Former liberal commentators prepare to jump ship
Three former liberal rocks — Polly Toynbee, Mary Riddell, Nick Cohen — have begun to look as if they are crumbling. Each has argued the case for abandoning a fundamental point of principle for defenders of liberty: opposition to identity cards and their even uglier twin, the readily accessible, universal, national data-base and the universal DNA register, ubiquitous CCTV cameras, and the rest of the surveillance obsession; support for reason and empirical evidence in their conflict witn non-rational religious belief; and the absolute ban on the use of torture as a means of procuring information in the name of national or private security. All three of these betrayals gain a kind of spurious respectability through their appearances in those temples of liberalism, the Guardian and the Observer.
The following extracts give the flavour and plausibility of the arguments — so obviously flaky that point-by-point rebuttal seems unnecessary, for once, so I'll content myself with the briefest of comments.
First, here's Polly, with a classical Guardianesque bit of middle-class guilt at fussing over ID cards when the poor are starving in the gutter:
CCTV conspiracy mania is a very middle-class disorder
Paranoid speculation on imaginary surveillance abuses betrays a moral blindness when real social injustice abounds… Those opposed to the assembling of data are mainly from the anti-state, individualistic right. There is a sad lack of voices to praise the benign state these days…. on a scale of threats to Our Way of Life, where would you place CCTV and speed cameras, electronic health records, DNA storage or ID cards that carry the same information as passports? Most people are not in a delirium of alarm about the Big Brother potential of any of these. Surveillance conspiracy mania is a symptom of something else – the wish for the middle classes to be victims too. This is a middle-class obsession by those who are least likely to be surveyed. There is some decadence in paranoid speculation about imaginary abuses when real social injustice is all around. Why aren't people as angry about the galloping inequality in living standards between the 30% who will never own homes and the overpaid at the top who are fuelling property prices?… ID cards is [sic] the issue these fears coalesce around… The money might be better spent in myriad other ways, but the threat to fundamental civil liberties somehow eludes me.
(Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, Tuesday November 7, 2006)
One of the many other things that seems to have eluded Polly is that the ID cards are just the tip of the monstrous national database that will bring together far more information about every one of us than the state has any reasonable need for and to which all manner of narks and bureaucrats will have almost unfettered access. Another strangely elusive point that Ms Toynbee seems to have missed is that opposition to this whole nightmare of control-freakery that seems to her so trivial is in no way incompatible with deep concern over gross inequality in our society. Some of us manage somehow to combine both concerns in our heads simultaneously.
Mary Riddell in the Observer thinks that a rational reluctance to believe religious propositions which are empirically improbable and unsupported by evidence is just as 'dogmatic' as fundamentalist religious belief:
Dogmatic atheism will never trump faith
What do Prince Charles and Richard Dawkins have in common? Both are defenders of faith. This may sound a curious proposition… Religious critics hint that Dawkins must spend less time studying theology than Prince Charles devotes to buying socks in Primark. But even godless readers unoffended by any lack of comparison between Aquinas and Duns Scotus may be appalled by his venom. Dawkins claims that he is no fundamentalist and has no plans for bombings, crucifixions or flattening other people's skyscrapers. But then neither, presumably, has the Bishop of Oxford.
I am a Dawkins fan and a fellow atheist. But this book, whose stridency makes Ian Paisley sound like Kylie, takes me back to my Catholic primary school, where Sister Sabina kept an armoury of weapons against sinful five-year-olds. A board-rubber to skin the knuckles of those who couldn't say the six-times table; a cane for those who forgot their prayers. Though Dawkins favours verbal assault, his dogma is as rigid as any Carmelite's. His book, shorn of compassion and tolerance, will stir sympathy for religion even in the godless. That makes him an unwitting defender of faith… Despite Dawkins's derision, private faith should not be subject to evidential test or external criticism.
(Mary Riddell,The Observer, Sunday November 5, 2006)
Ms Riddell claims to be a "Dawkins fan" and generalises confidently about his latest book, yet every argument she advances is conclusively demolished with wit and flair in The God Delusion, a magnificent polemic which Mary either hasn't read or, if she has read it, hasn't understood. Either way her column amounts to a dreadful misjudgement, despite (or because of) faithfully reproducing the knee-jerk reactions to Dawkins of far too many of the faithful.
Finally, here's the admittedly often erratic Nick Cohen, also in last Sunday's Observer, on the need for us English to be just a shade more understanding about the merits of a little mild torture when the need arises, despite our long tradition of rejecting it:
We have to deport terrorist suspects – whatever their fate
…A boy is missing and the clock is ticking; who's to say it's wrong to pin a suspect to the wall and pummel him until he talks? The [German] authorities tried and convicted Daschner, but the judge gave him a token punishment… Respectable [German] politicians of the right and left said that the case proved that there could be exceptions to the total ban on torture.I think we are going to hear the same thing here, even though for very different reasons, torture is as much a taboo for the English as the Germans. Unlike the rest of Europe, the Common Law has never accepted forced confessions. When medieval Europe discovered that Roman law allowed the torture of suspects, everyone from the Scots to the Spanish embraced the rack. Only the English held firm…This is why Lord Bingham, the senior law lord, said last year that he was 'startled, even a little dismayed' that ministers thought they could use evidence in British courts which may have been obtained by torture in the Middle East. Despite his open incredulity, torture will be all over the news in the coming weeks and, as in the Daschner affair, I suspect it is going to be hard to say automatically that what the authorities want to do is wrong.
(Nick Cohen, The Observer, Sunday November 5, 2006)
It's hard not to admire Nick's chutzpah in writing an entire column about the alleged need to 'balance' the prohibition of torture against the need for it to protect security, without once mentioning the UN Convention against Torture or the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which categorically prohibit the use of torture in any circumstances whatever, regardless of security factors, and both of which are legally binding on Britain. The idea that any British government — or any Observer columnist — could gain international agreement to the amendment of either of these instruments in order to permit torture in even the most extreme of circumstances is simply fanciful. All this is fully spelled out in the legal judgment delivered by Lord Bingham and his fellow law lords last December, a judgment actually quoted but seemingly not read, or if read, not understood, by Mr Cohen. Nick and Mary really need to be a little more careful about quoting expert texts which rebut almost every word that either of them writes. (No doubt they would say that I'm doing the same thing here.)
At a time when fundamental principles protecting our liberties and civil rights are under unprecedented attack from politicians exhibiting panic or populism, or both, and when the liberal society is threatened for the first time in many years by various forms of extremist fundamentalist religion, those who discuss those principles in the liberal press have a clear duty not to give comfort or ammunition to the enemies of freedom and reason. Don't they?