Saturday, February 28, 2009

Silent malevolent voices

You'll be seeing a post more or less identical to this one on a number of blogs this weekend, I think. But to add one personal note: it's been impossible to watch what's been happening in Britain over the past few years without a sense of surreal horror. It's as if the government wants to turn the UK into a theme park devoted to recreating scenes from 1984, The Prisoner, and V for Vendetta, but they're doing it so slowly and quietly that too few realize what's happening until it's too late to say anything.

Philip Pullman wrote an essay on this topic for the Times of London which would be worth reading for the power of its language alone. That essay appeared in the print version and then online. Now I'm posting it in its entirety below. Many other bloggers are posting this text on their own sites, for a reason I'll note at the end.

To mark the Convention on Modern Liberty, the children’s author has written this article

Are such things done on Albion's shore?

The image of this nation that haunts me most powerfully is that of the sleeping giant Albion in William Blake's prophetic books. Sleep, profound and inveterate slumber: that is the condition of Britain today.

We do not know what is happening to us. In the world outside, great events take place, great figures move and act, great matters unfold, and this nation of Albion murmurs and stirs while malevolent voices whisper in the darkness - the voices of the new laws that are silently strangling the old freedoms the nation still dreams it enjoys.

We are so fast asleep that we don't know who we are any more. Are we English? Scottish? Welsh? British? More than one of them? One but not another? Are we a Christian nation - after all we have an Established Church - or are we something post-Christian? Are we a secular state? Are we a multifaith state? Are we anything we can all agree on and feel proud of?

The new laws whisper:

You don't know who you are

You're mistaken about yourself

We know better than you do what you consist of, what labels apply to you, which facts about you are important and which are worthless

We do not believe you can be trusted to know these things, so we shall know them for you

And if we take against you, we shall remove from your possession the only proof we shall allow to be recognised

The sleeping nation dreams it has the freedom to speak its mind. It fantasises about making tyrants cringe with the bluff bold vigour of its ancient right to express its opinions in the street. This is what the new laws say about that:

Expressing an opinion is a dangerous activity

Whatever your opinions are, we don't want to hear them

So if you threaten us or our friends with your opinions we shall treat you like the rabble you are

And we do not want to hear you arguing about it

So hold your tongue and forget about protesting

What we want from you is acquiescence

The nation dreams it is a democratic state where the laws were made by freely elected representatives who were answerable to the people. It used to be such a nation once, it dreams, so it must be that nation still. It is a sweet dream.

You are not to be trusted with laws

So we shall put ourselves out of your reach

We shall put ourselves beyond your amendment or abolition

You do not need to argue about any changes we make, or to debate them, or to send your representatives to vote against them

You do not need to hold us to account

You think you will get what you want from an inquiry?

Who do you think you are?

What sort of fools do you think we are?

The nation's dreams are troubled, sometimes; dim rumours reach our sleeping ears, rumours that all is not well in the administration of justice; but an ancient spell murmurs through our somnolence, and we remember that the courts are bound to seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and we turn over and sleep soundly again.

And the new laws whisper:

We do not want to hear you talking about truth

Truth is a friend of yours, not a friend of ours

We have a better friend called hearsay, who is a witness we can always rely on

We do not want to hear you talking about innocence

Innocent means guilty of things not yet done

We do not want to hear you talking about the right to silence

You need to be told what silence means: it means guilt

We do not want to hear you talking about justice

Justice is whatever we want to do to you

And nothing else

Are we conscious of being watched, as we sleep? Are we aware of an ever-open eye at the corner of every street, of a watching presence in the very keyboards we type our messages on? The new laws don't mind if we are. They don't think we care about it.

We want to watch you day and night

We think you are abject enough to feel safe when we watch you

We can see you have lost all sense of what is proper to a free people

We can see you have abandoned modesty

Some of our friends have seen to that

They have arranged for you to find modesty contemptible

In a thousand ways they have led you to think that whoever does not want to be watched must have something shameful to hide

We want you to feel that solitude is frightening and unnatural

We want you to feel that being watched is the natural state of things

One of the pleasant fantasies that consoles us in our sleep is that we are a sovereign nation, and safe within our borders. This is what the new laws say about that:

We know who our friends are

And when our friends want to have words with one of you

We shall make it easy for them to take you away to a country where you will learn that you have more fingernails than you need

It will be no use bleating that you know of no offence you have committed under British law

It is for us to know what your offence is

Angering our friends is an offence

It is inconceivable to me that a waking nation in the full consciousness of its freedom would have allowed its government to pass such laws as the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), the Crime and Disorder Act (1998), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), the Terrorism Act (2000), the Criminal Justice and Police Act (2001), the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Extension Act (2002), the Criminal Justice Act (2003), the Extradition Act (2003), the Anti-Social Behaviour Act (2003), the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004), the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005), the Inquiries Act (2005), the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005), not to mention a host of pending legislation such as the Identity Cards Bill, the Coroners and Justice Bill, and the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.


And those laws say:

Sleep, you stinking cowards

Sweating as you dream of rights and freedoms

Freedom is too hard for you

We shall decide what freedom is

Sleep, you vermin

Sleep, you scum

Source: Times Online - Malevolent voices that despise our freedoms

The above link now gives a 404 error.

Update: After being missing from the website for around three days, the original piece has been restored and can be seen at the above link. No word yet on why it took so long to fix. Thanks to Garrie Burr for the heads up in the comments!


  1. Eek.

    Words fail to convey the absolute horror of that image ... although the editorial you reprinted sure comes pretty damn close.

  2. Is it wrong I'm swayed towards a dictatorship simply because that poster is so well designed?

  3. Apparently that poster and others like it were inspired by a psychological study indicating that images of faces or eyes made people behave the way they would if someone was actually watching them, even if no one else was around.

    Here's another image that's equally creepy. And all this dates back more than six years, as demonstrated by this blog post from October 2002.

    This scares me way more than terrorists. I'm a great advocate of cameras and webcams and cellphones with video; I love that people can document events and share them on YouTube. A lot of wrongs have been righted or prevented by cameras. But there's a difference between we can all see the rest of the world and know it better and we can see you but you can't see us, and we will monitor your behavior and take action whenever we choose.

  4. Rob: I've always been a huge fan of British graphic design myself! For years, Gill Sans was my absolute favorite typeface...

  5. The 404 is gone, the original article is back, but the terror remains.


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