We feign outrage at many a government activity. So why has state snooping got us more riled up than usual?
The startling revelations of Edward Snowden not only shook public confidence in the motives of security agencies, but have gone on to reveal a transnational web of inter government complicity and, paradoxically, mutual suspicion.
But for average users of the internet, especially those of a libertarian bent, the story has been a particularly hard one to stomach. The uncomfortable fact is that we all sort of knew we were being spied on. What upset us was having it made public, and the subsequent shame and embarrassment at our collective meek acceptance.
Libertarians, and British libertarians in particular talk a good game when it comes to being a freedom fighter and our passion for liberty. Yet we seem awfully willing to let the steady erosion pass by without protest. Smoking in pubs and cigarettes being hidden by shutters are two small but typical examples of the state getting bigger at the expense of the individual with no serious challenge or fight back.
Government spooks trawling through your emails should make us even angrier, not least because the internet was supposed to be different, it was supposed to be the weapon that slayed Leviathan, it was supposed to be ‘ours’. But as I discussed here, far from being the silver bullet of freedom, social media is being utilised as an electronic jack-boot in the service of authoritarian governments everywhere.
The NSA, GCHQ and the rest have effectively called our bluff. Liberty lovers have had to chose between two regrettable yet distinguishable truths; they either don’t care *that* much about liberty, or that they’re unwilling to do anything about it.
The former group can shuffle their feet awkwardly and mumble something about ‘the need for balance between security and freedom’ or ‘they’re only looking at meta data’.
The second group will retreat to angry personal blog posts and change their Twitter avatar to a V For Vendetta mask. That, and a few Ron Paul quotes on Facebook will constitute the entirety of their fight back.
Maybe it’s something in the British psyche that deters real protest. Maybe it’s a lingering hope that ‘somebody’ will do ‘something’. Maybe it’s a sign of maturity; a more nuanced and well rounded view of how the world really works. Or maybe it’s the slightly more selfish reality, that it’s easy to talk the talk of a rebel, but we’re far too clever to do anything that might hurt our job prospects.
One could argue that it’s not just libertarians who should be angry, and that’s perfectly true. However the surveillance and privacy are such totemic issues for us that for us not to be organising marches and protests is pretty poor form. It would be akin to Labour supporters sitting on their hands as a bill to formally liquidate the NHS was passed, or for UKIP to remain passive as the nuclear codes were handed to Romano Prodi.
I think a significant part of the problem is that libertarians tend to be more cerebral, academic and analytical. We don’t ‘do’ actual protests, we write about them; say what you will about the Hard Left, but at least they’re willing to get their hands dirty.
For the benefit of the spook reading this, I am obviously not advocating violence or even civil disobedience. However as libertarians we do need to ask ourselves how we hope to convince the wider public of our principles when we’re perceived to be so unwilling to defend them?