Reflections on Freedom

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.” With this famous quote by Rousseau ringing in my ears I ventured up to the Phillip Bacon Gallery on Level 4 of SLQ to check out the new exhibition ‘’Freedom Then, Freedom Now”.

The word itself is easy enough to trace. It comes from the late 14th century old English freodom meaning “power of self-determination, state of free will; emancipation from slavery, deliverance; exemption from arbitrary or despotic control, civil liberty”

The exhibition has some superb examples of how the powers that be have repeatedly girded up their moral petticoats to step over the sometimes messy puddles that keep societies free and fair.

 Here, you man ! Where's that vote you promised me?

“Here, you man ! Where’s that vote you promised me?” Copied and digitised from an image appearing in The Worker, 17 November 1900. SLQ Negative number: 194027.

It will come as no surprise of course to discover that it’s always the same groups in society that cop it in the neck. Women, indigenous, gays, protesters, writers and artists and people of varying religions all come in for some heavy handed treatment over time. Although we are not in Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face forever” territory there is something very sinister about not allowing certain sections of society the right to shape that society by denying them voting rights. Queensland was the second last Australian State to grant women the right to vote in state elections in 1905 but indigenous people of either gender were not afforded this basic right until 1967.

I also noticed a pink triangle and the rainbow flag in the exhibition and as a gay man I was well aware of what both of these symbols meant. Along with the Jews and the Gypsies and other groups deemed to be undesirable by the Nazi’s were homosexuals. I had no concept of what it would mean to be marked for death simply because my very existence had no worth in the eyes of a relatively small number of people.

The polar opposite to this despicable stain on our collective consciousness is the story of the rainbow flag. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to hold a high public office in a major American city challenged gay rights activist Gilbert Baker to come up with a symbol of pride for the gay community that was a positive alternative to the pink triangle and its attendant horrors. Baker said he wanted to convey the idea of diversity and inclusion, using “something from nature to represent that our sexuality is a human right”. If only a positive alternative could be found to the continual intransigence of our lacklustre politicians.

The exhibition explores freedom in the religious, racial, sexual, social and political spheres and often has us found wanting.

Not all curtailing of freedoms are bad though.  What we now know about the dangers of passive smoking has led to ever tightening laws surrounding where people can spark up and blow their clouds of death while the anti- vaccers now have to choose between government money and their morals.

If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance then the value of that freedom should be an eternal reluctance to surrender those freedoms so cheaply.

Visit the Freedom then, Freedom now exhibition, 5 May 2017 – 1 Oct 2017, Philip Bacon Heritage Gallery, level 4, State Library, Stanley Place, South Bank.

David McMahon

Library Technician, Information Services