Congratulations to Rafael Behr for writing what is possibly the most complacent, ahistorical article I’ve read thus far in 2009. It’s not that any of the facts he alludes to are particularly wrong, its that he completely misses the point.
Can the era we currently live in be legitimately described as a “golden age of liberty”? In as much as any era can be described as a golden age, certainly. We don’t ban plays (even if certain individuals do manage to get them shut down from time to time), we no longer reserve social opprobrium for gay people or children born out of wedlock. I can declare, here, that God does not exist and instead of being burned at the stake, receive the odd plaintive comment. Christ, you can even walk down the street with a name like “Rafael Behr” and not get punched (I would imagine).
A note of caution: the whole notion of golden ages is at odds with liberalism. It is no coincidence that fascists, religious zealots and nazis (and superhero comics fans) love to bang on about them. By contrast, if you don’t believe that utopia is either attainable or desirable, you should be sceptical that any era could be described as a golden age. It is entirely unsurprising that all the golden ages in history have one thing in common: they all came to a crashing end and were often quickly followed by what can only be described as a “dark age.”
What is particularly dumb about Behr’s article, is that two years ago you could read remarkably similarly toned articles about the economy which drew the same conclusion: we live in a golden age, the pessimists who are predicting economic doom and gloom ignore the fact that we have enjoyed economic growth for X number of years; anyway, they are middle class wankers who live in big houses and have lived off the fat of the land; what about [insert reference to token minority group here]?
Our liberty and economic security go hand in hand – just as failing democracies tend to do worse economically, failing economies find their democracy under threat. The police and media are already irresponsibly stoking up the hype about 2009 having a “summer of rage.” “British jobs for British workers” is in danger of becoming the far-right’s new rallying cry (thanks, Gordon). Behr brags about how we don’t spy on our neighbours, blithely ignoring the fact that the government actively encourages us to do so when it comes to benefit cheats. He ignores the fact that the current government agenda is not merely to store information about us on computer, but to use that data to monitor people who seem to be involved in criminal activity (regardless of the number of false positives that will throw up). Whitehall knows less about me than Tesco? Well, I don’t have a Tesco Clubcard but even if I did, Tesco wouldn’t be able to use that information for much more than to sell me more stuff, and they can’t fine me Â£1,000 for putting someone else’s shopping on my card. And if I am forced to register for an identity card, the Home Office will know a LOT more about me than Tescos – or even Ryanair. If Jack Straw comes back with Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill (now dropped but will almost certainly return again soon), there will be almost no information about me they won’t be able to look at.
The whole “transformational government” agenda is only really about five years old. We are at the very early stages. Already though we’ve seen an emboldened police force arresting people for taking photographs in the street and banning boardgames which could be used in an act of terrorism. We’ve seen nonsenses like Form 696 (something tells me Behr is not a bashment fan).
Behr is keen to look at the past and remark how much more free we are compared to then. What worries civil liberties campaigners is that we are headed back there and that all the progress of the last 100 years will be for nothing. Ten years ago, I remember newspapers – even the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – prepared to contemplate that cannabis prohibition isn’t working. Now the Guardian and the Independent rail against skunk. Where will we be in ten years time? Fifty? Why should we take anyone seriously who feeds us with atrocity-porn about the past yet doesn’t address that?
Behr claims to “give thanks that there is a well-mobilised artistic [note this comes first in his order of priorities], media [second] and political lobby exercising the necessary eternal vigilance” but then immediately goes out of his way to belittle them in the very next sentence “I’m glad there are intelligent, dedicated people carefully monitoring our progress down the slippery slope, demarcating in units of kilo-outrage our incremental creep towards the thick end of the wedge.” In other words, he couldn’t really give a hoot. It won’t affect you after all, will it Pastor NiemÃ¶ller?