People shouldn’t be afraid of their government, governments should be afraid of their people.
– V, V for Vendetta
There you have it, Alan Moore paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson through the mouth of his favourite masked hero, V. The graphic novel/set of 10 comics were popular, and Warner Bros 2005 Natalie Portman film brought it to the masses. Which is excellent, because it’s a very clever film with all kinds of interesting and important messages and themes. And you see up Natalie Portman’s skirt for about half a second, which was the best thing to happen in the universe until Black Swan. Anyhow, seven years on I’m noting an unwelcome side-effect of the movie’s popularity. No, not the Anonymous movement. They are largely awesome. Here’s a pic of me in an Anon mask, about to go to a foam party. It was sooooo gooddam fun.
No, the negative consequence of the movie was that lots of people felt ‘converted’, or at least ‘informed’, and hence knew about politics. More to the point, they kept misquoting Jefferson at almost any given opportunity. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a catchy quote. It’s relevant when you are talking about various US and UK developments of the period – to reel off some of the tired list: Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, 64-day detention, Michael Howard. [I was scared of Michael Howard on a very primal level. It’s the eyes.]
However, the whole chiasmus is basically a big unexamined rhetorical stunt (and you know how I love them). Let’s examine:
People shouldn’t be afraid of their government
No, they shouldn’t, not in the way Evey and Stephen Fry fear the (fictional fascist) Nosefire Party or The Leader (John Hurt) . Not in the way North Koreans presumably do, or most Syrians quite evidently do.
But most of the cases this handy one-size-fits-all mantra are applied to in the West are not even vaguely comparable. They mix ‘fear’ and ‘healthy respect’, and effective government needs healthy respect. Most people fear the consequences of serious crimes. They fear the actions of the government in cases where they do shit that hurts others. Arguably, some of our banks should have feared their governments more, and their governments should have been more fearful (where ‘fearful’ means ‘show a minimal interest in regulating a huge and potentially disastrous industry’.) When we look at the nature of effective government power, we see that it requires authority, the ability to make rules and be obeyed. When the illusion of this authority breaks down, so does civil order – see (whatever riot you want, but particularly) the London Riots. When small protests and petty crime went unpunished, and TV images of the police cowering or retreating were broadcast, a minority ceased to fear the government, and acted outside the law, spiralling into something rather awful.
There are other government-based fears and trusts. I trust the state to protect me (to a large degree), and that is why I am happy that I do not own, and cannot purchase, a gun. Moreover, I trust the state’s evaluation that more lax firearms laws would actually make the country more dangerous. There’s a fear I’m happy for Dave to take on himself. On a totally different note, I fear the breakdown of the government’s order in even small ways. Let’s take traffic lights. I have a very healthy respect for them. If even 2% of people on a given day decided to ignore the dictates of traffic lights, there would be a lot of ‘splat’ on the roads, pavements and twisted-wrecks.
Plus, we should be afraid of government erring, so we don’t completely relax – we do need to keep scrutinising what they do and how policies, diplomacy, the economy progress. Fear that they’ll fuck up or act inadequately is very healthy – like checking your intimates for lumps. We just shouldn’t have to fear extra-legal arrests, suspensions of habeas corpus, torture etc.
In essence, we need some degree of respect/trust/fear (different ways of looking at the same thing, here) to prevent anarchy. Given that Moore’s V is explicitly an anarchist, it isn’t surprising that he and I disagree. But, given that most people who deploy the ‘fear’ quote are not anarchists, it is surprising that they get away with it.
V’s position is interesting, because he essentially believes that we can self-regulate successfully with no form of centralised power. He believes all people can protect, educate and provide for themselves, that police force is unnecessary, that highways will be maintained and bins emptied by community spirit. I’m afraid I’m not so optimistic.
Governments should be afraid of their people
Well, well. Certainly, they should be aware that they are being scrutinised, and that they are accountable. They shouldn’t be concerned that journalists will dig up pictures of them smoking green in the 80s, or of their poor knowledge of pop music, because it’s totally irrelevant to their ability to govern. Nor should they fear endless punditry analysis of their dress, their ‘sincerity’ or their performance and ‘point scoring’ at Prime Minister’s Questions. They should fear the democratic power of voters when they act, bearing in mind that major fuckups will deliver them from power. Their legislation and spending must have a clear rationale, and well-meaning reasons behind it. All well and good.
At the same time, governments currently fear the people rather too much. This is largely the fault of the media, the government’s simplest source of gauging the vox populi. They U-turn on policies they actually believe will work, because of the knee-jerk reactions of vocal minorities. They pick policies based on what they think will be popular, not what will help the country in their own opinions. They are, in effect, beholden to the media, which means that rather than having a professional government acting on its own best knowledge, we have a reality TV legislature determining policies based on very little, and very skewed, information. I wanted to relate this to AV in some way, but I don’t have the energy. Work it out for yourself.
So as Ali G once opined, we should not fear, but “R.E.S.T.E.C.P each other”. Politicians should be less patronising, more logical, and present their reasons for action to the public as if we were intelligent human beings, not impatient children desperately tugging Nanny’s coat tails for more ice cream. [Incidentally, the Tories are attempting to do this on the economy, which is valiant and quite brave, whether they’re right or not.]
The restecp should go both ways. We the people ought to be less hostile to politicians in general, and save our savagery for the ones who clearly break the rules. The majority of MPs, Representatives and Senators are highly educated, well connected, and have sacrificed much higher incomes and straightforward lifestyles in favour of a job that is hugely competitive, has long hours, high stress, high accountability (rightly), lots of backstabbing and hostility (e.g. whips) and potentially ruinous media pressure – all because they want to improve their neighbourhood and country. What wankers. What utter wankers.
And yes. I have read the graphic. It’s awesome.
Edit 02/08/2012 due to commentary from respected anarchist