Freedom Is Worth the Risk

Davis, Elmer Holmes, 1890-1958


  • Elmer Davis discusses the importance of intellectual freedom to freedom and progress, and some of the difficulties that can come with such freedom.
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And now, This I Believe, a series of living philosophies presented in the hope they may help to strengthen and enrich your life. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. My good friend and colleague, Elmer Davis, once said that the business of the radio commentator is a job of adult education. Throughout his distinguished career, he has done just that. Three Peabody awards attest only in part to his accomplishments. Hear now his beliefs.
The philosopher George Santayana, at the age of eighty-eight, admits that things no longer seemed so simple to him as they did fifty years ago. Even those of us who have not reached Mr. Santayana's age must share that feeling; but we must act by
the best light we have, hoping that the light will grow brighter--and we have reason to hope it will, so long as men remain free to think. The most important thing in the world, I believe, is the freedom of the mind. All progress, and all other freedoms, spring from that. It is a dangerous freedom, but this is a dangerous world. You can't think right without running the risk of thinking wrong; but for any evils that may come from thinking, the cure is more thinking. Over much of the world, at present, the freedom of mind is suppressed. We have got to preserve it here, despite the efforts of very earnest men to suppress it--men who say, and perhaps believe, that they are actuated by patriotism, but who are doing their best to destroy the liberties which above all are what the United States of America has meant, to its people and to humanity.
This is perhaps a less personal statement than most of those in this series. If so, it is because a man of my age, in his relation to himself, runs mostly on momentum; and it is a little difficult to look back and figure out what gave him the push, or the various pushes. What he has to consider now is what he can contribute to the present, or the future, as a member of a very peculiar species--possibly even a unique species--which has immense capacities for both good and evil, as it has amply demonstrated during its recorded history. That history to date is--barring some unpredictable cosmic disaster--the barest beginning of what may lie ahead of us. But we happen to live in one of the turning points of history--by no means the first, as it will not be the last; and the future of mankind will be more than usually affected by what we do in this generation.
What should we do? Well, first of all and above all, preserve freedom, and extend it if we can. Beyond that, I don't know how better to define our business than to say that we should try to promote an increase of decency. Decency in the sense of respect for other people; of taking no advantage; of never saying, "This man must be miserable in order that I may be comfortable." This is not as easy as it looks; it's impossible to exist without hurting somebody, however unintentionally. But there are limits. I do not believe that human life is accurately represented by Viggeland's famous sculptured column in Oslo, of people climbing over one another and trampling one another down. The Nazis, when they occupied Norway, greatly admired that sculpture. They would. But the rest of us can do better than that; many men and women in every age have done better, and are doing it still.
The Scottish scientist J. B. S. Haldane once said that the people who can make a positive contribution to human progress are few; that most of us have to be satisfied with merely staving off the inroads of chaos. That is a hard enough job--especially in these times, when those inroads are more threatening than they have been for a long time past. But if we can stave them off, and keep the field clear for the creative intelligence, we can feel that we've done our part toward helping the human race get ahead.
That was commentator Elmer Davis, former head of the OWI, author and playwright, whose life has been guided by the principles of the freedom of the mind.