Liberty in the Age of Terror: A Defence of Civil Society and Enlightenment Values Paperback – 1 Jun 2009
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Praise for Towards the Light 'A rollicking defence of Freedom and Enlightenment in the style of Tom Paine or William Godwin' Spectator 'The even-handed tone of philosophy professor AC Grayling's latest book does not lessen the intensity of its polemical content Grayling underlines the seriousness of today's threats to our liberties' Metro
About the Author
A.C. Grayling is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a multi-talented author. He believes that philosophy should take an active, useful role in society. He has been a regular contributor to The Times, Financial Times, Observer, Independent on Sunday, Economist, Literary Review, New Statesman and Prospect, and is a frequent and popular contributor to radio and television programmes, including Newsnight, Today, In Our Time, Start the Week and CNN news. He is a Fellow of the World Economic Forum at Davos, and advises on many committees ranging from Drug Testing at Work to human rights groups.
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Grayling is clearly alarmed at the erosion of individual liberty taking place in the UK and equally alarmed about the lack of public resistance to this encroachment. The book is clearly aimed at the general public, the language is simple, obvious rather than obscure practical examples are used (often repetitively the Danish cartoon protests) there are no references at the end of the book.
The book starts with Grayling's impassioned defence of Free Speech, human rights and and very brief overview of the history of how these civil liberties were won in the first place. J.S Mill is widely quoted at the start, as is Benjamin Franklin. Grayling also raises the question of how a written constitution might better protect the rights of it's citizens from new bills being passed.
Grayling acknowledges that the threat from terrorism is real, though not a new thing and far less perilous than WWI or WWII. New powers have been raised to counter this threat though they are also used to tackle other forms of illegal crime and illegal immigration. Graying is concerned about mission creep, these new powers and technologies being used for other purposes besides combating terrorism, though he is also unhappy that general liberties should be given up at all in order to fight terrorism. Islamic extremism Grayling sees as a reaction to our liberal, open, tolerant, progressive society, these forces seek to either change our society or punish us for not changing. Ironically by constructing a less free, less tolerant, less open society we are doing the terrorists bidding for them. One of his strongest points is that measures put into place during WWII were temporary where as these new powers are not. A problem though with Grayling's position is that he does accept the government can interfere in the civil rights of citizens if it believes these activities may be putting others at risk (e.g. the indoor smoking ban). From this point it would be easy to build the case that much government activity is aimed at tackling terrorism and other kinds of criminality which place other citizens in danger and are thus justified.
A chapter follows on identity, which Grayling sees as a major cause of terrorism, people who can only identify with one group or identity instead of recognizing they belong to a multitude of identities. Religion Grayling sites as a prime example of how this often leads to violence.
The next chapter looks at social justice, the writer demands great action taken to resolve inhumane or unfair treatment of minorities around the world, he feels some people are often driven to terrorism when regular justice is denied to them, e.g. the IRA. There is also a few pages discussing why Grayling believes in equality when it comes to how the law is practiced and who should vote but also the need to acknowledge and make allowance for differences in people too. An athlete and an elderly lady shouldn't be given the same amount of food and it would in fact be cruel to do so.
Free speech is next brought up, Grayling believes intrinsically in this right, he feels that any position may be argued against or ridiculed but that it should never be banned or silenced by censorship. Free speech Grayling points out underpins every aspect of a healthy flourishing society. He has little time for the Danish Cartoon protesters. I imagine though he means those who seek to use violence or the threat of it to shut down newspapers, rather than simple protesters making their objections felt. He also believes firmly in a free press which can print whatever they please no matter how trivial or stupid the story is.
Tolerance is also tackled, again Grayling believes almost universally in tolerance except in tolerating intolerance. The chapter bizarrely ends though with objections to the collection of private data which has nothing really to do with the chapter heading.
The war on terror is tackled in just 4 pages, Grayling believes slightly oddly that less dependence on oil with reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks. I think the issue is a bit more complicated than that personally.
Grayling next sets out what he'd do to tackle terrorism, this chapter really should have been added to the last one though. He starts by accepting there is a long tradition of peace and tolerance in Islam and that mainstream Islam rejects the actions of Al-Qaeda though he does feel that there is a clash of values happening between liberal west and conservative east. He doesn't really have any answers though in how to stop terrorism, he seems to hope that in the end ordinary citizens rather than government will be more effective at rooting it out rather than bombs and bullets.
CCTV is another target for the book, Grayling notes that we are one of the most watched countries in the world. He is not impressed with the argument of "if you'be done nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide" line, how would these people like CCTV installed inside their homes Grayling wonders? Without CCTV more police would probably need to be employed onto the streets though to make sure the public stay safe.
The book doesn't really try to develop a utilitarian argument either that civil rights and freedom should trump the right to security and stability. Grayling makes it clear he's no anarchist and does believe a minimum level of law and order, as well as centralised government. Supposing the removal of CCTV lead to an increase in crime and a drop in the number of criminal prosecutions. Grayling would no doubt argue that would be the price we'd need to pay to live in a society where Big Brother isn't watching you. But for both the victims of crime and the wider society surely this would also add a greater degree of distress than living in a society where crime was lower. But there isn't any real argument here, no case by case comparison of whether mass surveillance and data collection is effective in tackling crime and terrorism. Grayling's central premise is that liberty is more important than security, he then builds his argument forward from there but I was disappointed he didn't try and justify that starting point. His argument also sways quite a bit between practicality and principle, for example he warns us that ID cards would be expensive and impractical but then makes it clear that he objects to them out of principle in fact and it doesn't matter whether they'd work or not.
Overall there's some important issues raised in this book but the structure is really messy and some chapters have little to do with the title and no connection to the other chapters. I read Grayling's Among the Dead Cities: Is the Targeting of Civilians in War Ever Justified? So I know he can carefully examine historical evidence and debate ethical problems with great skill but I'm afraid this book just fell a little short for me in these respects.
From a practical point of view I thought the book does two things particularly well. First, it takes rather woolly liberal ideas such as "tolerance" and "free speech" and distills them down to clear ethical principles, making them both easier to discuss and to defend. Secondly, it puts forward clear responses to the weasel-words and spin used by politicians as they seek to justify their policies.
The final third of the book - where the author engages with the ideas of other thinkers on liberty, such as Isaiah Berlin and Roger Scruton - is perhaps less effective. Again the writing is very clear and the discussion interesting, but the debates aren't really given enough space to fully flesh out the points at issue.
Overall, highly recommended.
The second half of the book is concerned with the varying perceptions of liberality which are endorsed - or otherwise - by other philosophers. This is a cogent and necessary reminder of what other political philosophers have to say. Grayling has summarised their views and it is up to the reader to determine whether he has been accurate and fair in this project. His comments and conclusions regarding his resumé are, by nature, arbitrary and peremptory. All the same, I believe that, he has got things broadly right.
This is a superb book: it is a polemic which informs you, provokes you to think and then makes you question the current political orthodoxy which we are - until now, impassively accepting - or worse, unaware.
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