The unbearable lightness of civil liberties
November 7, 2006
The Guardian reports that Tony Blair:
insisted yesterday that the national identity card scheme should go ahead as a question of ‘modernity’, not civil liberties […] he did not think ‘the civil liberties argument carries much weight’.
Now, it cannot be that even Blair thinks modernity is a recommendation in and of itself. That would be like saying in 1945 that the use of nuclear weapons was simply a question of modernity. It is true that Blair’s language in the past has often intimated a vacant admiration for what is new, regardless of its other qualities, and that this attitude is encoded in his addiction to the words “modernisation”, “reform”, and so on. (It is arguable that the term “progressive”, especially in US politics, functions in a similar way. Democrats may be pleased to call themselves “progressives”, but of course “progress” is only a good thing if it is progress towards a goal that everyone agrees is the right goal. Otherwise “progressive” is emptied of any particular non-partisan meaning, and simply comes to denote “devoted to our own policies”.) . . .
But there is surely something more than merely an adoration of novelty to Tony Blair’s passion for ID cards. More of a clue was present in Blair’s article for the Telegraph yesterday:
The case for ID cards is a case not about liberty but about the modern world.
So from “modernity” as a historical period or perhaps a metaphysical state of mind, we have at least moved to the invocation of a “world”, of reality as it is now. Yet, just as with “civil liberties” vs “modernity”, presenting “liberty” and “the modern world” as somehow opposed – as though liberty were not or should not be part of the modern world already – is, of course, pernicious nonsense, a craven false dichotomy, heir to Blair’s fatuous guff about making liberty relevant. (Note that I would not expect to impress Peter Singer if I protested to him that the issue of my sausages was one of modernity, not ethical farming practices.)
As this article continues, however, it becomes clearer what Blair’s “modern world” is: it’s a world that panders to old prejudices. ID cards are essential, he wrote, for “making our borders more secure and countering illegal immigration”. It’s interesting that out of all the agency and newspaper reporting on Blair’s comments that I have found, Agence France Presse was the most direct in its headline description of the rhetorical strategy: “Blair taps into anti-immigrant anger to sell Brits on ID cards”.
Back in February (as I found from Jonathan Mendel), Blair had used the same plea of “modernity”. Here he was responding to the charge that measures such as anti-social behaviour orders, internment without trial of people suspected of terrorism, and so on, constituted an assault on civil liberties. But there was an extra twist:
For me, this is not an issue of liberty but of modernity. […] In theory, traditional court processes and attitudes to civil liberties could work. But the modern world is different from the world for which these court processes were designed.
Unmistakable, the moue of contempt behind the word traditional. Among traditional court processes and attitudes to civil liberties are things like the presumption of innocence, and the criminal standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt. The silly people who thought up these ideas were obviously remiss in failing to predict a world of iPods, EasyJet and blogs – oh, and hordes of anonymous immigrants. You can’t be too careful in these modern times.
The idea is not to be sceptical, not to be soberly liberal, not to be weak-willed like the previous era; the aim is not to let things dominate you, but to dominate; one wants to act […] one wants to be ‘dynamisch [dynamic]’.