideals can lead to the worst of powers; worthy principles exaggerated—to tyranny.

The key to having harmony without tyranny is finding the equipoise, a shared liberty properly circumscribed where happiness can be pursued freely and relations governed by a strong sense of moral conscience and duty—not by emotional concerns, mob rule, autocratic diktat or judicial fiat.  To twist a Jonas metaphor, we’re all on a communal subway, but if groups strive to reach only their rightful destination, we forsake the far greater destination of liberty itself.

For those who favour that greater destination, there’s at least one yearly dinner event.  For those who’ve offered more than just sentiments, a corresponding freedom award.  And for those of us with a lingering nostalgia for enlightened rational thought—no better inspiration and namesake than that of George Jonas.

The second annual George Jonas Freedom Award Dinner returns to the Eglinton Grand, 400 Eglinton Avenue West, Toronto. A reception commences at 5:30 p.m. This year’s recipient is Christie Blatchford. There are a limited number of tickets still available.

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