Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The civil liberties fetish

Over at Police State UK, Lib Dem activist Liz Williams analyses that accusation beloved of authoritarian-leaning Labourites, that people like her (me too) have a "fetish" for civil liberties. She points out how the the word tends to be used pejoratively to belittle sexual minorities - "fetish is just another way of saying a sexual interest the majority doesn't like" - and suggests that the intention is to make civil libertarians feel deviant. "It's supposed to make us blush and admit that yes, perhaps we did get a bit carried away, and perhaps that nice Mr Blair was all right after all." This is quite amusing:


But let's play with the metaphor a bit longer and ask ourselves what a "civil liberties fetish" would look like if it really did play out in the bedroom. Only getting turned on when the other person - or people, even - made a free choice to be there? Keeping their confidences, because their right to privacy trumps your mates' right to cheap entertainment? Respecting their dignity, even if it means they won't do what you want? Assuming their likes and dislikes are as valid as your own, even if they seem squicky or silly at first? Not meddling in other areas of their life uninvited, even for their own good, because they have a right to do it their way if they want to? You know, I've had partners like that - I have partners like that - and I can't for the life of me think why that's supposed to be a bad thing.


No place for handcuffs, presumably. An actual civil-liberties fetish strikes me (strictly an outside observer, and I don't mean voyeur) as somewhat counter-intuitive. The better-known sexual fetishes tend to have an authoritarian tinge, whether it's a fascination with uniforms or role-play scenarios involving discipline and the infliction of pain. But perhaps some people do fantasise about being rescued from Belmarsh by a scantily-clad Shami Chakrabarti. Ironically, but given the last government's legislation not surprisingly, there is currently a strong vein of civil liberties activism in the fetish community - and not just on behalf of sexual freedom issues. And of course fantasy is fantasy. Someone who enjoys being tied up and whipped in their private life may well be a vocal campaigner in public against the abuse of power by those in authority.

Is the phrase "civil liberties fetish" meant to imply some sort of sexual deviance, though? A fetish, in its original meaning, is an animistic totem, an object of worship supposed to contain powerful magic. A stone, perhaps. To call civil liberties a fetish in this sense is to suggest that it is a false god, and that civil libertarians place an irrational faith in its symbols. A civil liberties fetishist might be someone who shows an exaggerated regard for things like trial by jury, habeas corpus, or British parliamentary traditions, despite knowing that these institutions are imperfect and old-fashioned. A civil liberties fetishist is like a superstitious tribesman, bowing down before outworn ancestral deities - while sensible, progressive, pragmatic politicians are just interested in "what works". This, I think, is what is generally meant by calling civil liberties a "fetish".

Put like this, I can see why the phrase might make Lib Dems like Liz feel uncomfortable. For an (exaggerated?) attachment to traditional totems is almost the definition of political conservatism. Most British Tories are strong monarchists, while in the USA the Republican Right tends has a fierce attachment to the flag, the Bible and the Second Amendment. The liberal case, like any political case, is best made on grounds of principle and logic - and, indeed pragmatism. Liz points out that "for votes to work, you need to be able to scrutinise what your government is doing, and campaign against it, and generally make a nuisance of yourself; and for that, you need a legal system that will protect you even when the government finds you troublesome". True enough. But even liberals have emotions, and the emotional attachment that many people feel to the rights won by their ancestors can be a powerful card to play. Conservative supporters of civil liberties intuitively understand this. Progressives, on the other hand, like to express impatience with traditional taboos. It's no accident that self-consciously progressive and rational political movements have often found it easy to dispense with civil liberties in the name of a greater good - such as a Utopian vision of society.

An African fetish has power only because people believe in it. The fetishes of civil libertarians are not like that: the right to a fair trial is intrinsically a good thing, after all. But a passionate attachment to a principle or an idea, even in circumstances where it might prove inconvenient or unappealing (free speech for racists, for example) is not wholly a rational thing. It can also be hard to explain to those who don't share it - there will always be ready applause for calls to castrate rapists, hang murderers and do unspeakable things to women who dump cats in wheelie bins. That, at least, belief in civil liberties may have in common with fetishes of a sexual kind.