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The unbearable lightness of civil liberties

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]’.

Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich

  1. 1  Graham Giblin  November 8, 2006, 4:02 pm 

    My terror is the terror of the smiling assassin; men (usually) like Blair, Bush and Howard. The idea of ‘modernity’ being (or, rather, sounding like) a justification for a constraint on freedoms is obscene. The idea that we must keep up with the times because we should keep up with the times is bizarre. It is asking people to put on their own shackles because they are “a la mode”. It is an assumption that fashion is content per se. (Not sure that’s clear.)

    But he may have leverage with the fashion strategy. Everyone must have the very latest and smallest mobile phone with the neatest technology so that they can tell their friends that they are on the phone. Everyone will want one of the neat new hi-tech ID cards. Australians typically are the world leaders in new technology take-up. And Howard is already proposing an ID card here, also. My children have variously failed to see the importance of such things as privacy and assumed that they have limited freedoms, particularly of speech. Although when I discover these attitudes we have very deep and (sometimes apoplectically) meaningfuls, it appears that young people may be less likely to be able to grasp the magnitude of the attacks on their liberty that seem to be piling up.

    I cannot understand the motivation of some politicians to control societies in this way unless it is that they can’t bear uncertainty and the messiness that (as Steven mentioned in a recent post) comes with freedom. They feel that the society must be controlled, of course adding “by me”.

    CS Lewis wrote in ‘God in the Dock’:

    “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies, The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    It’s ironic thast CS Lewis, a Christian, said this, because he is talking about the most appalling type of Christian like Blair and Bush who have engineered the killing of so many people “with the approval of their conscience”.

  2. 2  DJ Da Vinci  November 8, 2006, 8:11 pm 

    Yes, being pro-modernity for its own sake is the same as being pro-tradition for its own sake. Both are equally value-less, and appeal to an audience’s abstract sense of their own self: “Aha, yes, i’m forward-thinking, modern, in touch, THEREFORE I must agree with this modern statement” is the desired response. A neat way to avoid even mentioning the CONTENT of the statement.

    It reminds me of the arguments I have with my Dad at Christmas:

    – Do we HAVE to watch Only Fools & Horses AGAIN?

    – Yes, it’s traditional.

    – But it’s bollocks.

    – I know, but it’s traditional.

    I wonder what it’s like in the Blair Household:

    Euan: Dad, do we have to play Second Life again?

    Da PM: Yes, it’s modern ‘n’ all.

    Euan: Can’t we just play Risk?

    Da PM: No.

    Euan: Go, on, I’ll be Iraq…

  3. 3  Steven  November 9, 2006, 10:35 am 

    Perhaps Da PM is secretly addicted to World of Warcraft. That would explain a lot.

  4. 4  minerva  November 13, 2006, 2:55 am 

    Is it ironic for C.S. Lewis to make this critique. If it was not ironic for Trotsky to criticize Stalin then it seems it is not ironic for C.S. Lewis to worry about the moralizing totalitarian. They come in all shapes and sizes, in fact.

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