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  • Writer's pictureAnna Kaminski

On (un)civil liberties

Updated: May 6, 2020

While the first two weeks of lockdown in March dragged on for decades, April seems to have flown by in about six minutes. As of tomorrow, we - the residents of Spain - will be allowed out. Just as well, really, since we've gone from my favourite clandestine walking weather (foggy, cold, 20m visibility)... mid-20s heat and sunshine in a matter of days, and I wasn't prepared to sneak off into the Sierra de Almijada under the cover of darkness and risk encounters of the close kind with wild boar and feral dogs just to get some exercise.

The Spanish government has announced a 6-8 week plan to deescalate coronavirus measures, which takes regional differences into account. It seems rather ambitious to me, to be discussing opening restaurants and bars by the end of May, and yet I appreciate that we'll be living with 'the new normal' for quite some time, and that in actual fact, it's possible to maintain social distancing at an outdoor venue if you only allow in, say, a third of a restaurant's capacity. Wild dogs couldn't drag me and my dodgy lungs to a restaurant during a pandemic, but others might be more prepared to take the risk. And by contrast, the UK government doesn't seem to have a plan at all, or if they do, they're keeping mum about it.

From tomorrow, the rules for outdoor exercise will be as follows:

  • Adults will be able to go out alone, once a day, for one hour's exercise within a 1km radius of their own home between the hours of 6-10am or 8-11pm.

  • Parents with children will be allowed out between the hours of 10am and 7pm daily.

  • People who have carers and the elderly (aged 70 and above) can go outside between 10am and 12pm and 7pm and 8pm.

  • People will be able to use sports equipment such as skateboards, surfboards and bicycles. (I'm curious about pogo sticks, since they were not covered by the announcement).

  • If you're a cyclist, you're not bound by the 1km from home limit; you may roam the boundaries of your municipality at will. (This is particularly good news for some keen cyclists I know in the village, who are used to doing over 100 miles a day and who must've been going nuts).

  • If you live in a municipality of less than 5000 people, you may go out at any time between 6am and 11pm. (Good news for Cómpeta residents but sucks for anyone who lives in a municipality of 5001 people or thereabouts).

Got it? Seems clear enough. But as soon as the easing of the restrictions is announced, the online whinging begins. (To be fair, I whinged as much as anyone when dog owners were allowed out but no one else was, and am still one of the whingers).

"Why can't hikers walk as far as they like within one hour? Why do cyclists have this right and we don't?"

"Why can't I go out whenever I want, like my friends in other countries?"

"They should stop with the micromanaging. How on earth do they intend to enforce this?"

"Is that 1km from my house as the crow flies, or taking roads into account? Why 1km?"

"These restrictions are a violation of my human rights and we live in a dictatorship."

As a hiker, I don't think it's fair or reasonable to have a 1km restriction on one's perambulations (though one of my local acquaintances argues that hiking shouldn't fall into the same category as taking a stroll, since hiking is a bona fide sport, and that therefore, within the limits of our municipality, we should be free to roam the mountains where partisans once hid from Franco's forces. I'll go with that). Enforcing much of what's proposed is impossible, so micromanaging seems like a fool's errand.

I'm bemused and irritated by the references to "human rights" and "dictatorship" in equal measure, as I am by the likes of Young Labour, who post on Twitter about what a wonderful man Lenin was and how his legacy lives on (incidentally, they never responded to my question when I asked them how they felt about the Red Terror, or what part of Lenin's legacy they most admired). It's curious that, in Western society, some people currently decrying the constraints on their personal movement as a violation of their human rights (Nigel Farage springs to mind) are often the same people who generally sneer at the idea of human rights in general under normal circumstances (Farage is not known for his belief that immigrant, or ethnic minority, or LGBT rights should be respected; quite the opposite, rather). In a desperate bid to remain relevant, he broke the lockdown rules, tweeted about it and called himself a "key worker". I believe the last word is misspelt.

I do think that there's a certain naivete in comparing Western democracies with temporary movement restrictions under extraordinary circumstances to brutal totalitarian regimes, or, indeed, glorifying a man under whose leadership, notable atrocities were committed in the name of the greater good. I can't help thinking that both errors of judgement are pretty typical of middle-class Westerners with comfortable lives, who have little experience of dictatorships and can't relate to what it means to have one's liberty curtailed at all times, because it's out of their realm of experience, or else skip over the unpleasant stuff, like millions killed in gulags, in order to idealise something that didn't really "set the people free".

Also, this brings out my inner pedant; I'm a stickler for precise terminology, because words either have meaning or they don't. I object to non-dictatorships being called a dictatorships in the same way I object to assorted things being compared to Nazism (is it systematic extermination of specific 'undesirables', based on race/eugenics? No? Then it's not Nazism), or, for example, when Boris Johnson is referred to as #BorisTheButcher in some people's tweets for the government's mishandling of the pandemic. Do I believe that he handled the pandemic without due diligence or competence? Yes. But I don't believe that Johnson is a genuinely evil man, the way Putin and Assad are, for example, and using extreme or incorrect language to describe something devalues terminology and renders it meaningless.

For something to be a dictatorship, certain conditions have to be met: in a dictatorship, there's typically a single leader with immense powers over the country, opposition parties are typically outlawed or suppressed, there is no judicial oversight of the government, and the citizens' freedoms - of association, of thought, of movement - are severely curtailed. These conditions are currently not met in Spain, or the UK, or the USA, or a number of other countries where citizens are expressing their outrage over their normal freedom of movement curtailed, and it rather goes to show how much we take for granted, living in democracies. And yet, precisely because of that, I do appreciate how frustrating it can be, when you're used to considerable freedom, and it's suddenly and severely curtailed. That while it's possible to appreciate why there are movement restriction during a pandemic, it's really disconcerting to have to explain your outing to the police, especially if they overreach, as they have done, in Spain and the UK and elsewhere, doing irrational things like threatening to search a person's shopping (to make sure it's "essential") or moving people on for walking in a park (because apparently only running or cycling counts as "exercise").

The situation in Spain and elsewhere is a far cry from the Soviet Union in which my grandparents and parents lived, and where the state exercised immense control over their lives. They weren't just policed and censored, but they had to censor themselves - what they said to others and even what they thought, because you didn't know whom you could trust, and careless words could lead you to lose your job, your liberty and even your life, particularly during the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s and 40s. Less so in the late 60s, when my parents were growing up, but even so. Criticism of the government was completely out of the question, and though my parents did know of people who were brave enough to hold protests (and were incarcerated for their troubles), most Soviet citizens just kept their heads down and did their best to survive. Now that we're allowed out, that definitely helps with one's state of mind. And yet, even while hiking through appealing mountain scenery...

...I'm finding that I can't get out of the darkness that's inside my own head, when my mind is going a hundred miles an hour and in the absence of concrete information (when will the pandemic end? what will happen to my livelihood? will any of my family or friends die?), the brain conjures up worst-case scenarios and I find myself getting really emotional for no specific reason.

Then I find myself thinking of my grandmother Esther, whom I didn't know for very long (she died when I was five years old), but who was a remarkable woman by all accounts. She was born in 1902, she was the first person in my family to go to university; at the age of 16, she decided that she was going to become a lawyer, left her family's shtetl in Kobelyaki, Ukraine, travelled by herself to Kharkiv - Jewish girl on her own! - and put herself through university, where she met my grandfather.

My maternal grandparents at university

My grandmother lived through two world wars, survived Stalinist repressions and supported a family of six (three daughters, elderly father and another elderly relative) all by herself from 1947, when my grandfather died young during a routine operation. In 1942, during the war, my maternal family was evacuated to Almaty, Kazakhstan; my grandfather was recalled to Moscow for work later that year, and was arrested as an "enemy on the people", based on the testimony of coworkers, and sentenced to years of hard labour in Siberia. He ended up in a prison hospital in Moscow, since he wasn't a well man, and one of the nurses, risking her life, managed to get word to my grandmother in Almaty. My grandmother, an incredible resourceful woman, then somehow made her way across the Soviet Union (in wartime! without permission to travel!), managed to prove my grandfather's innocence, and saved him from certain death in a gulag.

This document states that the case against my grandfather is dismissed

Reversals of cases of "enemies of the people" were very rare, and it makes me shudder how many close calls my family had had, with the additional peril of being Jewish, on top of everything else. And yet my grandmother survived all that, without losing her mind or her joie de vivre, and whenever I find myself wigging out because of stuff going on inside my head, I find myself comparing myself to her, and berating myself for being such a weakling when she'd lived in and survived genuine peril. But I do recognise that this self-flagellation is pointless, that it doesn't make a stressful situation less stressful or alleviate my fears about the future, and that it's important to come to terms with the fact that sometimes, I feel crap, and that it's okay to feel crap for a time. A while ago, I've had a conversation with a Guyanese friend of mine, whose mother is in her 80s, about whether the generations growing up in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were basically "tougher" than us. They didn't have the luxury of sitting around and contemplating their feelings, or devoting their lives to the pursuit of happiness, the way my generation has (especially those of us living in liberal Western democracies). What makes people more resilient? Being self-aware, and being aware of one's weak points and working with them, or not being aware of them and functioning almost exclusively in a permanent state of hyper-alertness and survival mode? The former is psychologically more healthy, but would that make one less resilient in a genuine crisis, especially if you live your entire life under a totalitarian regime? The conversation was inconclusive.

Some curtailing of liberty during a pandemic is inevitable, and it's already worth asking the question: what long-term effects will the pandemic have on our personal freedoms? For example, countries are trying to figure out how best to tackle the issue of contact tracing. In Singapore, citizens had apps installed on their smartphones and when people came into contact with those who've been infected, this information would pass between the smartphones via bluetooth. This is quite an intrusive form of surveillance, though arguably a necessary one, in order for mass tracing to be successful. But in Singapore, there's considerable trust in government. What about countries where there's little trust?

I'm very interested in tech in general, and through my listening to Kara Swisher's Recode Decode podcast, I've got a good idea of how tech can be - and is - used for nefarious purposes. China's an excellent example of a surveillance state, with technology used to great effect to control its population. And 'social credit'? That's something straight out of "Black Mirror". And yes, many of us willingly carry tracking devices (smartphones) on us and pay considerable amounts of money for the privilege, and willingly post a ton of personal information on Facebook, notorious for its data scraping practises and "whoops, sorry we've given away your private data to third parties totally by accident" shenanigans.

Would I trust the UK government with my data? Would I agree to install apps on my phone to allow them to track my movement? Not if I were given the choice, given how much of the Vote Leave team, led by Dominic Cummings (held in contempt of Parliament) is in government now. They have a track record of misusing private data and micro-targeting voters with Brexit-related misinformation via Cambridge Analytica before the Brexit referendum. I would be deeply uncomfortable with the present UK government collecting any more data on me via an app designed by some mate of Dominic Cumming's friend, and I don't believe that they can be trusted to put an end to the surveillance of their citizens at the end of the pandemic.

But at the same time, I owe it to my fellow citizens to keep them safe. There has been some debate as to why, in general, the more left-leaning governments in the have imposed stricter restrictions on their citizens than the more right-leaning governments. At first glance, that's a bit of a paradox (since logically you'd expect more authoritarian-leaning governments to impose the strictest restrictions), but makes sense if you think about it. In countries where governments lean more towards socialism, there is, generally speaking, a greater sense of social cohesion and duty towards other, more vulnerable members of society. There's a greater sense that you're part of a greater whole, and people in general are more accepting of restrictions because they understand that they are doing so to protect others. In contrast, in countries where much more emphasis in placed on the freedom of the individual, people are being much more vocal about these temporary restrictions.

Nowhere is that more true than the United States, where individual freedoms include freedom to be selfish assholes and to endanger others through their irresponsible behaviour. A couple of weeks ago, Trump unleashed a series of unhinged tweets: "Liberate Wisconsin!" "Liberate Virginia!" "Liberate Michigan!" The president of the United States was literally egging on heavily armed wingnuts...

Protest in Michigan; photo from the Washington Post

...who are complaining that they can't get a haircut and can't go to Applebee's because of the existing state of emergency in their respective states, with businesses being closed a result.

There have been a number of small but deeply unpleasant demonstrations in pursuit of "muh First Amendement rights", orchestrated by far-right websites in the aftermath of Trump's tweets.

This is straight out of some zombie apocalypse movie; photo appeared in the Washington Post

In Denver, Colorado, protestors jammed the main street with their big cars and menaced healthcare workers who counter-protested silently to remind these self-styled 'patriots' why there's a lockdown in place.

'Patriot' facing off against nurse in Denver; photo by Alyson McClaran

Yesterday, a bunch of protestors with submachine guns crowded into Michigan's Capitol building, threatening the democratically elected governor with Trump's full approval, while carrying classy banners comparing Governor Whitmer to Hitler and comparing themselves to Rosa Parks. I'm talking about the masked, militia-style men who would be labelled "terrorists" if only their skin colour were darker than cafe au lait. Must've been terrifying for the governor and most people in the building. It could've been a blood bath. This is the sort of thing you see in a failed democracy.

I suppose it's only fitting such dangerous selfishness and egotism has found its leader in a man who is refusing to authorise the Defence Production Act in order to produce life-saving gear and medical equipment that the states desperately need, instead making the states bid against each other, as if they are contenders in some obscene real-life version of "The Hunger Games". A man who is using PPE as leverage during a pandemic to reward Republican governors who kowtow to him and deliberately deprive Democrat-led states of protective gear in order to punish their governors for not being sufficiently 'nice' to him, and to win an election at any cost to the American people. A man whose grifter son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been installed in a key federal government role (how? why?) and under whose guidance, the federal government is confiscating PPE from states (even after they've procured it at great cost) for Trump's personal stockpile, to dole out as he sees fit to Trump donors and their families. A man who suggested last week that people should consider injecting or injecting disinfectant as a Covid-19 cure, after which, a bunch of people who actually take their medical advice from Trump have ended up in hospital after ingesting Toilet Duck or similar.

While the Spanish government is giving us staggered exercise hours, all things considered, things could be a lot worse. We, the whingers, could be front line medical workers, struggling and getting sick without PPE. Or we could be genuinely living on the breadline in a developing country, without saving or a pension, and with the unenviable choice of either starving, or risking our lives by going out to work. Or we could have Trump in charge. Kara Swisher put it very succinctly: "All give me liberty or give me bleach joking aside...this farcical leadership is a bottomless well of stupidity, avarice and some really dark night of the soul stuff."

But these restrictions on our lives are still hard to bear sometimes, and the mental health impact of lockdown won't be known for some time. And while a part of me winces at the #bekind hashtag, I do think that sometimes we do need to give each other and ourselves a break for not dealing with things as stoically or as resiliently as we'd thought we would, and to accept the occasional moments of vulnerability without passing judgement on them.

Where do I stand on individual rights and civil liberties in general? I'm a liberal and I believe in extensive rights and freedoms of the individual, but not at the expense of harming other people. Yes, I've been breaking the rules a bit in pursuit of my right to good health and fresh air and exercise, but I would not have done it if there were a chance I'd be endangering others. As Abraham Lincoln said: "My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins."

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