Proud to Be One of Voltaire’s Bastards

In one of my classes, I introduced students to the idea of “dystopia” and I used George Orwell’s 1984 and George Lucas’ film Revenge of the Sith to do it. In the case of Star Wars, Padme makes the following observation as the Emperor declares an Imperial Senate in to existence (replacing the Republic), “So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.” People were willing to give up their freedom for the illusion of more security based on a perceived, not actual, existential threat. I recall William L. Shirer, in his book Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, observing something similar: he watched Adolf Hitler rise to address the members of the Reichstag proclaiming a 1000 year Reich in to existence (also to the sound of applause).

The interesting thing about a dystopia is how subtly society slips in to it (we barely notice the change); and in the process, a democratic virtue like questioning of authority, for instance, once considered necessary to keeping power accountable becomes something “subversive” and “dangerous”; and tolerance and pluralism, so integral to the healthy functioning of a democracy, takes hits from the right as people race bate Syrians and Muslims on Facebook and Twitter. Pluralism is being replaced by a fear-mongering tribalism (Donald Trump’s popularity is a fundamental reflection of this tribalism) where minorities once tolerated are suddenly pressed to either assimilate or disappear.

What’s wrong with everybody? Maybe nothing is actually wrong: we are, after all, working with the same grey matter, the same software as it were, our cave man precursors used; and despite the fact we might lug around smart phones instead of rocks nowadays doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve become any smarter as a species. Not really.

Reason over passion, reason over passion….

Then I got to thinking how odd it was that so few of us expressed our discontent over the passage of Bill C-51. You want an example of dystopia? Look at Canada. We have no privacy. The American security apparatus, if it doesn’t already have all your online information, can make formal requests to the Canadian government to get that information. The so-called practical minded of you out there who just accepted the inevitability of our privacy being robbed from us reason, poorly I might add, that “if I don’t do anything wrong then I have nothing to fear.”

Here’s why you should fear.

Popular movements like Occupy Wall Street or Idle No More, or just citizens who want to speak freely to one another, all of their thoughts are monitored, stored, parsed, and used by intelligence agencies (CSIC, CSEC, NSA, etc.) to plan strategies on how to weaken or remove these popular challenges to existing authority; the reality is it was challenges to authority, and not being subservient to it or preserving it, that led to the expansion of democracy. The rise of the middle class didn’t come about because the political right suddenly realized it’d be a good thing to distribute wealth more equitably; on the contrary, unions fought and pressured corporations and governments for change; also, the expansion of minority rights in either Canada or the United States was due to civil rights movements akin to Occupy defying the status quo; the Occupy movement, for its part, is an expression of popular discontent at how brazen and free-wheeling our Wall Street/Main Street and corporate masters have become through the buying of elections (and then using law makers) to pass laws not in the public interest.

The leaders of popular movements are identified through their online activity. Leaders are identified, then targeted, then isolated, and finally silenced: this happened in the early days of the collective-leadership of the Occupy Movement where outspoken individuals were identified through the use of ANSI devices (a technology the FBI uses to hack cell phones from airplanes flying above crowds of protesters). Since the leadership structure of Occupy was essentially decentralized, the ANSI technology proved invaluable for targeting the most important people (out of the crowd, so to speak) in the movement. Once identified, cell messages could be read, personal vulnerabilities could be determined, and then the targeted leader would be arrested and charged with conspiracy (a completely baseless charge). Following arrest the affected leader would be given the rather expensive choice of either attempting to defend themselves (and their principles) by spending thousands of dollars in court and possibly losing the case and their freedom or accepting a plea bargain in exchange for agreeing to leave the movement forever.

According to Edward Snowden the surveillance state wasn’t so much designed to detect terrorists (that was just a secondary justification); rather, the resources of the surveillance state is being by American and Canadian corporations to spy on corporations from other countries. In the case of Canada, our security apparatus helped mining companies here spy on mining companies in Brazil; and even more troubling is the use of the surveillance state to identify genuinely democratic-minded and democratic-spirited people to prevent them from organizing or challenging the powerful. Where have all the patriots gone? They’re being silenced through the threat of frivolous lawsuits.

That’s why you should be concerned.

The ability to protest peacefully, to pressure government in to accepting and acting upon the popular will, are not terrorist activities; but defining what is terrorism, or what’s in the state’s best interest, is left to those who occupy positions of power; and these protest activities—not elections or participating in broken representative governments or being forced to choose between two equally abhorrent presidential candidates—are the basis of democracy. Your activism is what keeps democracy alive.

The right to privacy, once guaranteed as a fundamental democratic right, has been swept aside as a “privilege” (as opposed to being safe-guarded as a “right”). Strangely enough, we can never quite catch the “reds” or “terrorists.” So we exist in a state of permanent war with the presence of enemies—domestic and foreign—justifying the existence of the surveillance state and a permanent war economy in the United States. The war economy is preserved through a corporate controlled media telling us who we have to fear, why we have to fear, and that it is somehow reasonable to spend half the nation’s treasure per year to maintain the military. And the West attacked Iraq, Afghanistan, and now we are cannibalizing freedom right here at home. To what end?

And I got to thinking: what did I do to try and prevent C-51 from passing? Did I vote Liberal and for Trudeau hoping he’d keep his promise and soften some the bill’s more problematic articles? No. He’ll whitewash C-51 to make it more palatable to the public while keeping it fundamentally intact. I was like everyone else—walking like a lemming, passive, waiting for someone else to solve my problem. Waiting for government to do things for you is not democracy in action, it is submission and an abjuration of your responsibilities as a citizen in this country. Political parties promise to give you scraps from the table of power, e.g. spending on child care, spending on capital projects, reducing taxes, etc. Why don’t the political platforms of the various parties reflect the desire to protect fundamental democratic values and rights and freedoms? Because, our political masters reason, we the people are too stupid to understand such things; so let’s satisfy the narrow interests of the tribes, let’s distract them by feeding their appetites and acquisitiveness, and sweep under the table fundamental democratic principles in the name of building a more “efficient” state versus a more “democratic” one.

We have failed each other. You and I. We did. We sat quietly watching wide-eyed as Liberty, Privacy, Rights, Freedom, etc. were herded in to cattle cars and taken to camps for “processing.”

In my 20s I was fascinated by Voltaire because of his skill as a writer, his biting rhetoric, his humor and insight. He fought both Church and secular authorities in the name of progress and freedom. I lamented the fact I didn’t have such an enemy (as he did) to fight.

No longer.