Saturday, 28 February 2009

Pulled Pullman, Absent Aaronovitch

In the event I didn't make it to the Convention on Modern Liberty. If I'd known about the Orwell nomination a couple of weeks earlier I might have tried to blag my way onto a platform; as it was I'll have to rely on the extensive coverage in the Guardian.

One of the highlights was the novelist Philip Pullman, who delivered a rousing speech concluding with the thought that "We are a better people than our government believes we are; we are a better nation." I'm not convinced the government deserves all the blame for its pessimistic assessment of the public: mutual mistrust has become endemic at all levels of society, and it shouldn't be forgotten how often demands for more surveillance and more identity verification come from the bottom up, or have become internalised. How normal it now seems for shop assistants to diligently scan every fiver they're handed for signs of forgery, how easily people put up with such displays of impertinence. "Can't be too careful", we say, as though it the statement were obviously true rather than (as it is) absurd. Still, such pathological suspicion of our fellow citizens is certainly useful to the ruling securocrats.

His convention speech isn't Pullman's only recent intervention in this debate. The Times website yesterday hosted a superb article of his, a kind of prose poem about the crisis in civil liberties entitled Are such things done on Albion’s shore? "The image of this nation that haunts me most powerfully is that of the sleeping giant Albion in William Blake’s prophetic books," he writes "Sleep, profound and inveterate slumber: that is the condition of Britain today."

I was going to quote from it here in rebuttal of Jack Straw, but when I went back to check the server returned a "404 error". I assumed a glitch - at most, that the article had been published prematurely. I looked forward to reading it at leisure in the morning. Not there. Instead there was a long piece by David Aaronovitch telling us why we should all love Big Brother. For whatever reason, that article doesn't seem to be up on the site either.

Strange - especially strange that Pullman's essay also disappeared from Google's cache a couple of hourse later. Cached articles, even if deleted, tend to remain available for a few days at least. This does suggest an effort to remove it. Conspiracy sniffers quickly jumped to conclusions - that it had been removed at the behest of Rupert Murdoch, for example, or because some shadowy agent of the police state took fright at Pullman's eloquence. Unlikely. In any event, the article (retrieved just in time) has now been reproduced all over the blogosphere. I won't be following suit, mainly because there's a copyright notice at the end of the article and I respect copyright. Prim and old-fashioned of me, I know. But go and take look at it by all means.

Pullman writes:


We do not know what is happening to us. In the world outside, great events take place, great figures move and act, great matters unfold, and this nation of Albion murmurs and stirs while malevolent voices whisper in the darkness - the voices of the new laws that are silently strangling the old freedoms the nation still dreams it enjoys.

We are so fast asleep that we don’t know who we are any more.


There is beauty there, but is there also truth. Needless to say, in his equally disappeared (or never posted) article for today's print edition of the Times, David Aaronovitch doesn't think so. He claims that the campaign against the current government's culture of repression and surveillance is little more than "a Poujadist moan of the aggrieved professional classes" who have "contempt for politics and politicians".

Aaronovitch drunk the Cool-Aid years ago, of course. Like Polly Toynbee he has long since made up his mind. Challenging his naive trust in the state on the Moral Maze the other week, Michael Portillo (who unlike Aaronovitch has actually been in the cabinet) told him that "the government routinely abuses the powers it has". And what did DA have to say about that? That "he would have taken it more seriously if [Portillo] had said it at the time." Hardly an adequate answer.

He has some similarly ad hominem arguments in this latest piece. For example:

Nor is the Convention entirely free of a certain casual hypocrisy. Here's one obvious example: the number of speakers or backers of the event who will raise a clamour about what they see as abrogations of freedoms in Britain while almost simulataneously sending birthday greetings to the semi-dictatorship in Cuba. The writer Victoria Brittain will doubtless fascinate on the subject of British collusion with human rights abuses in Guantanamo, but she recently offered the Cuba Solidarity Campaign a little herogram invoking "the Cuban revolution, with its great triumphs" as well as "the selfless ordinary Cubans" without once hinding at the admittedly depressing fact that these wonderful folk are not trusted with any political freedoms at all, and that dissent in Cuba is systematically suppressed. Remarkably, there are several others associated with the convention who have done exactly the same thing...


Very interesting, but scarcely an argument. From Stalin to Hamas, the British left has had a habit of indulging any regime that opposes the West. Even Mugabe is still regarded in some quarters as a great liberation leader who only went bad in the last year or two. Selective outrage is indeed hypocritical. But that doesn't mean that they're incapable of noticing what's happening in their own country, does it?

His other main argument - in partial contradiction to the above - seems to be that

much of the convention's rhetoric and animating spirit is of the "Britons Awake!" variety, lumping in the million irritations of modern cheek-by-jowl existence, such as parking wardens, road-space rationing, antisocial behaviour, regulation and refuce collection, with fox-hunting, counter-terror measures and the enforcement of immigration laws, to create one gigantic dismal, yowling portrait of "our rights" being taken away by "them".


whereas

there was an entire class of busybodies, from park wardens to playground supervisors, who spent the Fifties and Sixties telling people what was and was not in the by-laws. How we yearn for them now!


True, there have always been jobsworths and busybodies, people whose main pleasure in life lies in "just doing their job" while using their tiny piece of delegated power to make someone else's life a misery. The difference today is that such people have a greater reach, greater access to information, and, increasingly, legal powers of enforcement without resort to courts or even the police.

Aaronovitch's complacency on these issues - which basically boils down to "I trust the State, the State is my friend, the State would never harm me" - is both breathtaking and rather beside the point. Of course, the majority of people - people who aren't criminals, and who aren't activists either, people who keep their heads down and conform to the system - will not directly be injured by the overweening state. There will of course be people who are unlucky - who are mistaken for criminals through inevitable mistakes in the databases, or who put their rubbish out a couple of hours early and find themselves taken to court, or who lose their ID and discover they suddenly don't have a life any more. But they will always be in the minority. The real impact on the general run of people will be subtler, and has already begun. It is, not to sound too metaphysical, about what all the surveillance does to the soul.

Here Pullman nailed it, in lines that struck me with great force. Mainly, perhaps, because they mirror what I have thought for some time:

We can see you have abandoned modesty

Some of our friends have seen to that

They have arranged for you to find modesty contemptible

In a thousand ways they have led you to think that whoever does not want to be watched must have something shameful to hide

We want you to feel that solitude is frightening and unnatural

We want you to feel that being watched is the natural state of things

UPDATE (Monday March 2) The Times website has reinstated the article, but without any explanation as to what happened to it. A post on Liberal Conspiracy yesterday quoted an email purportedly from Pullman himself and headed "sinister disappearance" in which the author remarked, "My article has disappeared .... I’m just letting you know so that when I fail to turn up tomorrow you’ll be able to tell people that the secret police have got me." Coincidence?

3 comments:

Edwin Moore said...

What a fine piece. I'm no fan of Victoria Brittain (why the hell did the Guardian take her back on after her necessary resignation as Africa correspondent?) or Portillo, but they are saying the right things.

The astonishing Harman is quoted today on the BBC web page re Goodwin's pension as saying

"The prime minister has said that it is not acceptable and therefore it will not be accepted. . ."And it might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract, but it is not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that is where the government steps in."


That;s a jawdropping piece of rhetoric.

Wasp_Box said...

Pullman's piece (I think prose poem is a good description) is a very powerful piece of writing.

I thought I was going dotty when I went back to re-read it and it had gone. One doesn't wish to add to conspiracy theories but he is a very popular author and that is a very stirring piece of writing. I wonder if someone got worried.

Edwin, I had to go and check - it seemed unbelievable - and there it is: The sum was unacceptable in "the court of public opinion," she told the BBC, and the government "would step in".

Jaw firmly on floor.

Toque said...

I spoke to Pullman at the Convention and asked him what had happened to the article. He was aware that it had disappeared, but as to why he didn't know. He didn't seem to think there was anything suspicious about its disappearance though.