In defence of paranoid hysteria

22 June 2013

Compare a democracy to a dictatorship and world-weary chuckles follow. The last thing a citizen can do in true tyrannies is call them tyrannies. He or she has to pretend that the glorious socialist motherland or virtuous Islamic republic is not only as free as democracies but has a level of freedom that those who rely on universal suffrage and human rights cannot attain. If you are free to call your country a tyranny, then it is almost certainly is not.

In the United States, the politically sophisticated are enjoying themselves immensely as they tear into leftish claims that America is now George Orwell’s all-seeing totalitarian state. To their way of thinking Edward Snowden’s revelations on how the American government is engaged in mass surveillance are less interesting than the hysterical reaction his whistle blowing has provoked.

‘The rule here is simple,’ said Michael C. Moynihan, one of America’s best right-wing journalists, as he dismissed the notion that the United States was Oceania. ‘If you are invoking Nineteen Eighty-Four in a country in which Nineteen Eighty-Four is available for purchase and can be freely deployed as a rhetorical device, you likely don’t understand the point of Nineteen Eighty-Four.’

I can imagine Dave Morris’ outraged reaction to today’s news that he had been the victim of a police agent provocateur producing another bout of condescension. Morris and his fellow green activist Helen Steel were on the receiving end of a libel action from McDonald’s that consumed three years of their lives. The case was notorious – ‘it has achieved what many lawyers thought impossible: to lower further the reputation of our law in the minds of all right thinking people,’ as a leading lawyer said at the time. McDonald’s spent millions of pounds hounding Morris and Steel for producing a rough little leaflet, which denounced the corporation’s environmental record. In a forthcoming book Paul Lewis and Rob Evans of the Guardian reveal that the leaflet was the work of Bob Lambert, an undercover police officer, who posed as an extreme animal rights activist so he could spy on radical greens.

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‘We now know that other shadowy forces were also trying to undermine our efforts in the most disgusting, but ultimately futile ways,’ Morris said when he heard what the authorities had done. ‘All over the world police and secret agents infiltrate opposition movements in order to protect the rich and powerful but as we have seen in so many countries recently people power and the pursuit of truth and justice is unstoppable, even faced with the most repressive and unacceptable Stasi-like tactics.’

Stasi-like tactics? To compare Britain to a Stalinist state is like saying America is living in an Orwellian nightmare. It is hyperbolic, false and absurd.

But think twice before joining the scoffers. Complacent westerners fail to understand that freedoms are guarded because their defenders are prepared to go wild. They do not seem to know that each generation has to struggle to maintain the freedoms it has inherited and to adapt them to meet alarming changes in the behaviour of the powerful. Hyperbole is inevitable and not always ridiculous. Unless you can imagine where ominous policies might lead, you are unlikely to find the motivation to give up the pleasures of your comfortable life and engage in the time-consuming and often tedious business of campaigning against them. The claim that ‘Western countries are becoming dictatorships’ is false. But it will only stay false if enough activists, politicians and judges are prepared to fight to stop dictatorial tendencies growing.

Meanwhile, although it remains absurd to say that Britain is a Stasi state, it is far from absurd to think that this tactic used by the Metropolitan police or that demand for data from the American National Security Agency echoes the behaviour of a tyranny’s secret police force. Just because democracies are not dictatorships does not mean that they cannot act like dictatorships if an apathetic or frightened citizenry allows them too much leeway.

I suspect that Snowden’s revelations have caused such interest because he told us something we half knew but did not want to think about. Computer technologies have made mass surveillance incredibly easy. In the 20th century, governments would have needed vast spy networks – a genuine Stasi, if you like – to track everyone’s movements or listen in to every phone call. Now the British government can propose ordering telecoms companies to collect information on billions of communications – just like that. No one says that blanket surveillance is impossible or too expensive to contemplate or beyond the resources of the state. We know that it can be done all too effortlessly.

The story of Bob Lambert is as sinister. He was a member of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad. Its officers not only spied on radical greens – a legitimate activity, I suppose, because animal rights activists can turn violent – but acted as agents provocateurs, who incited crimes, which otherwise would not have been committed. Using a false name, Lambert seduced four women, and fathered a child with one of his lovers. When his undercover assignment finished in the 1980s, he disappeared from their lives. She had no idea where he had gone or who he was until journalists exposed his secret past in 2011. What is that woman and her child meant to think of a British state that used taxpayers’ money to employ a secret policeman, who treated them so? That it is benign and decent, and anyone who suggests otherwise is a paranoid hysteric?

The Metropolitan Police disbanded his unit. But Lambert’s supposed expertise on extremism had a malign influence on public policy. He became foremost exponent of the idea that Britain should combat radical Islam by embracing theocratic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-i-Islami, which were ultra-reactionary but non-violent. Liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims, who just wanted to enjoy liberal freedoms everyone else took for granted, found that the last Labour government, much of the public sector and a large section of the wider British left were saying that men who wanted to crush their aspirations were the sole authentic representatives of their “community”. Lambert’s contemptuous treatment of women in the green movement was matched by his willingness to ally with misogynists on the religious right.

There is a danger of using alarmist language when writing about the behaviour of the secret state. But there is an equal danger of not being alarmed enough. Freedoms survive because people struggle for them. You can mock their willingness to descend into hyperbole, but without it they cannot emphasise dangers at a time when new technologies are giving dangerous new means of control to the state. The price of liberty is not just eternal vigilance but perpetual exaggeration.

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Show comments
  • 1stAfterburner

    Red pill, blue pill, take your pick.
    Patriot, Traitor which one will stick?

    Snowden is Smith, Clapper, O’Brien,
    but Joycamp sheep will still feed the lion.

    Minipax supports Obama’s perpetual war,
    Most pay no attention and peacefully snore.

  • allymax bruce

    Nick, exactly where, do you marry, derive, and/or, extrapolate, your article title from your article? You don’t even use the term ‘paranoid hysteria’ in your article! From reading your article, it is clear you ask if paranoia is a feeder to hysteria; but you don’t determine if it is, the public, or you, the brainwashing propaganda MSM are the analysand. In-deed, who is the analyst?
    Are you saying the relationship between state, and citizen, must always be perceived as a ‘trade-off’ of a degree of freedom, to a degree of rights/security? I find your article very misleading, pseudo-psyche, but mostly full of holes.
    The Spectator should ask Lesley Riddoch to write for them; she’s easily the best journalistic writer in journalism.

  • Newcombe
  • E Hart

    You’re right. The security services need constant monitoring re. oversight and accountability because otherwise they’ll tip over the pivot point into believing that everyone is an enemy of the fabled and ill-defined state of Banalia. The whole business requires vigilance in the face of real, perceived and imaginary threats. The logical sequence in this game ends in near total paranoia. However, ironically, they are never quite paranoid enough to realise that the biggest threats to our security – internal and external – are often found working in their offices. Don’t forget that at the height of the Cold War, they had a number of future Heroes of the Soviet Union in prominent positions. Similarly, in the end the Stasi transposed itself from the state’s guardian into a rotten apotheosis of that state, antithetical to the existence of all but itself.

    The whole business is a game of bluff, double bluff, triple bluff and for the most part – utter guff duff stuff which could be handled better by the police (unless they’ve entered a public breeding programme with animal rights activists). Don’t forget, if it looks Kafkaesque, sounds Kafkaesque and does Kafkaeque things – it’s probably Kafkaesque.

  • NotYouNotSure

    “Stasi-like tactics? To compare Britain to a Stalinist state is like saying America is living in an Orwellian nightmare.”

    To compare to the Stasi, one should first define what the Stasi were. The Stasi was clearly tightly coupled to the socialist East German state, but what the Stasi were famous for was the fact that they could spy on anyone and anywhere. The facts are clear, NSA and other Western equivalents can now and do spy on everyone, that is for me a Stasi like behaviour, regardless if they empowered by democratic consensus or not.

    Speaking of democratic legitimacy, I cannot recall any politician openly campaigning for spying on everyone single citizen, and secondly they cannot because its against the law to talk about how people are spied on.

  • FrenchNewsonlin

    “…there is an equal danger of not being alarmed enough.” Too true, as we saw with Leveson.

  • Austin Barry

    “Liberal Muslims..”

    Where are these oxymoronic chimeras?

    • Newcombe

      Wishful thinking?

  • anyfool

    A good and sound article, but the paranoid and delusional who fight hardest to protect their freedoms, usually in the end keep them for themselves and enslave the rest.
    Would you really trust Greens, Labour or the EU with anything so powerful.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Wh on earth is the picture here? It is the spitting image of J.M. Keynes. Was he an agent of Beria, then? Could well be.

    • Tomás Kenny

      It’s Bob Flag – Big Brother from the film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

  • In2minds

    ” Lambert’s contemptuous treatment of women in the green movement was
    matched by his willingness to ally with misogynists on the religious

    When it comes to allying with the religious right it seems Lambert has a lot in common with Ken Livingstone.

    • Matthew Blott

      Maybe, but what has that got to do with anything here?

    • TRAV1S

      Surely Nick means the religious left. After all even the BBC has assured us that Islam is the most progressive and enriching religion of all .

  • Studley

    Hear, hear with knobs on.

  • e2toe4

    Aye, not wrong…and having the George Gallowayistic physiog glaring out from the Big Screen doesn’t half punch home the need for eternal vigilance….

    • Roland Elliott Brown

      Damn, he does make one think of Galloway.

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