On Lies, Liberation and Liberty
“Renaissance Florence was an excellent place for collecting documents. Mainly because they didn’t trust each other.”
I am writing this essay while watching a documentary on Machiavelli. A historian’s walking us through the Florentine state archives, showing the presenter a Medici’s Most Wanted list and pointing out that the individuals on it need not have done anything in particular to have attracted suspicion. The presenter visits the police station where Machiavelli was tortured despite there being no evidence of him being involved in the conspiracy he was accused of.
How wonderful that five hundred years on we live in such different times. These days it would be unthinkable that suspicious and secretive governments might follow, seize and physically brutalise innocent civilians based on little more than mere suspicion. What a relief that we now enjoy enlightened and mutually trustful societies in which authorities have integrity; leaders are honest and accountable; judges provide justice with moral consistency and without cultural bias; the heads of the media, police, politics and big business are not all friends with each other; public bodies are representative of the populace they serve; institutions of power have been washed clean of vested interests; and, as humble but proud citizens, we can truly say that what we see is what we get. How comforting to know that the written and spoken word are enjoined in the furtherance of freedom, truth, justice and progressive harmony instead of being deployed in subterfuge, falsified to justify abuse, misappropriated to bend meaning, exaggerated to support a warlike and crusading atmosphere, worked up to derail arguments or simply logged and aggregated to create a secret archive that can be trawled for incriminating details and useful trivia at any time without our knowledge or consent.
Oh. Aha. I see. And I hear the distant, mocking laughter of Machiavelli as he swigs spectral wine and schmoozes his fellow deceased in the afterlife.
To be fair if not approving, the exercise of power and the methods of that exercise have been employed by those at all points on the political scale for centuries. The Vatican, the Elizabethan court, trafficking rings, the CIA, drugs cartels, the US Senate, the Roman senate, Interpol, Hollywood studios, the music industry and the mafia all behave in exactly the same way. Their actions are justified by research, which is gained by information-gathering, which includes surveillance, spycraft, infiltration, entrapment, the truth obtained by deceitful means. Those who have power, whether it is legitimate or not, elected or not, formal or not, have always justified their deceitfulness by pointing to the ends, the consequences. Look, they say, we have prevented attacks you never knew about; we have stopped individuals before they committed crimes; we can pre-empt the future because of what we know. They argue that when it comes to the subtlety of government, equivocal definitions of what is right or wrong break down. They argue that it is naïve to talk about what is good and what is bad, which are academic concepts that would disintegrate when the strong light of reality hits them.
They would laugh in my face if I tried to assert that certain actions are simply wrong. Perhaps I should couch the argument in language that wrongdoers would understand: some actions result in no tangible gain, no increase in meaningful intelligence, no advance in strategic position and no overall improvement to justify massive costs in terms of logistics, economics, international standing and public trust. Torture is wrong and does not yield reliable or useful information. Detention without justification, without giving detainees a reason, without charge, without trial, without legal representation, without set duration, is wrong and creates trauma, instability and resentment. Following someone and keeping a record of everything they do, say, write or read is wrong and creates paranoia, alienation and hatred of government.
It is not naive to fight for human rights and civil liberties, it is imperative. Otherwise the future will be one of absolute and mutual mistrust in all directions, between and amongst citizens, countries and world communities. It is obscene that anyone who is a grassroots activist or a cultural advocate in defence of human rights should be monitored, as many of us are, as though we are perpetrators, abusers or lawbreakers. It is contemptible that petty laws should be invented in order to deter us, vilify us or criminalise us. When accused of flouting human rights, powerful organisations behave in a way that demonstrates that they do indeed routinely and systematically flout the human rights of others while aggressively defending their own interests. Having authority does not mean that you can do anything you want, then close ranks when caught.
The authorities will say that life’s complicated and that we should simply go about our daily business being watched and followed and not bother our little heads about it. If we haven’t done anything wrong, like Google something, go on holiday, go on a march or demonstration, speak at a panel event, sign a petition or have a chat with someone, we won’t have anything to worry about.
Everyone knows that governing is complex and involves subtle negotiation between multiple parties with widely differing views. But when it comes to the fundamentals, some principles are inviolable. I would even go one further and say that there is no difference between the rights and freedoms I expect personally and within personal relationships and those I expect politically and within a public, cultural, legal and social context. They are one and the same. Every human being has the right to live free of physical violation, mental torture, domination, abuse, stalking, surveillance and control. Every human being has the right to live free of fear, acting from their own will and physical and mental self-determination, not because they have been threatened, coerced or blackmailed. Every human being’s sense of dignity is intimately connected with their sense of privacy and their positive assumption of freedom of thought, freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of expression. These are not political values, subject to change according to who is in power. They are human values.
It is tempting to be blasé and say that the ruled have always been spied on by rulers, that it was ever thus and will always be thus. But it is not true that the present is exactly like the past only with different clothes, or that history is cyclical, or that you can’t stop Them and shouldn’t try to stand up to Them because They always get Their way in the end.
We have arrived at a unique time culturally and technologically. The authorities’ combination of deceit, control, watchfulness, duplicity and cruelty, masked with outward civility and outright lies, is now played out on a global scale, abetted by ever more efficient means of gathering, storing and sorting information. Many international governments’ covert political alliances and commercial deals for information sharing, the transportation and torture of suspected individuals, the sale of armaments, the levying of wars and exploitation of natural resources and emerging markets run counter to their publicly stated interests, values and allegiances.
This goes far beyond language, although I like a good political euphemism as much as anyone. Rendition means torture and extraordinary rendition means a lot of torture. Waterboarding – which sounds like a delightful low-impact sport that one might enjoy on Brighton’s seafront – is a euphemism for drowning someone. A resistance safe-zone is a rebel stronghold. A defence of privacy for privacy’s sake can be an admission of guilt inviting further investigation. The axis of evil is a mythical land where the US sacrificed soldiers for oil. Security means control. Arming in self-defence is incitement to attack. A demonstration can be disorder, resistance can be rebellion, organising resistance means planning insurgency. Companies axing thousands of jobs say they are rationalising, harmonising or recalibrating. Swingeing cuts which put families below the poverty line are rebranded as thrifty, vintage-chic austerity measures. In the Big Society you do everything as before only for free and without state assistance. A ‘terrorist’ can be anything from a civil disrupter to a threat to national security and being accused of being one, even without a shred of proof, can justify any mistreatment whatsoever.
As the world becomes smaller, it is becoming more divided. Just when communication becomes more convenient, it is polluted by wariness and suspicion. Just when we have an opportunity to globalise in thought and intention as well as business, we take up a defensive stance and cling to divisive rhetoric, ignorant stereotypes and mistrustful attitudes.
What I seek is not just liberty but liberation. Liberation from a mindset of mistrust and demonisation, the vilification of otherness and the paternalistic condoning of all surveillance, detention and physical abuse on the grounds of security. Liberation from the fear that someone is always following us or watching us. Liberation from our entrenchment in a cruel, self-justifying system of control which can be brought down on us at any moment, for any reason. And liberation from the aggressive, combative, violating machismo which argues disingenuously that violence is sometimes okay.
The only weapons ordinary citizens have against these trends are our actions and our words, although journalists are in a trickier position than ever. We are either violating the human rights of celebrities and relatives of murder victims or campaigning for truth and justice or accidentally leaving state secrets on the bus and being hauled up in front of political investigations committees or ethics boards or national security tribunals or international courts, depending on how our actions are interpreted and by whom. We are either peddling damaging lies or damaging truths. We are influential and dangerous, mistrusted because our behaviour is risky and independent. When we try to whistleblow we are accused of jeopardising structures that we could never possibly understand. When we try to investigate those structures and hit upon sensitive material we are scapegoated publicly as troublemakers.
Either way, the ferocity of the reaction to journalists’ endeavours indicates something about the impact of the word. UK and US governments are just as frightened of journalists as governments in Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and Mexico are. They fear the word because it’s powerful. Indeed they use that wordpower themselves, negatively, to stir up tactically useful prejudices, plant slanderous lies, maintain myths which work in their favour and gloss their own violence. Those of us on the other side use our position to create space for a truth denied, a suffering voiced, a protest lodged, a testimony revealed, a campaign launched. This is why I am a part of Writers at Liberty.
BIDISHA is a writer, critic and broadcaster specialising in global affairs, human rights, social justice and gender. Having worked for the Gates Foundation covering international development and global health, she also does outreach work in prisons and detention centres. Her last book, Beyond the Wall, was a reportage from the West Bank. Her next, Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London, is based on her outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees.