I’ve just watched the following event, streamed by the Guardian:
It was on the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary, “Citizenfour”. I watched this film, rather bleary-eyed at first, last week on the British Channel 4. It was shown at the rather unearthly hour (for me) of eleven o’clock at night. It finished just after one in the morning.
It was an unearthly film too; or so it should be seen as.
Perhaps, tragically enough, it’s much too earthly by far.
We all have a sense of what it’s like for paranoia to have become a default. In fact, we probably need a new word: paranoia was once a delusional illness. Are we really saying that living this Western 21st century world involves being infirmly unsure of reality?
Edward Snowden’s story is well known by now. The details probably escape most of us; the overall landscape can hardly fail to have taken hold of our imaginations. Some will say: “I have nothing to hide.” Others will tremble: “I don’t have the resource to buy my privacy.” And the privileged few, whether criminal or simply wealthy, will purchase their walled gardens of security at the flick of an electronic transfer.
I discovered something fascinating tonight. Why “Citizenfour”? Because this is the “new Fourth Estate“. As our surveillance state has served to de-democratise our public and parliamentary institutions, so our citizen instincts have begun – slowly, perhaps, but surely all the same – to take up the democratic slack: citizen media and its citizen journalists perhaps no longer that coolly transitory add-on that iPhone enthusiasts and Arab Spring supporters viewed the future as entailing but, rather, far more crucially, an artery of principled outriding which – working symbiotically with the grandest newspaper orgs – might be able to help provide the moving targets which instincts to mass injunctions cannot always mop up.
Whilst in the past we were permitted to understand the workings of the state via our press, and in some way found ourselves represented – particularly in times of social fracture – before such a relatively reasonable (as well as literally mediated) set of institutions, these days it would seem the latter chooses to publicly smash the media’s hard drives in fits of a quite childish pique: almost as if its surveilling instincts – its obsessive need to know everything about everything and yet still not quite get to know all about everyone – should make it revert to early years of terrible toddler-hood.
It wasn’t always so complex a set of relationships. Before, what connected newspapers with ourselves was the fact that whilst we always needed our newspapers to define what became our worlds (as, in fact, did the state itself!), so the same institutions – in much the same way – needed our readerships to fund, pay for and sustain their own.
It was a pecuniary relationship; a relationship of producer and consumer. Something everyone understood in a rather comfortingly stable manner.
Not very 21st century at all, actually.
In the face of an all-engulfing state, however, the nexus that now best defines us both is an ever-growing shoulder-to-shoulder labour of suddenly quite similar interests: each side finds itself needing the other to help redefine – even save – a democracy which is rapidly escaping us.
Flux overtakes certainty; uncivil liberties, our politics.
So what’s left – what can recover our democracy – if politicians are running scared of their own paranoias?
At the end of the the Guardian Live stream (you’ll see it if you watch!), someone asks: “Is Snowden a hero?” The answer, predictably, is yes – he stood up for a huge principle.
But I would underline that in a democracy of the characteristics we see ourselves living, any hero should be defined first and foremost as a hero of the surely ordinary.
If we see him as having done something out of our reach or understanding – if what he has done is seen to be essentially extraordinary – what hope is there that this “new Fourth Estate [of journalists and citizens, that is]” will ever have a chance of properly coalescing?
Neither should we make the mistake of allowing paranoia-land to redefine the centre of the debate. After all, the only things he seems to be asking for is that we don’t create a society which confuses secrecy and privacy.
A society which whilst it decides to destroy the citizen’s right to the latter, reserves the state’s right to mega-trillions of gobbets of the former.
So, then, if we must … then extra-ordinary, if you like. With hyphen and all, I mean.
That’s who #Citizenfour will really be.