Thursday, 1 November 2007

Civil liberties

In response to QPSW's Briefing on Civil Liberties, and discussion thereof at last Business Meeting, I am here putting forward some thoughts on civil liberties in the current political climate and Quakerism, in the hope of provoking further dialogue on this issue within Sheffield Meeting.
There are a number of reasons why I ought not to be writing this. I am a visitor to this Meeting (not to mention to this country): whatever actions you end up taking around this issue, I will probably be back in Canada by the time they are to be implemented. I am not particularly well-informed about British politics and law. I am even less clear on the inner workings of Sheffield Meeting and its relation to QPSW. Nor do I have proper standing to speak about the testimonies of Quakerism, as my own identity as a Quaker is uncertain.
Nevertheless, I see and hear about things happening around me, here in the UK, Canada and the US, and in their spheres of influence, which grieve and frighten me. "Anti-terrorism" laws have recently been invoked against domestic environmentalist groups protesting the expansion of Heathrow Airport. In Florida recently, a student asking Senator John Kerry a pointed question at a public forum was dragged away by police, handcuffed, and then tasered. An American member of Women in Pink was recently denied entry into Canada on the grounds of her peace activism. Less anecdotally, all three countries have in recent years, ostensibly as anti-terrorism measures, abrogated the Common Law principle of habeas corpus, allowing various officials to shut various classes of people up in prison without criminal charges or possibility of judicial review. The US has, fairly brazenly, institutionalised the use of torture, in Iraq, Guantanamo, and elsewhere; while Britain and Canada have to varying degrees been complicit. And all three countries have instituted programmes of massive domestic surveillance, enhanced by modern data-mining technologies.
My main reaction to this has been to vacillate been shock and cynicism. Part of me is stunned by the desecration of constitutional rights and Common Law freedoms which have traditionally distinguished the Anglo-American system from a police state (or so I was raised to believe). The other part of me shakes its head wearily: all states are fundamentally police states when push comes to shove, when the interests of the ruling class are threatened. I do believe the ruling class see a threat ahead -- not from an Islamic terrorist movement, but from domestic discontent: as the dollar collapses (and perhaps the whole world monetary system with it), as climate change and other environmental catastrophes unfold, as world energy supplies peak and food prices soar. And yet a third part of me continues my day-to-day life, business-as-usual, wondering if I'm being paranoid. There are no food riots going on in my neighbourhood. They aren't putting people like me in Guantanamo ... yet. Certainly, I don't see my concerns being mirrored in the mainstream media, not at levels which I would judge to be appropriate to the urgency of the issues. In any case, I feel acutely isolated.
This brings me to why I'm eager for dialogue on this issue within Sheffield Meeting. In most social situations, in my experience, political discussion tends to divide people into opposing groups. In this Meeting, however, I trust Friends to hear me, to meet that of God in me, as I endeavour to do the same. That is, the Meeting provides a space where we can listen to and support one another deeply, below (or beyond) the level of particular opinions and beliefs, recognising the Spirit that unites us all. There's probably an established Quaker term for what I'm talking about, but I will call it solidarity.
Now, it seems to me that this capacity for, and valuing of, solidarity, characteristic of Quakers (though by no means exclusive to them), is the precise thing that suppression of civil liberties is intended to kill. When civil liberties are suppressed, showing solidarity with those whom the state designates as enemies is punishable as treason. When civil liberties are suppressed, speaking the Truth that you find within yourself is forbidden, if it challenges the state agenda. A police state seeks to achieve a society driven by fear, otherwise complacent, in which no concerted social action may occur except that which the state itself directs. It relies on violence. The evil of this violence is clearest to me when it takes the form of torture (as it often does), where the object is to take a human being and remove from her/him all dignity, indeed all identity, reducing him/her to a state of abject, grovelling compliance with the torturer's whims. It is an attempt to destroy the victim's spirit, to stamp out the victim's capacity for solidarity, even with him/herself.
In the previous paragraph, I tried to make the case that there is indeed a distinctive Quaker testimony about civil liberty. Have I succeeded?
There are many questions of strategy as to how civil liberties might be defended. My judgement is that classic liberal methods, such as petitioning the government, are ineffective nowadays. In any case, the first step, perhaps the most essential step to challenging the slide towards a police state, is to practise solidarity: to listen to one another, to be open to the Truth that is in each of us, to allow ourselves to be comforted by that Truth, to be nurtured by it, and maybe, if need be, TO BE WOKEN THE HELL UP BY IT.
To this end, I propose a meeting in the near future to discuss these issues, and take it from there. I don't know what times tend to be most convenient for other Friends, or how these things get arranged here. If you're interested, please speak to me after Meeting or leave a note in my mail folder.


Gordon Ferguson said...

It could be argued that protecting civil liberties is a political act, and that therefore the involvement of Quakers and other faith or religious groups is simply to support one another in our political activities.
However, true fellowship (or solidarity as Robert calls it) can only exist in a climate of freedom. Fear destroys meaningful personal relationships, and the current climate of fear being stoked up by Western governments, led by large sectors of the media, will destroy all that is good, that Quakers and others have painstakingly built up in our societies over generations. The destruction of civil liberties is indeed a political matter, but it is symptomatic of a deep malaise in our respective western societies.
We have become afraid.
We want the state to protect 'us' from 'them', whoever 'they' may be. However, all the state can do is offer security through ever more restrictive laws and ever more violence. To save us from fear, we need faith, and faith comes from friendship, fellowship and community.
All the great religious teachers knew this.
Jesus did not come to save us from our sins (he simply forgave us our sins), but to save us from fear. At the height of the Cold War, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Quaker philosopher John Macmurray said '...the mission of Jesus...[is to] conquer fear in the hearts of men (sic) and replace it by confidence and trust: to relieve us from life on the defensive, and replace it by a life of freedom and spontaneity: to make life rich and full in place of the thin and anxious existence to which our fears condemn us.'
We do have a testimony concerning civil liberties, but it is not a particular testimony such as Peace or Simplicity, but the testimony of our very faith itself.

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Robert,

An interesting aspect of the Quaker testimonies is that they arise from the actions of individuals who have been faithful to the leadings of the Spirit. This is something quite distinctive about the Quaker approach to social action, that it proceeds from individual acts of faithfulness which are then recognised and supported by the community, rather than being deduced from abstract principles.

This means that the 'Quaker testimony' on civil liberties is expressed in the lives of those Friends who are being led to practice solidarity with the victims of state terrorism, and to resist the extension of state power and surveillance. This is certainly happening to some extent - members of our own Meeting are involved in holding Meetings for Worship at Menwith Hill , the 'electronic monitoring station' run by the USA's National Security Agency right here in Yorkshire...

I hope that the introduction of the UK's new ID card and database will be resisted by significant numbers of Quakers. This is something that will soon affect us all very directly, and require our active consent and collaboration. I hope that we will all be willing to seek the guidance of the Spirit to discern how to respond, even where faithfulness may be costly or difficult.

Simon Heywood said...

It has just come to me that we are not really "Quaking" if we have to make a point of taking a stand on civil liberties.

Quaker life starts in the core of being and spreads outwards by a natural process into the community at large, where it confronts the badness out there. It's inevitably bound to bring the individual Quaker and the Quaker community into conflict with the badness. But it seems unQuakerly to me to go out into the world looking for a fight with the badness. If our lives are rightly ordered, experience suggests that the fight will come looking for us soon enough.

Applying this to civil liberties, I think the question we need to ask ourselves is not "do we have worries/objections/fears about a clampdown on civil liberties?" (course we do) but "How are we to live in the Light? (and following on from that) in what sense, if any, is the current political situation regarding civil liberties preventing us from doing so?"

When we have found that specific obstacle (if there is one), we then just Quake away at it. We "thou" it. So to speak.

So, as a citizen I can do without ID cards, but do they *really* obstruct the Light? How? And when we've answered those questions, is our task to actually campaign in the conventional sense against these things, or is it to live up and live against the obstruction these things put in the way of the Light?

I can see the operations of the Light in the early Quaker objections to tithes and hat honour and so forth, and in the objections to slavery, and in the work that goes on regarding refugees and asylum seekers, and I've got my opinions on ID cards, but I'm at a loss to discern the *Quaker* dilemma posed by ID cards as such - as opposed to the civic dilemma. This is not to say I'm complacent about ID cards. Quite the opposite. I think it's clear that the state as such is not fundamentally guided by the Light, and is therefore, in the final analysis, not on the side of the Light, and therefore, in the final analysis, (I hope), not on our side either. This is not news. Quakers (I think) keep to the law and live peacably within the state, out of wider respect for the human community which the law and state imperfectly represent by default; but we aren't a law abiding and peaceful people out of intrinsic attachment to the law or the state as such. So why should we now take issue with the state over this specific matter? Of course the state will seek to limit and control and undermine the freedom of people and the truth of their lives. That's what the state is for. It couldn't perpetuate itself from generation to generation without doing this. So of course the state is clamping down on civil liberties. Of course it is. What do you expect from a pig but a grunt?

So why take issue with one small grunt? Our quarrel is with the whole pig, and with the "piggish" areas of our own selves and our own lives and spiritual practice.

If we tackle civil liberties in isolation, it'll be shallow and miss the wider and deeper context of our testimonies and our spiritual lives as Quakers. I think the danger of concentrating on civil liberties is that it's a single-issue thing which implies that if we just tweak the civil liberties, then everything will be OK between Quakers and the state. It isn't and it won't.

Which is not what I have to say when I'm navigating by my own common sense and political judgement as a citizen, but such trains of thought are not what makes a Quaker a Quaker.

I have expressed this very badly because I'm thinking at the edge of my own thoughts, but that makes me think it's worth posting. I have no solutions and maybe I'm not objecting to what's already been said on this matter. But I agree with Gordon (I think!) - I think we need to refer to Quaker fundamentals very fully and specifically when we're looking at this.

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Simon,
This is very thought-provoking. I think you are absolutely right about 'Quaking up against' things that try to prevent us living up to the Light.

I see this as true of all the Quaker testimonies, including peace, equality etc. We don't have to go out looking for issues to fight against. If we are striving to live faithfully according to the guidance of the Inward Light we are pretty soon brought into conflict with 'the world'. Although the first place we really confront the 'badness' is in ourselves (at least it is for me), before we are led into non-cooperation with those social systems or practices that are contrary to Truth.

It is useful to be challenged about the basis for my objection to ID cards. The core issue for me is that people have rights and dignity simply because they exist (ultimately because of the indwelling of God in each person). It is perhaps inevitable that governments will try to usurp divine authority by claiming the power to confer or withhold the status of 'personhood'. They already do this in many ways, and so the issue of ID cards is just one symbolic step on this path. But the difference to me is that at the moment anyone in a public place is generally assumed to have civil and legal rights just because they are a person. Once ID cards are introduced, we will all be required to prove that we 'qualify' for these entitlements by showing our ID to every police officer, civil servant, or other official.

This seems to me a significant step by which the State claims the power to completely define the rights and status of every person in the UK. For me this is a religious issue because a human institution is claiming a part of God's authority - just the kind of thing that the Biblical prophets objected to...
'The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.'
Ps 24:1

Simon Heywood said...

Thanks Craig. Looking at Amnesty International literature I am focusing my general "hunch" that the heart of the matter is in the whole situation rather than specific issues. Robert's original concern in taking this forward related (as he said at the meeting) as much to events in the US (the PATRIOT act etc.) as to the situation here in Britain which currently does not seem quite so bad. My own concern has been quite selfish in that it relates to surveillance/obstruction of people protesting in Britain (me sometimes being one of these). Looking at Amnesty's literature, however, their concern is (obviously) things like Guantanamo, rendition, internment and other issues relating to the "clampdown on terrorism." Few of these affect many Quakers directly, so the point for us remains mostly the principle of the thing and bearing witness to the humanity of the oppressed and the fundamental gormlessness of a narrowly polarised, adversarial, zero-sum, win-lose approach to conflict.

Each single issue (like ID cards) can be debated and worried over in isolation, but to do this would be a mistake for us I believe, because our objective is to address matters of the spirit. The spirit of a community is not shown piecemeal in individual actions, but practically in the totality of its actual behaviour, and the totality of the concrete results of that behaviour. By our fruits we know ourselves. At that level we seem to be confronting in society at large

(a) a polarisation of opinion and a closing off of awareness, intellectual and imaginative openness, and connection with reality and our common humanity

(b) exaggerated fantasies about the nature and power of a perceived "enemy" coupled with a state of denial about the nature of the actual conflict and the underlying problems - from sections of the now-vestigial political left, but mostly from the political right, and reaching right to the top, to the people in power

(c) an instinctive lust for control by individuals in power, probably rooted in their own ego, their own fear of suffering and failure, and their perceived social/ institutional identity and responsibilities as "leaders." (I recently read a very interesting article in the Westmorland GM book on war prevention saying that one of the major causes of war was leadership. Not bad leadership; not individual leaders; just leadership, the institution of leadership. The more I think about this, the more true it seems to me to be. So three cheers for the still miraculously leaderless Quakers.)

(d) a fatal inability to consider our own faults as a society

People of my age and older will remember all these problems well from the Irish troubles. What is new is the global scale of the conflict and the technological resources at the disposal of the state. Not to mention the pressing nature of more real and substantive problems like the environment and hunger.

This to me is the point to protesting ID cards. At a personal level and as a single issue, I can't in honesty see how they dehumanise me any more than a National Insurance number or a birth certificate does, but as on piece of the mosaic they are a sign of some troubled times and something possibly worth taking up. But given the context, I think we need to carefully discern the right spirit in which we should bear witness on this matter. The problem with single issue stuff is you end up a side alley - like the greens did with GM and Brent Spar, the decommissioned oil platform they occupied to embarrass ESSO. On GM, we've ended up with a debate in which the issue of GM is seen as being about the health implications of the technology, which is actually a *relatively* minor concern as far as I'm aware (although I have read that there have been some underpublicised GM deaths in developing countries - naturally - which would rather clearly prove me wrong in saying this). However, the issue with GM is not the fact that eating GM food is bad for you (it doesn't seem to be in the short run at least), it's the fact that hunger is caused by inequality, not by the DNA of food crop species, and the point more broadly is that technological fixes to moral and political problems of unequal and excessive consumption aren't a panacea and often compound the problem, and this applies not only to food but to energy (hence global warming) and everything in fact and is in a sense the fundamental moral and spiritual challenge of our whole time. Similarly the issue with Brent Spar was not what was the best way of decommissioning an old oil platform - Greenpeace chose this as a way of symbolising the same big fundamental problem of energy production and consumption. I like Greenpeace mostly but they do often tend to shoot themselves in the foot a bit by reducing everything to symbols in this way (or focusing on adversarial approaches to small issues as examples) and then trying to pretend that the symbol (or small issue or example) is the actual big issue. I can see why they do it, it's an effective form of low-budget PR. But the weakness of it is, if you kick up a fuss over GM or Brent Spar as an issue in isolation, someone else, usually the enemy in the narrative you've constructed on the small issue, "calls your bluff" and starts debating the small issue in isolation, and on the small issue in isolation the enemy usually has some kind of point. Where they're wrong, if they're wrong, is in their general underlying assumptions and vested interests. At the end of the day, the real debate underlying all these debates is not the question "How do we solve this particular problem?" but "What kind of world do we want to live in?" People seem to have this tendency to view any problem facing the world as an opportunity to implement the solution which nudges the world towards their own vision of what the world should be. So anyone's view of specific solutions to specific problems will tend to be an often coded or indirect answer to that unspoken question.

And this is where we come in as Quakers because we know, more or less, what kind of world we want to live in, and perhaps in contrast to many, we are defined by our willingness to say so, if only by letting our lives speak. We want to live in the Light and we want to cherish and answer the Light in others. As an objective this kind of eludes verbal definition but it's specific and practical to form the basis for discernment and strategy - or at least if it isn't specific and practical enough for this, we may as well disband and go home.

A final example - Iraq. The debate got bogged down in dodgy dossiers and surges, whereas the basic problem with invading Iraq was that the invaders didn't want democracy and didn't seriously want to do any good in Iraq except possibly in the highly deluded and notional sense in which people like Hitler and Napoleon wanted to do good in Europe. And we're all sat around in the west debating the matter as if "our leaders" were institutionally competent and disinterested moral agents, when they aren't.

So I think if we were to debate the pros and cons of ID cards simply as such (I'm not saying Quakers are or aren't likely to do this - but just to make the point) we will similarly miss the big issue, which is the spiritual direction of our time - in Quaker language, our world's common orientation as regards the Light - in secular language, the kind of world we want to live in. The problem with ID cards is not what they are, it's the general trend they're an example of. And the brunt of the tendency towards greater suffering and injustice, of which ID cards are perhaps a relatively minor example, will fall on those already marginalised under the current system. And as Auden said (in 1939) "those to whom evil is done do evil in return." Particularly, the record shows, if they're young males.

My current feeling is that Quakers ought to be at a "watching brief" / "expression of concern" level regarding civil liberties as a general issue in Britain in terms of ID cards, surveillance, etc, with possible "nonviolent conflict escalation" if things continue to get worse. As regards things like internment and rendition, the global stance of the British state relating to the War "against" Terror, and the related issue of the general welfare of Muslims in Britain, and the existential dilemma of the current generation of young Muslims in Britain and around the world, and the whole future development of the Muslim Umma as a global issue, these are issues we ought already to be speaking out about, in favour of proactive conflict transformation, and not so much in terms of old fashioned "Stop Everything Bad Now" style protest which is fundamentally just another way of saying "yah boo" to your perceived enemies (which is a good idea only sometimes).

Hm, went off on one a bit there, I'll have to come back to it later and see if I agree with any of it!