Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bad arguments for good ideas #2

I'm generally sympathetic to the liberal case against a number of recent government policies. I think ID cards are a stupid idea, as is extending the period of detention without charge to 42 days. I also think that people have human rights which are not conditional on them behaving responsibly, an increasingly unfashionable view. On the other hand, I think that CCTV cameras are helpful, and I don't think that the reason why the Oyster card was introduced was so that the government could spy on where people go.

There is a common lament amongst liberals who are concerned about the threat to civil liberties that their anger is not more widely shared, often followed by lengthy musings that most people are just sheep and blah blah blah. Their ire would be better directed towards the likes of Henry Porter, or today's article by Timothy Garton Ash.

Garton Ash starts with a comparison of Britain now to the Stasi in East Germany, and how the new technology offers opportunities for snooping that the Stasi could only have dreamed of. Britain is a 'dark outrider' amongst liberal democracies, from CCTV cameras to ID cards. The tabloids are responsible for undermining our liberties (bad), then in the next paragraph the Daily Mail is quoted approvingly for saying that these powers are ones which the Stasi would have been proud of. But having introduced this comparison to the Stasi, Garton Ash admits that the comparison is 'hyperbole' and that 'we are nowhere near that'. Which begs the question, why make the comparison?

This is a 'preaching to the converted' kind of article - if you already agree that we are sleepwalking into a police state, then you probably found it stirring stuff, particularly with its call to civil disobedience. This sort of thing no doubt has its place. But what is urgently needed is more nuanced sorts of arguments, ones which could persuade the undecided, people who are ambivalent about the government's arguments about the need for greater security. Political debate on the internet does often tend to promote the outlandish comparison and the most extreme form of the argument on both sides, but isn't liberal argument meant to be about rational and thoughtful persuasion, rather than bluster and hyperbole?

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