The “golden age of liberty” – A reply to Rafael Behr

The Observer’s Rafael Behr has written a wonderfully ridiculous column today proclaiming that we live in the “golden age of liberty”. Perhaps he was jealous not to have been invited to the Convention. For he complains that “The story most often told about modern liberty is one of tragedy, not triumph.” Most often? I thought the story had just begun! But Behr counters our anxiety with extraordinary precision and wit, for example: “We are free to blaspheme, to swear. Holy shit! How free are we?” Or again, “We have the maximum political, moral and cultural licence of any people ever”.

License indeed. Is this he same Behr who was recently warning against license, generously warning the liberal left against surrendering ‘society’ asking “But what about ‘old-fashioned’ codes of public behaviour – politeness, civility? Those are part of the contract that binds individuals together into a society.”

OK, that was in his Observer column nearly two years ago, when unlike the public he sensed nothing wrong with the ultra-boom. Why do people complain, he asked, when “By objective measures, we have never had it so good” and are mostly “living the life of Riley”. Perhaps he has the same cloth ear for what is going on now.

Certainly he has yet to discover the difference between license and liberty. But before we bestow upon him the honour of engaging with his ideas, perhaps he could deal with the basic arguments. In patronising terms he pretends to be grateful for the “well-mobilised artistic, media and political lobby exercising the necessary eternal vigilance.” “I’m glad”, he adds, that, “there are intelligent, dedicated people carefully monitoring our progress down the slippery slope, demarcating in units of kilo-outrage our incremental creep towards the thick end of the wedge. But by fixating on the menacing detail of current state oppression, we miss the big historical picture. Go back a couple of centuries and most of us lived in perpetual fear of arbitrary violence. We couldn’t read or write. Independent thought was a sin.”

So it’s all right now, you see. William Blake had a case perhaps back then, but today we can safely turn to Behr for reassurance. However, is he genuinely glad about those “intelligent people” who I suppose must include myself? I suspect not, as by the end we are being described as nostalgics who “secretly crave repression” to gain an “easy sense of political purpose” with a “craving for the existential certainty of the great moral struggles of the 20th century. But this is the 21st century.” So, not intelligent at all then – can’t even get the century right.

I suppose what I most resent about such floppy verbiage is a failure to read before he writes. I am sure there is a case against the arguments researched by Henry Porter above all. But this would necessitate Behr, for example, going through the Convention briefing paper on What We have Lost (pdf) and replying to its case.

It is true that our potential for liberty is growing. But so are the threats. If you want to sing in London you have to fill out form 696 which feels like the racial profiling of your music, gives you a police record and is both threatening and unnecessary. That is before we get to holding three innocent people for 27 days without charge and then releasing them. The case is not, Timothy Garton Ash put it well, that we are in a Stasi state. But that, and this is the whole point of the mobilisation Behr complains of, we can defeat the threats and secure our liberty – this is indeed the freedom we still have and will exercise.

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