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19 Nov 13 23:01

In exactly one month we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 'birth' of Swiss Re: The approval of the company's articles of association by the canton of Zurich.

For those interested in comparative history, today is also the 150th anniversary of one of the greatest speeches in American history: The Gettysburg address, held by Abraham Lincoln on 19th November 1863 after the battle of Gettysburg, which is meant to be the turning point of the secession war. It is fun to screen our history books to find anniversary twins, explore commonalities and congratulate warmly. But it also occurs to me that in this case it is worth reflecting about the value of freedom in a broad sense.

In his moving 2 minutes address, Lincoln does not only honour the dead of the battle field, he also conjures the audience to pull up their sleeves for "the great task remaining before us" and "that the dead shall not have died in vain so that this nation will have a new birth of freedom..."

This speech is an appeal to future generations to shake off the shackles of our slavery and break into real freedom. How can this be relevant for us living in the 21st century?

First of all in 2013 contemporary slavery still exists. According to the Walk Free Foundation, around 30,000,000 people are held as slaves in the world. Slavery by descent in the Sahel, debt slavery, labor slavery, child labour, sex-slavery... Gavin wrote on this here:

Second, I am tempted to understand modern slavery in the figurative sense. Does my mobile phone really provide more freedom if I end up being available 24/7, does Facebook or Twitter really provide more freedom if I spend hours sharing up-dates that are used to analyse my customer profile and spam my mailbox, does google provide more freedom if the filter bubble hides search hits that an algorithm thought were not relevant for my tastes?

In his essay "discourse on voluntary servitude", my French hometown fellow Etienne de la Boëtie (whose 450th year death anniversary we are also celebrating this year) postulates that we are born in freedom but are willingly forsaking this freedom in society because everyone wants to keep the privileges they draw from a pyramidal organization. Sounds familiar? It occurs to me that this old text is extremely visionary when you consider the righteous indignation of the past few years with the Arab Spring and the occupy movement. And at the same time, what we are trying to do on this blog is to discuss a future in which we will not be the slaves of fossil energy, natural catastrophes or societal changes. So, when La Boëtie says: "How does the tyrant have any power over you except through you?" Let us apply this question to ourselves: Whose slave am I?

Watch the Gettysburg Address, recited by a collection of notable Americans as part of documentarian Ken Burns' project, Learn the Address:;=_Yzi79zpqQA

Home | Learn the Address

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, documentarian Ken Burns, along with numerous partners, has launched a national effort to encourage everyone in America to video record...

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