A friend of mine posted the following on his Facebook page last week: “HELP ECUADOR REACH THE RIGHT DECISION: GO OUT TODAY AND BUY A PANAMA HAT”. His eagerness to give the economy of Ecuador the kind of boost that might release it from the immediate burden of US pressure in the Snowden case may turn out to have been premature. Over the weekend, none other than Daniel Cohn-Bendit not only mentioned Snowden’s name as a possible candidate for the Sakharov Prize, Europe’s top award for service in the cause of human rights, but has also made it clear that, at least if Cohn-Bendit had his druthers, Snowden would be granted immediate right of asylum in any country of the Eutopean Union. The once-and-future radical of 1968 has even offered his own couch!
To be quite honest, this is the first authentic, if rather grandstanding, sign of muscle that we’ve seen so far in this affair. Instead of withdrawing their ambassador from Washington, the German government, via its Justice Ministry, merely called for an “immediate explanation” and the EU Commission has voiced “serious concerns” and insists that “friends do not spy on one another”. Beyond this, the situation has been described as “grave”, “troubling” and “delicate”, but not until this weekend has anyone seen fit to offer Edward Snowden asylum in that very Union whose cakes he has pulled out of the fire, whose secret services he has clearly caught with their knickers round their knees, their balls in the iron clutch of the CIA, and whose politicians now find themselves in a self-indulgent pissing contest, shoulder to shoulder on the beach into the teeth of a harsh wind from the Atlantic. Pathetic heap of Pharisees, hypocrites!
The reason why they are prepared to go no further than vague threats and posturing (“we might not sign the EU/US free trade agreement” … ooooh, Mister President, doesn’t that bitchy Commission have you shaking in your shoes?) must be clear to any canny observer. They’re in this up to their necks. They’ve been tacitly aware of it and have simply considered such surveillance the price of doing business in a world with but one superpower. Now that someone has called them out, they quickly have to cobble together a fence that they can pretend to be on the right side of, dig a trench around the highly implausible “Fortress Europe”, whose pile of excavated soil may yet afford them some meagre moral high ground in the face of sniping questions from the cheap seats.
The total amount of data already monitored since the mid-1980s in the context of Echelon, PRISM and Tempora would fill a stack of CD-ROMS reaching from here to the moon … trust me, I worked it out. Small wonder, then, that Apple has stopped installing drives to read them. Even robots might not have enough time between oil changes. And this is the crux of the matter: the US will never in a million years be able to give Europe a satisfactory answer to the “what, when, why” questions, because nobody knows exactly. The data banks are too vast, the databases too wide, the types of data too diverse. Possible correlations, even those with the magical five degrees of proximity, will probably number in the hundreds of billions. We are talking about a Sahara full of dunes piled high with grains of disparate information. Seven maids with seven mops? No chance! It’s enough to make the most hardened carpenter weep.
So why should we care? Because even the tiniest morsel, subject to careful analysis has the potential to engender a Kafkaesque battle of injunction vs refutation, arrayal vs recusal, writs vs rights, mandates for arrest and requests for extradition in which the innocent will be as much caught up as the potentially “guilty” … if such a person even exists other than in the Red King’s dream. Meanwhile the Europeans posture and foam at the mouth in the hope that Mr Snowden has an accident in the revolving doors of Moscow airport before he can cause any serious damage to the realpolitik of getting the world’s largest free-trade area sewn up. Which rather brings me back to the paradox expressed in my title: the value of vital information set against the value of a single human life, or even many, many lives.
The Romany, Rom or Roma people seem to be unwanted everywhere. They are the wandering Jews of modern Europe, the albatross around the neck of every nation’s asylum programme. Last week, sixteen hungry Rom kids under the age of 10 were found without adult supervision of any kind in a seedy house in Brussels. The bathroom was full of excrement, the basins full of used diapers. By week’s end it was still unclear what their fate would be. They cannot easily be taken into care, as they have no documentation and it is not known whether they may not have legitimate parents or guardians elsewhere in Europe or perhaps in the next street. And even if they can be reunited with their families, it is doubtful whether they could introduce a legitimate claim for asylum. Overstretched social services in all EU countries are dealing with the grim reality that they cannot take on the world’s economic misery and certainly not the complex identitary issues surrounding these least absorbable of people. Yet to send them back to the Czech Republic or Slovakia where they probably come from could mean persecution at the hands of their fellow citizens (neo-Nazi gangs are currently on the warpath against Rom communities in both countries, also Bulgaria and Romania). And unfortunately the Nazis meet with precious little opposition from the general population, even when they chant, “Gas the Gippos”.
To be frank, nobody wants the Rom. They are seen as dishonest freeloaders at best and organized criminals at worst. Wherever they pass, crime rates go up and people’s sense of security drops. This is not new. It was ever so, and no amount of political correctness is going to change that. They are very hard to assimilate; their culture is highly resistant to change and their code of honour makes it almost a virtue to never spend a day more than is strictly necessary in any kind of school. While we all may have a sneaking admiration for their sense of freedom, no one wants them on his caravan site or village green. But “gypsy” people, these erstwhile nomads like the Sinti and the Roma, are the very epitome of the free-trade ideal. They go where the work is or where the pickings are. They follow the seasons on fruit farms and vineyards. They trade across all frontiers, mostly in contraband, and pay their way in kind or gold, avoiding as far as they can the curse of banks and paper money. They have always lived by Adam Smith’s invisible hand of economic law, although, just like global corporations, they are not averse to nudging its elbow now and then in their own interest.
Just as intellectual freedom, freedom of speech and institutional transparency are much lauded, yet in reality unwelcome, virtues in the information age, so also are true freedom of choice and free agency, while equally lauded in the economic realm, unwelcome guests in an age of virile libertarianism. Thus these 16 Roma children, indeed even the entire Romany nation, are more likely to find a haven in Western Europe than Edward Snowden, however employable he may be, however much he may be saviour of the hour and flavour of the month. So maybe my friend was right … Well, it’s not too late to go shopping for a good Panama hat. And that, at least, is a sure way to provide employment for indigenous people in the Ecuadorian region of Montecristi, half way across the world, even while we cannot find half a heart for indigenous nomads, our Indo-European ancestors, from a country just next door.
© Edwin Drood
, July 2013
I shall be tuning my ear to the sweet song of Miranda’s straight six as she wafts me up mountain passes in the Auvergne for the next few weeks. Expect no further word at least until August, possibly September. By then the world may be a better place … or not, in which case I shall doubtless find some jagged edge to sharpen my quill upon.
Illustration: "Panama hat" by David John, after a 1938 magazine advertisement.