Nothing to Hide, Everything to Lose
Last August, a surreal kind of summer reading list was spirited out of Guantanamo Bay: the list of books that the British prisoner Shaker Aamer had been denied by the US military authorities. Prime among them, Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago.”
For children of the Cold War, this news was pretty chilling. It was Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet Union’s most famous political prisoner, who awakened Western readers to the fine monstrosities of a state in which total paranoia went hand in hand with total control. “We”, west of the Iron Curtain, weren’t like “Them”; we lived in democracies where people were free to assemble, travel, publish, and otherwise make nuisances of themselves.
What does it tell us about the state of liberty when twenty-first-century America fears that “The Gulag Archipelago” might be read as an allegory of its own injustices? What does it tell us when Britain becomes a kind of metadata-mining Bangalore, to which the US government outsources its mass surveillance operations because British laws are thought to be more forgiving of such abuses, its press more servile, its people indifferent?
It’s time to look at our own freedoms, post-9/11.
Britain and America are not, of course, totalitarian regimes. People risk death not to flee Dover, but to get there. And yet our civil liberties are being nibbled away, just as mercilessly as the division between public and corporate interests. Entrepreneurial capitalism’s most daring creations—Google, Facebook, Microsoft—have been ju-jitsued into spy engines. Who are the ”terrorists” from whom our governments are protecting us? Climate change activists. Ladies who don’t want Heathrow’s third runway ploughing through their dahlias. Students protesting higher university fees. Stephen Lawrence’s mother. And just in case you thought electronic prying had superseded the hot sweaty human touch, take a look at Mark Kennedy, dreadlocked, tattooed, body-pierced, the agent provocateur who gave “embedded” a new meaning.
Luckily, the open society, too, has its zealots and its moles. Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Alan Rusbridger--these are some of the names we know, but there are many more, people who risk prison, deportation, police harassment because they don’t want to live in a world where citizens have no secrets, and the government has too many.
“I have nothing to hide.” Maybe, but you have everything to lose.
Fernanda Eberstadt is an American novelist living in London. Her most recent novel is RAT.