Dissent is Neither Threat or Subversion

Politics Social Media

            Pearl River      I know it seems like I’ve gone down a black hole and seem to be seeing various forms of repression everywhere I look these days, but I’m just dealing with the facts compared to some of my compatriots who see vast conspiracies at ever turn.  Just as one example of how crazy it can get, take the fact that the attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri were able to get a Louisiana federal judge to bar the FBI and other administration folks from communicating with social media companies, because they think the long hand of the law is suppressing conservatives on these platforms.  What do I know, I thought that’s all that was on Twitter and some of the others.

Some folks are too sensitive, but then there is real repression.  China is offering huge cash bounties for anyone who will help them track some of the Hong Kong dissidents who fled in exile after the crackdowns on protest.  See what I mean?  Nothing subtle about that.

Or, the cases of “oh my goodness are you kidding,” like the decades long activities of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) for 43 years in Britain running from 1968 until coming to light in 2010.  This outfit got some global attention around 2011 when a bunch of women sued over sexual relationships they had been tricked into by undercover cops working with the SDS.  Most of that press, if any of you remember that dustup, was the usual titillating nature of the news.  All of that is indeed bad business, but the new report by the Undercover Policing Inquiry on the SDS activities between 1968 and 1982 indicates that was just the tip of the iceberg, and the reality of this kind of governmental mischief is so much worse than many might have imagined.  It is also one of those stories that may have been broken in the UK, but definitely could have and, by every indication, did happen here and likely continues in many countries around the world.

All of this was detailed recently in the London Review of BooksThis secret unit was supposed to be investigating subversion, which might commonly be understood as efforts to directly act to undermine the government.  Fair enough.  It began though in response to the anti-war protests around the Vietnam War, which immediately makes me raise my eyebrows, and that’s where the trouble began.  The SDS folks infiltrated simple protest groups and routinely spied on people who expressed any dissent or opposition to government policies in the UK.  We know full well that happened in the US, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was notorious in that regard.

The justification for such spying in the UK rested on a definition of subversion as “those [actions] which threaten the safety or well-being of the state, and which are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means.”  The test was two-part, both “intention and threat.”  The issue is obvious, isn’t it?  It can’t just be mouth.  It also has to be actioned.  The old schoolyard maxim about the difference between words and sticks-and-stones should have been applied.  Instead, simple speech was seen as potential subversion and justified planting undercover cops, who of course, sometimes were more provocateurs, than police.

In the political polarization around the world, it’s worth worrying that the distinctions between dissent that opposes public policy and governmental action and ends up in protest is no longer seen as a hallmark of democracy, but is now seen by too many in power as a direct threat to the state, thereby rationalizing repression without any boundaries.  This is not really a case of “it couldn’t happen here,” but that it could happen here and everywhere else as well, and that’s a serious problem.  We could simply say that those in power need to get a thicker skin, but we know in reality those in power will more likely simply abuse that power in dealing with the opposition, and then it gets worse for all of us.