But there is one thing that I do not miss about England. I do not miss the sense of constantly being watched. I do not miss that gnawing suspicion that my private life is in fact public.
The year before I moved to America, an official report
compiled on behalf of the then information commissioner Richard Thomas,
revealed that the British people were more spied upon by their
political leaders than any other population in the free world.
The surveillance experts and academics who compiled the report pointed
out that through the growing network of databases, surveillance systems
and security cameras, the average Brit now has his movements tracked,
habits profiled and photograph taken up to 300 times a day. Since then,
it has only gotten worse, with 2009 being the worst year for civil
liberty since the days of the Viking invasions, as this compendium of stories indicates.
Living in England was becoming rather like living in the Soviet Union
under communism, with lawmakers cultivating what Guardian columnist
Henry Porter described as “a we-know-where-you-live edge to the message, a sense that this government is dividing the nation into suspects and informers.” I just read in the news today that the British government is considering offering bribes to people for spying on their neighbors.
I can say from personal experience that Mr. Porter’s words ring true. The year before I moved to America, a social worker visited us to investigate because there had been an anonymous complaint about our parenting. The complaint, we were told, was that our children were not dressed warmly enough when playing outside. Social services also had to investigate us because an anonymous informant reported that our children were being too noisy when playing outside.
There was another occasion when an officer from the environmental services showed up to investigate our property. The reason? They had received an anonymous complaint that we were harboring rats in our back garden. After conducting an investigation and failing to find any rats, the officer left us in peace.
We actually got off lucky, since we had friends of friends who were investigated by the thought police for their beliefs. The tendency to police beliefs has become so widespread in Britain that it was condemned by the measured Dr. N. T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, who spoke to the House of Lords on 9 February, 2006 about a new class of crimes which “have to do, not with actions but with ideas and beliefs.” He said:
“People in my diocese have told me that they are now afraid to speak their minds in the pub on some major contemporary issues for fear of being reported, investigated, and perhaps charged. My Lords, I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime…. The
word for such a state of affairs is ‘tyranny’: sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police.”
America is not far behind. When I moved here in 2007 I was dismayed to find congress considering a hate crime bill that would have had the effect of spying on our beliefs in a way not dissimilar to the way British surveillance cameras spy on our movements. Then only last year various prominent members of the US Senate, including House Speak Nancy Pelosi, circulated a bill in Congress for the so-called “Fairness Doctrine.” The bill would require the holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. Whether a radio host met these standards would be decided by a totalitarian “Federal Communications
Commission.” That means censorship – censorship of ideas.
What the lawmakers of Britain and America seem not to grasp is that George Orwell’s musings were never meant to be a blueprint.