Howard Jacobson: It's the end of civil liberties as we know it – or that's how some people prefer to think

What's been done to us to make us dread every new CCTV camera as we dread a nightmare?
Click to follow

Why do we fear and hate the State so much? The idea of it, I mean. The metaphor. What has the actual State ever done to us? I use "us" in the quasi-royal sense: us easy-come, easy-go Brits. What terrible experience of State persecution haunts our minds to the degree that the most modest incursion into our precious liberties feels like the end of those liberties altogether?

It would be different if we were Middle or Eastern Europeans. Grow up in the declining years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or Hitler's Germany, or Stalin's Russia, and of course you will start from every leaf that blows against your window pane. I'd be surprised if they're still not looking over their shoulders in Hungary and Lithuania. The last time I visited Prague I had a sense of secret policemen, invisible to Western eyes, haunting the neurasthenic cobbles. The once-tortured don't ever live without anticipation of pain; long after they're safe, the persecuted lie unwaking on their beds. But what's been done to us to make us dread every new CCTV camera, every extra day the police can hold a terror suspect, as we dread the recurrence of a nightmare?

Literature is partly to blame for this. We are too influenced by other people's. My admiration for Kafka is boundless; a cold terror seizes me when I read that laconic opening line of The Trial, "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K"'.But it's a bit of an imaginative indulgence for an Englishman. Dickens better tells our story, even when he is at his most Kafka-like, as in Little Dorrit with its ministry for ruining people's lives, the Circumlocution Office.

The most affable of all the Circumlocution Officers lays it on the line to the novel's hero as he languishes in prison: "Our place is not a wicked Giant to be charged at full tilt; but only a windmill showing you, as it grinds immense quantities of chaff, which way the country wind blows... It's all right. We must have humbug, we all like humbug, we couldn't get on without humbug..." A dismal truth about a nation and its government, yes, but still not that utterly desolating vision of State malignity which Joseph K is finally vouchsafed in the moment its officers slit his throat.

What we do over here is incompetence. Our State loses and botches things. For which, when they have lost and botched enough, we ridicule it out of power. What it doesn't do is encroach intolerably upon our liberty. We do that ourselves. We watch The Apprentice and Big Brother. We enter into willing servitude to humbug and inanity. We value what is valueless, and not simply aesthetically valueless, but morally and socially valueless too, granting worth and credence to idle boasting and vaingloriousness and brutality and greed. It would be nice if the State could protect us from that – ie from ourselves – but we would not tolerate it. The last freedom we will protect – with our lives if necessary – is the freedom to be fools.

In the meantime it bewilders me that we should choose to hinder the State in the performance of its most essential and, one would have thought, least controversial function, which is to save us from the enactment of violence and malice. I don't know how one measures the heinousness of 42 days against 28. There is no abstract principle of reasonable duration against which any of us can gauge right and wrong in this matter. If you were the Count of Monte Cristo or the Man in the Iron Mask you would consider 42 days a stroll in the park.

What's a long time? What's a short time? Had 42 days been established procedure, there would be those who would rail against 43. I do not myself, as an innocent, want to be questioned or interred for half an hour. But justice, however perfectly administered, will always miscarry. And it is arrant nonsense to argue, as Cameron did this week, that by curtailing our freedoms we do the work of terrorists for them. Terrorists have no interest in curtailing our freedoms, only in curtailing our lives.

There is another scrap of arrant nonsense blowing to and fro in the winds of this debate. That with every new camera we erect in our streets, with every extra day we give the police, we set in motion a machinery for authoritarianism which will be seized upon with alacrity by the Stalins and Hitlers waiting in the wings of our society. One might just as reasonably argue that we should never have invented the wheel, given the chariots of annihilation the wheel has facilitated, never have hit upon the fundamentals of chemistry, without which there would be, to coin a phrase, no weapons of mass destruction. Every step forward is potentially a step backwards: that is the law of life. If we took what others might do with our ideas and inventions into serious consideration, we would never think or invent a thing.

In the end, these incidentals conceal a greater truth. Behind our dread of State authoritarianism is the egalitarian's loathing of authority in any guise. Not simply governmental authority, but authority as it bears on every aspect of our culture, particularly where authority is the very quality we need. Thus, no matron now bosses around (and thereby keeps efficient) a hospital ward, no university lecturer fails a student – for who has the overweening presumption to decide on success or failure? – and no teacher teaches. Exploration is what a teacher does with pupils now – a mutually enabling act of democratic discovery in which nothing is discovered.

We all know who the best teachers used to be. The tyrants and enthusiasts and impassioned dogmatists who made us keep quiet and listen while they told us what was true as they saw it – as it was their job to see it – and then gave us an A+ when we wrote equally dogmatic essays disagreeing with them. The best of all democrats is not the relativist or the deconstructionist of the very concept of value, but the person who revels in the authority of truth, boldly asserted, then revels equally in its contradiction.

That man is no lover of humanity who fusses around its peripheries, afraid for its susceptibilities, protective of its fragile liberties of body and of mind, at the last preferring to see mankind blown up by terrorists who might just have a point, than kept alive and well by a State that dares to know what's best for its citizens. Since everything comes back to psychology, the question must be asked: what the hell did our fathers do to us.

Comments