Resign, Tyrant, Said the Type-Type Man

Harlan Ellison on being spied on by Big Brother in Reagan’s 1984 America

Okay, so I’ve been away from blogging for a few months now. I’ve been working on a book. It’s my doctoral thesis on the origins and growth of the town of Bridgwater in Somerset from prehistory to 1700. It’s now with the publishers, and hopefully it shouldn’t be too long before it comes out. I’ve also been taken up and somewhat distracted by a few other projects. Nevertheless, I hope to get back to blogging regularly.

Edward Snowden’s revelations of the sheer size and scale of the American intelligence agencies’ surveillance of their citizens, and British complicity with it, has raised questions about the gradual diminution of personal freedom and the transformation of our societies into Orwellian surveillance states. This is just part of process that has been going on for a very long time, since the 1980s. Alan Moore, the veteran comics writer and co-creator of the V for Vendetta comic strip with the artist David Lloyd, stated has stated in interviews how amazed he is by the complete acceptance of CCTV cameras on Britain’s streets. When he included them in the strip as a visible sign of the totalitarian Fascist state in which the strip was set, he was absolutely sure it would terrify everyone to the point where they simply wouldn’t accept them. Now, as he remarked, they’re everywhere. Niall Ferguson, the right-wing historian and columnist, has also made the same point. He remarked in an interview on how he first noticed them after he came back from a visit to China. He too felt that they were a threat to individual liberty, and could not understand why no-one else was alarmed by them or saw them this way.

This concerns have become more acute with the Tory and Lib Dem decision to establish secret courts, functioning as a Kafkaesque travesty of justice. In these courts, people will be able to be tried without knowing the evidence against them, nor who their accuser is. All for reasons of ‘national security’. It’s frighteningly like the corrupt and murderous judicial system of the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to Saddam Hussein’s legal code. In addition to the laws, which were made known to the Iraqi public, there were also six pieces of legislation which were kept secret. Very secret. They were so secret that even knowledge of these laws was a crime that could land you in prison or worse. For all their claims to be the defenders of personal freedom, with the establishment of these secret courts the Coalition is laying the foundations of the kind of totalitarian state described by Kafka and Moore, only in 21st century Britain. And the surveillance of citizens by the Western intelligence agencies, for merely having political views the authorities considered dangerous or subversive, goes back even further.

Looking through Youtube, I found this interview with Harlan Ellison, the veteran SF author and screenwriter, from 1984. It’s part of a discussion about the relevance of Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name in contemporary America. When asked about this, Ellison states that he thinks it’s extremely relevant, because he’s lived through it in Reagan’s America. He described how, shortly after Reagan became governor of California, he began to hear clicks and noises on his telephone, suggesting that it was being tapped. He dismissed the idea, until he went out to empty his wastepaper basket in the trash one morning, and discovered an engineer for the telephone company outside, connected to the wire leading into his house. Checking with people he knew, who were in a position to know, he found out that it was indeed true, and his phone was indeed being tapped.

Ellison made sure, however, he had his revenge. Knowing that whatever he said on the phone would be written down and filed, he made sure that his phone conversations included some interesting and highly derogatory comments about the then leader of the free world and star of Bedtime for Bonzo, whose title character was a chimpanzee, and arguably the better actor. For example, the great author would remark that Reagan beat his mother and did not confine his romantic interests to those with the two legs, but also those with four, a wagging tail and wet nose. Here’s the interview:

It’s not hard to see why Reagan and his cohorts should view Ellison as a potential subversive. He’s an outspoken atheist and a card-carrying liberal. This was in sharp contrast to Reagan’s administration, which was strongly based on the American religious Right. Ellison had been a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement. On one of his own videos on Youtube, he discusses his participation on the Civil Rights March on Selma with Martin Luther King. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was hostile and deeply suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement, which they suspected was a Communist initiative. So Ellison’s participation in that would have been enough to arouse the authorities’ interest and suspicions in him. In addition to writing some of the most outstanding episodes of the original Star Trek series, such as ‘City on the Edge of Forever’, Ellison was one of the major figures in the SF New Wave, whose other leading writers included Norman Spinrad, Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds in Britain. This was markedly countercultural, and attacked contemporary literary and social conventions. In one of Ellison’s best known short stories, Repent, Harlequin, Said the Tick-Tock Man, for example, the hero is a lone, vigilante prankster. The story is set in a dystopian society in which time is rigidly controlled, the Tick-Tock Men of the title making sure that everyone perform their allotted tasks rigorously according to the time table. The hero, Harlequin, tries to subvert this by performing practical jokes deliberately intended to upset the time table, and the rigid social order that it supports. These include releasing a torrent of jelly beans all over people as they go to work in the morning. Ellison himself declared of the SF writers in the New Wave that ‘these guys is blasphemous!’ In Britain too the movement caused outcry, and questions were raised in the Houses of Parliament about Moorcock’s New Worlds. There was concern about the allegedly obscene nature of Norman Spinrad’s story, ‘Riders of the Purple Wage’, which was then being serialised in the magazine.

Eventually, Ellison says, the clicking noises simply faded away and the authorities presumably lost interest. This was probably when they realised that, no matter how objectionable they found his politics, one of SF’s greatest writers was not actually planning to overthrow the government of the US, invade Guatemala, or even deluge the sidewalk with a tide of jelly beans. They may even have agreed with his comments about Ronald Reagan. It does, however, show that under Reagan, prominent intellectuals that didn’t share the president’s highly reactionary and paranoid views could be spied upon, simply for having those views, regardless of whether they were innocent of any crime. And as Snowden’s revelations showed, the surveillance state has expanded massively since then.

We do need the security and intelligence services. According to today’s I, Isis, the Islamist terrorist organisation Iraq and Syria, has called on its supporters to attack and kill citizens of the US, Britain, France and the other coalition countries. The work of the various intelligence agencies and their surveillance is necessary to stop ISIS and other terrorist organisations from carrying out their threats. But individual freedom – freedom of conscience, speech and publication also needs to be preserved. These are also under threat from the Right, though legislation like the Coalition’s secret courts. They need to be strongly rejected, and proper safeguards against further encroachment on our civil liberties put in place. The answer to the old question ‘Who watches the watchers’ has always been: ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.

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2 Responses to “Resign, Tyrant, Said the Type-Type Man”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    Welcome back.
    I spotted the in-joke straight away.
    (For the benefit of other readers: Years ago, I bought a copy of the science fiction movie magazine Starlog that contained a column by – I think – Ellison’s co-Star Trek writer David Gerrold on predictions for the future. Alongside other bizarre claims, including one that the magazine’s editor would have a sex change (“She’s decided to become a man again”) was the single line: “Harlan Ellison has declared war on Guatemala.”)

  2. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.

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