On Liberty

On the occasion of the campaign group Liberty‘s 80th birthday, the Guardian published the thoughts of such writers, thinkers, and activists, as Julian Barnes, Edward Snowden, and Shami Chakrabarti, on the topic of liberty. I highly recommend that you read it, and to that illustrious list, I add some of my own thoughts below.

On Liberty

Of the many things that are passed down to us, our individual freedoms and liberties count among the most important. Codified in law we are protected from overreach and abuse by the state, but we cannot live off past triumphs forever. And there have been some major triumphs – the UN Declaration of Human Rights, The Geneva Conventions, The International Criminal Court. Yet these achievements are not monuments for us to admire; they are not merely to be a reminder of our forebears’ courage and intelligence. For if we treat them as such, they will surely become so.

As with any monument left out in the cold for too long, they will be corroded by the political climate, denuded one liberty at a time, as we are made to believe that it was only the loss of ornament and nothing fundamental. That is until one day the monument is toppled in an inverted revolution. If we have walked past it every day with our admiration turned to indifference, how will we notice if it is gone?

These liberties we possess are strong and they give us strength too, but, like us, they are not indestructible; their vulnerabilities must be met with energy and vigour. Campaigning, letter writing, petitions, protests, defending the powerless, donating time and money, correcting always the self-interested arguments of the powerful, and guarding too against our own exploitable prejudices. If we do nothing, we will find our revered monuments to be made of sand, which as Jimi Hendrix sang, “And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually.”

To see what you can do, please consider visiting the websites of Liberty, PEN International, Amnesty.

World Dystopian Literature Day

The name of Orwell has been much mentioned recently, a product of society’s collective word-association – to each mention of Edward Snowden and his leaking of the pernicious spying activities by the NSA (and US government), come the words George Orwell or Big Brother. Whilst not exactly inaccurate, these reflexive responses are perhaps an exaggeration or rather an over-simplification, and by repeating them mantra-like, we block ourselves from truly engaging with the issues at hand. I believe they deserve proper examination, and not mere caricature.

My solution is to propose a World Dystopian Literature Day, with an inaugural date of the 2nd September 2013, on which citizens and readers from around the globe can come together, virtually or otherwise, and (re)read a classic novel from the canon of dystopian literature. By doing so we will refresh our memories of the potential horrors, rekindle in ourselves the fires of protest and will initiate a continued and informed debate about the nature of our free society. Perhaps that way we can avoid ever drifting too close to the darkness of an illiberal police state, to a state of dis-Enlightenment.

Front covers of five great works of dystopian fiction.

Front covers of five great works of dystopian fiction – The Trial, Seeing, 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.

After all, a free and democratic society needs to continually rebuild and refresh its liberties to every new technological and worldly challenge, otherwise it will inexorably deteriorate into totalitarianism. Centralised power begets power.

It’s a cliche that we who learn nothing of our past are condemned to repeat it. No surprise then that the fictional warnings from literature about potential futures receive similar short shrift. It shouldn’t be thus, not when the novel reveals to us the very real human pain and suffering that such manipulative and oppressive states can cause, not when the novel as a storytelling medium can make us empathise with these people and do so perhaps more keenly than any non-fiction account of historical atrocities ever could.

The specific aims of World Dystopian Literature Day are therefore:

  1. To guard against complacency in society regarding our individual rights and freedoms.
  2. To encourage debate around the themes explored in these novels.
  3. To promote a critical appreciation of this genre of literature.
  4. To raise awareness of the continued abuse of human rights by governments around the world.
  5. To provide a check against the growing power and influence of transnational corporations.

So, which book to read to accomplish these goals? Orwell is one such precautionary voice, but there are many others of equal importance, and I mention only a few here.

There is perhaps an obvious sort of dystopian literature, especially common in science fiction, in which the author describes a self-contained and fully-realised world that is clearly different to our own, and there are often myriad futuristic details to reinforce this sense of otherness. 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, excellent and famous books all, and ones that belong to this sort of dystopian literature.

But there is another kind out there, one more subtly defined, in which the fictional world is our world, or rather, is recognisably and substantively the world extant at the time of writing, with perhaps one key change. To my mind these stories are just as relevant, in some ways more so, and can project a sensation of utter terror. Examples of this second category in my opinion include, The Trial by Franz Kafka and Seeing by José Saramago.

Though The Trial speaks to a deep and painful sense of social isolation and misunderstanding, and permits many other readings besides, it can also be taken straightforwardly as an exposition of the horrifying and inhumane nature of a secretive, and potentially unknowable, justice system. Perhaps this is made more terrifying when one considers the rulings on certain aspects of the US’s treatment of security laws, namely the Patriot Act, whose interpretation by the executive office is allowed to be secret. And this in a democracy!

Seeing by Saramago is not at first sight literature of the dystopian class, but in its chilling tale of the cynical and antidemocratic response by a government to a democratic challenge to its authority, whereby the citizens return masses of blank votes, it reveals the lengths to which power will go in order to preserve its own power. Morals, truth, citizens – all will be sacrificed in the name of the preservation of the state. A powerful allegory given the revelations of the previous weeks, in which grave, potential abuses have been deemed necessary for the security of our society. And yet, we had no say in this, democracy was subverted and ignored. Our permission was not sought, for the simple reason that they knew it would have been denied.

So it’s clear that dystopian literature, though providing extreme visions of possible worlds, is still highly relevant today. If, like me, you believe the idea of a World Dystopian Literature Day is a worthwhile one, then please share this article via whichever means you prefer and let’s see if we can make it a reality. Please do add your thoughts and suggestions below, and if it does receive enough interest I’ll setup a separate website to promote it.

But whatever happens, come the 2nd September I’ll be rereading Seeing to remind myself just what’s at stake here. I do hope you will join me.

Andrew Cookson

Note: a list of dystopian fiction can be found on these wikipedia pages.