All Along the Watchtower

Democracy may already be dead. We may already have discounted liberty in favour of regarding freedoms as functions of the aggregate collective will, expressed as surveillance and soft tyranny.

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Verse I

Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:

And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:

And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.

— Isaiah, 21: 5-9 

There’s a black joke I make sometimes about the Irish which, being Irish, I feel entitled to make even against the grain of PC culture. It goes like this: When people say, as often they do, that the Irish are ‘a non-materialistic people’ who look to the horizon rather than their bellies or wardrobes for hope and meaning, I reply that this only appeared to be true because, for such a long time, virtually all the Irish were poorer than cloistered mice and looked at wealth in much the way the fox in Aesop’s fable looked on the grapes, eschewing that which was not available. As we have latterly observed, once wealth was on the table the Irish were prepared to sell out not merely their birthright, principles, faith, Constitution and country, but actually their own children’s inheritance, so as to ride high on the pig’s back. It was not, as our pious pseudo-asceticism would have it, that we disdained wealth in the knowledge that it led to perdition, for as soon as wealth was on the table we pushed everyone out of the way and gathered it to ourselves. 

I have a similar feeling now about those who, all my life, I heard extolling — nay, insisting upon — the virtues of democracy. I have in mind not just political leaders, but also cultural figures like artists, writers, musicians and poets, philosophers, activists, journalists, philanthropists, clerics, feminists, editors, lefties, conservatives, actors, publishers and taxi drivers. At the heart of our culture was the idea that democracy, in the words of Winston Churchill was ‘the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’. This idea was held to ironically, for in reality the word ‘democracy’, for quite understandable reasons, had become the leitmotif of modern ideas of sovereignty and was accordingly spoken with a delicacy and reverence denoting its centrality to human culture and freedom. 

The idea behind Churchill’s characterisation was of course that, for all the limitations, frustrations and imperfections of democracy, it had not — perhaps could not — be improved upon.  The idea of the autonomous individual, sovereign over not merely his own affairs but also the affairs of his nation, had acquired a quasi-sacred pitch of significance in culture. For anyone, expressing those limits, frustrations and imperfections of democratic systems, to question, even in half-jest, the moral ascendancy of democracy would have been sufficient to invite a cloud of suspicion over himself that would shut out the sunshine of human affection. He might as well question the necessity of breathing. 

But, in the recent decades, a barely detectable fragmentation in the form of hairline cracks had spread across the still youthful face of democracy. For one thing, it became clear that many people, especially younger people, were prepared to engage in tradeoffs of what had hitherto been regarded as fundamental freedoms for conveniences, pseudo-rights and technological baubles. Privacy, for example, was no longer regarded as something non-negotiable. “What have we got to hide?’ the social media patron asked as he signed up to a gossip chatline and in doing so gave the nod to having a multiplicity of microphones strewn in his vicinity. Freedom was being re-defined, but also interrogated as to its essential nature. No longer was it something set down in carefully-worded documents to be interpreted by courts and tribunals but a vague idea of feeling good, feeling emancipated within a technological world that made the once-impossible seem banal. Instant communication, fingertip access to markets and relationships, the capacity to acquire a form of celebrity by answering back in public, all these suggested themselves as having about them a quality of freedom that made some of the older understandings seem dense and superfluous. The world, as they seemed to be experiencing it, suggested different avenues of exploration and adventure. Tweeting seemed to be the highest form of free speech, offering a stronger sense of participation than mere voting. The exchange of personal information for connectivity seemed axiomatically a good deal. 

What almost nobody seemed to consider was that these tradeoffs might be changing the very nature of liberty and undermining the centrality of the democratic ideal. Instead of voting someone in or out of office at the ballot box, you could simply sign an online petition of approval or excoriation. You could bemoan this or that political proposal or development, before and after the fact, and in the meantime overlook the basic precaution of simply casting your ballot. The very idea of going to all that trouble just for a single vote in perhaps millions no longer seemed as satisfying, as worthwhile, as efficacious, as spitting out a score of scornful posts on Twitter or Instagram. The idea began to gestate at the heart of democracy that democracy itself might no longer be necessary or propitious — that it was too slow, too cumbersome, too boring.  There was a quicker, more fun way of being engaged, embroiled, heard and reckoned with.  

And the even more ominous aspect of all this is that the aforementioned philosophers, poets, journalists, and others, have remained silent as these notions bubbled to the surface of public consciousness. The politicians have remained silent as well, but in their case there is a ready explanation; They have a vested interest in the promulgation of these technologies and associated trends. Maybe they do not in all cases actually wish the demise of democracy, but they are sanguine about the withdrawal of the young into cocoons of agitated disconnection, with the proviso that they would wish occasionally to avail themselves of the benefits of these technologies in accessing the young in situations where a ‘youth’ vote is needed to outnumber the old. 

But the silence of the artists and other opinion-formers is beyond disturbing, for it raises doubts as to whether they ever, in actual fact, understood how vital and sacred was the democratic process and their elected part in it. It is as though they, too, have suddenly begun to muse silently to themselves that maybe this democracy lark was not all it was cracked up to be. After all, if the coming generations are prepared to dispense with the entitlement to directly intervene in the decision-making processes that govern their existences, who are we to countermand them? And, after all, one does not wish to appear untrendy. Perhaps, after all, there exists, at least in potential, something capable of transcending democracy? Yes, by all means, the word democracy had for a time appeared to embrace all that was virtuous in political and civic life. But we must move with the times, not cling to outmoded ways of being. Could the word ‘democracy’ even promise to come to signify something dark and backward? For certain it could! Was it not Václav Havel himself who said, ‘What a weird fate befalls certain words?’ No, each element of the progressive puzzle has its moment but we must be alert for the supernova moment when it is necessary to change tack.  But, still, let us leave no one behind!

And, to be sure, more than one or two among the elites of banking, politics, technocracy and media have lately been thinking to themselves: Would not some kind of benign oligarchy be a better bet for modern societies than mucking around with pencils in draughty polling booths? Democracy was all very well when nothing better was suggesting itself. But Churchill is a long time dead and we are not, and if we have all these new tools have we not also some kind of responsibility (to the future!) to develop and use them? Maybe it is possible to replicate technologically, technocratically, the simulacrum of the democratic process, but without the messy parts, like liberty and the sovereignty of the people? Perhaps, in time, we shall be able to read people’s minds and calculate, quantum-entanglement wise, the sum of their desires in one direction or another? We must not get bogged down in the past, in outmoded modes of seeing. And if the young people do not care about democracy, who are we to continue foisting it upon them? Would that not, indeed, indicate an undemocratic inclination ipso facto

With almost admirable restraint, the new Masters of the Universe do not rub their hands in glee, at least in public, at what is becoming possible. They clench their jaws against the urge towards duper’s delight. But, really, when all is said and done, they never really cared that much for democracy anyway. After all, many people with the same voting power as themselves were of inferior intelligence and education. How could that be good for freedom? No, the time had come for adventurous thinking. We must not be hidebound by sacred cows that have seen out their best days. This clinging to democracy as though it represented some kind of ideal may have been no more than sour grapes. Now the fruit of our scientific genius is closer to hand, let us pluck it while it is ripe. Let us confront the myopic naysayers who continue to chant about freedom and universal suffrage. The future belongs to those who know better. The past has been voted out. The present is a blank sheet, upon which we may write, or paint, whatever we choose. The people will thank us in the end, when we have relieved them of the burden of governing their own affairs.  

Verse II

We have been on this road for some time, but gradually the landscape around us is changing, becoming more austere and forbidding. If someone had predicted two decades ago that people would allow devices into their homes that could monitor their most intimate domestic moments, you would have laughed long and loudly. Now, Alexa, a ‘virtual assistant AI technology’ created by Amazon, sits on the kitchen island, spying on everything you say, every sound you make. If you had suggested that people might be prepared to exchange for access to chit-chat the most detailed profiles of their daily habits, movements, spending and consumption patterns, you would have declared it impossible. Yet, all of this territory has been surrendered with barely a shrug. 

We are already moving into what seems the destination stage: the creating of a new form of governance operating on the basis of a panopticon, using data and algorithms, rewards and punishments, to impose control. This new model has not long since completed road-testing in an ongoing Chinese experiment in post-democratic governance —  ‘social credit’, which pursues in fact a revolutionary form of social control but shifts the weight of cost and responsibility for policing on to citizens, who become in effect their own probation officers. 

China’s social credit system was expected to be fully operational by 2020 but missed that deadline possibly due to unforeseen events. The pilot experiment is directed at economic, commercial and financial aspects, a nationwide scheme for tracking the trustworthiness of citizens, corporations, and government officials, and is run by city councils and tech companies, using facial-recognition and other technologies to harvest data. When fully operational, it will be government-controlled, centralized and mandatory. 

In the world run by social credit, an individual’s score becomes the ultimate truth of his existence, determining whether he can borrow money, travel abroad, or get his children into a good school. Citizens live under constant monitoring and lose points from their personal scores for infractions such as ‘spreading fake news’, late payment of bills, tax evasion, refusal of military service, criticising the government, defaulting on a loan, running a red light, watching too many video games, walking a dog without a leash, wasting money on frivolous pursuits or purchases, loitering in public places or smoking in designated no-smoking zones. Punishments include travel and holidaying restrictions, denial of Internet services, refusal of higher education to offenders or offenders’ children, confiscation of pets or vehicles, and so forth. A bad citizen drags down the scores of family and colleagues. Good scores attract bonuses like hotel and travel upgrades, expedited travel permissions, and other such like ‘privileges’. 

According to the Chinese government, the purpose of social credit is to ‘commend sincerity and punish insincerity’. Sincerity, in the estimation of the Chinese Communist Party, translates roughly as ‘integrity’, which appears to come down to qualities of obedience. The government also ominously pledges to ‘[r]ealistically implement rewards for reporting individuals, and protect the lawful rights and interests of reporting individuals.’ ‘Reporting individuals’, depending on your vernacular, translates as ‘snitches’ or ‘touts’. 

China has for some time operated nationwide black/red-listing programmes — ‘black lists’ (offenders) and ‘red lists’ (the compliant) used to identify and punish those in breach of commercial and industrial regulations. Some local authorities have solicited help from social media platforms to orchestrate public shaming of people on such blacklists, and some social media companies are co-operating with the authorities by publishing mugshots of defaulters. 

Two years ago, Larry Catá Backer of Penn State University published a paper, Next Generation Law: Data Driven Governance and Accountability Based Regulatory Systems in the West, and Social Credit Regimes in China, in which he explored the possibilities of social credit systems being introduced into Western societies. He also examined ways in which a Western version might imitate or vary from the Chinese model. The idea that government overreach is reserved to China, he wrote, is ‘incorrect thinking. The rest of the world is steps away from trailing the Chinese into a surveillance state. . . . With incredible data collection, the plumbing is already in place for such a system to take hold.’ 

Whereas China tends towards central command, Backer believes that the West can expect its version of social credit systems to involve collaborations between private enterprises and state bodies. Two years ago, he thought it unlikely that centralised social credit systems would emerge, but that ‘the aggregation of all social credit sub systems will effectively change the aggregate character of governance in Western societies.’

We already have such a transnational public/private governmental collaboration in Ireland, and so can anticipate where this might be heading. Our mediocre politicians, hand-in-glove with Google and Facebook, have little enough left to learn from China, since they already censor criticism of their jointly-agreed plans to transform Irish society and punish and demonise those who continue to dissent. 

Backer predicted that social credit could be ‘the end of law’ and the redundancy of lawyers except as ‘technicians of a new system, based on algorithms and surveillance, that the lawyer no longer controls.’ Alternatively, he conjectured, we may end up with a new form of law, focussed on data. 

Insurance rebate schemes, loyalty cards and cookies have broken the ice of our potential resistance. We already have digital profiling courtesy of Facebook and Google. Social media, loyalty programs, and even the logic of some video games have all already helped to train an entire generation, according to Backer, ‘to see in such systems nothing either extraordinary or threatening’. In Sweden, he pointed out, microchipping of citizens — deploying technology similar to that used by vets to implant pets to ensure they can be found when they wander — has been in service for some years.  The transformation has not been experienced as tyrannical, but ‘as individuals contributing to the formulation of collective values’ (my italics). 

Under the cosh of such technocracies, the individual becomes subject to values collectively ‘agreed’ — under headings like exercise, eating habits, and other consumption-related patterns. Healthy behaviour for example, can be enforced by order of the collective. Rights and choice will become secondary, as social punishment is attached to undesirable desires. 

It is only a matter of time, Backer insisted, ‘before the state — together with the non-state sectors through which state power will be privatized — will begin to move aggressively not merely to regard individuals as mere collections of data, but to use that data to make judgements about those individuals and their choices, and to seek to both discipline and control. To that end, the algorithm will become the new statute and the variable in econometrics the new basis of public opinion. We appear to be passing from the age of rights to the age of information-management, and from the age of collective responsibility and constraints to the age of collective management.’ 

Slyly, unobtrusively, social credit will reverse the presumption of innocence, shifting the burden of proving compliance on to the citizen, who will be at constant risk of becoming ‘the accused’. 

 ‘Legal subjects must be made to obey,’ Backer interpreted. ‘They are no longer presumed to do so unless evidence to the contrary is produced. And that compulsion no longer comes at the point of a gun or in the uttering of individual representations of the legitimate authority of the state. Instead, it comes through the gaze; systems of constant observation combined with a self-awareness of being constantly observed that together coerces a particular set of behaviours tied to the character of the observation.’

Backer maintains a perhaps ironic tone of imperturbability in the face of what might seem a dark and radical plan to enable states to spy on citizens and use information thus garnered to impose unprecedented forms of control. This may well be how most of us come to see it. Already we think of technological eavesdropping as one of the collateral tariffs on the information society, and not a particular bothersome one. Our liberal democracies, Backer suggested, can expect populations to be prepared for these developments by ‘the great culture management machinery of Western society — its television, movies and other related media — to develop a narrative in which such activity is naturalized within Western culture.’ Thus, we shall become convinced that, in surrendering further chunks of our privacy, we are engaging in a virtuous endeavour to catch lawbreakers and reduce wrongdoing — or, perchance, to ‘save lives’ in the ‘common good’. 

Backer appears to be sanguine about public sanguinity in the face of the ethical and civil-liberties dimensions. ‘What some have taken for passivity in the face of the algorithm may instead be better understood . . . as the reconstitution of humanity from individuals with souls moving toward collective characteristics, to the reconstitution of individuals as the aggregation of data driven traits that matter. But these are not inserted into passive humans but embraced by those who see in the “bargain” an advantage that suits their interests . . .’  

Except that, as we may be beginning to suspect, it is unlikely citizens will be allowed an opt-out. In the new, camouflaged tyrannies, we shall become as children whose whims are indulged for as long as we acquiesce in the governing ideology and the rule of its custodians. Rights and freedoms will implicitly be understood to derive from the munificence of the state, rather than from any pre-existing source, or from within the human person. The Faustian pact thus signed between citizen and state, the unequal relationship between the two, and the limits this lays down, will remain obscured behind a bland rhetoric of freedom that will appear irrefutable but be profoundly conditional. 

Even to call this a tyranny risks ridicule — part of the genius of its conception. Unlike the classical tyrannies, its use of force will be covert and contingent, protected from detection by the distraction of its subjects. Except in the odd exceptional circumstance wherein some holdout holds out. 

Regarding this and other phenomena, the more accurate prophecy of the totalitarianism this signified is to be found not, as is often suggested, in George Orwell’s dystopian tyranny 1984, but in that other British dystopian writer Aldous Huxley and his 1931 novel Brave New World. Whereas Orwell anticipated a world dominated by torture and terror, Huxley foresaw humanity imprisoned by seduction, sedation and diversion. Set in London in 2540 AD, Brave New World anticipated subsequent developments in sleep-learning and psychological manipulation being used to impose the will of the few upon the many. His society is run by a benevolent dictatorship, its subjects maintained in a state of pseudo-contentment by conditioning and a drug called Soma, a vaccine against life. 

To rumble the benign tyranny of our emerging real-life brave new panopticon world, we need but reflect on things that start off being one thing and very quickly become another. Remember ‘don’t be evil’, the original corporate motto of Google, now acquiring exponential layers of unintended irony? One of the symptoms of our emerging condition is that, whereas many of our freedoms are increasingly circumscribed, these constrictions are quickly redefined and understood as newer and better freedoms. The Internet began as a parallel world promising near total freedom; now it is the watchtower of an undeclared regime increasingly intoxicated by its power.

We may already have traded the belief that our rights are defined absolutely for an idea that rights are simply a reflection of the aggregate collective expression of desire, itself an idea that will belong only to the powerful. It may already be much, much later than we think.


Verse III

                          All Along The Watchtower

'There must be some way out of here,' said the joker to the thief,

'There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief

Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth

None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.'

'No reason to get excited', the thief, he kindly spoke,

'There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.

'But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate

'So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late'.

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view

While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl

Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

All Along the Watchtower is the song from his immense repertoire Bob Dylan has performed most often in the more than half-century since he wrote it. It’s surprisingly short for a Dylan song — just three verses — and is as cryptic as a serious being in play by Wilde.

As Dylan once said that his songs all seemed either too long or too short —‘too much or not enough’  — and this is definitely one that seems half naked, a song that might not have stood out had Jimi Hendrix not fallen in love with it and did a cover that is better than any of Dylan’s own versions. 

Yet, at least one critic, Kees de Graaf, said that the song ‘represents a very important, if not the most important place in Dylan’s works.’ 

This, considering the content, is possibly not an overstatement. 

For some reason, people, including ‘music critics’, tend to think of Dylan as a leftist. Au contraire. Not only has he resisted such a label repeatedly but has from time to time made it clear that he is, in fact, a born-again Christian — a label he dislikes — having been born Robert Zimmerman, a Jew. 

‘There's no black and white, left and right to me anymore. There's only up and down, and down is very close to the ground, and I'm trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics,’ he told the Emergency Civil Liberty Committee’s annual Bill of Rights dinner as early as 1963 during his acceptance speech for a Tom Paine Award. 

The following year, Dylan told an interviewer, ‘Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore — you know, be a spokesman. From now on, I want to write from inside me. I’m not part of no movement.’

Dylan himself has since spent no little energy trying to deflect the analysis that he was engaged in a mission to change the world to claim it in the name of Youth or progress or some such — perhaps because, like the rest of us, he eventually twigged that he was himself growing older. He, more than anyone, has represented the conscience of what, loosely, we call rock ‘n’ roll — not because of any stances he adopted but because, placing tradition (under various headings) at the heart of his creative enterprises, he remained interested in staying true to his own experiences and seeing what came out. Dylan felt no necessity to present himself as ‘progressive’, ‘radical’ or left-leaning. Instead, he saw himself inhabiting a traditional idiom and recreating it in a modern context. He was at pains to place himself with Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson rather than Elvis and the Beatles.  It is hard to think of another cultural figure who is so determinedly a ‘traditionalist’ while being taken for the opposite even though he was always, and quite openly, taking tradition for a walk to make new friends in new places. 

There is a passage in his 2004-published Chronicles, Volume One (no Volume Two has yet materialised and Dylan will be 80 in seven weeks) in which he attempts to debunk the idea that he was a spokesman for his generation. While there is a necessity to be watchful for his tendency to lay false trails and confuse the posse, the passage is interesting in that it so flatly contradicts the conventional wisdom:

‘I had a wife and children whom I loved more than anything else in the world. I was trying to provide for them, keep out of trouble, but the big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation. That was funny. All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of. I’d left my hometown only ten years earlier, wasn’t vociferating the opinions of anybody. My destiny lay down the road with whatever life invited, had nothing to do with representing any kind of civilisation. Being true to myself, that was the thing. I was more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper.’

  ‘I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics. My favourite politician was [former Republican presidential candidate] Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn’t any way to explain that to anybody. I wasn’t that comfortable with all the psycho polemic babble. It wasn’t my particular feast of food. Even the current news made me nervous. I like old news better.’

In 2001 he said: ‘I’ve had a God-given sense of destiny. This is what I was put on earth to do.’ Returning to this theme n a 2004 CBS television interview, Dylan responded in a remarkable way to a banal question concerning why, after all those years, he was still out there doing it. ‘It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean, I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I’m holding up my end.’ Asked about the nature of the bargain, Dylan responded: ‘{T]o get where I am now’. 

With whom had he made the bargain? 

 ‘With the Chief Commander, in this earth and in a world we can’t see.’

These fragments, though scattered all over the paths followed by Dylan, have managed to get themselves pretty much ignored in the libraries full of criticism devoted to his work. 

It got worse. Then came Dylan the Bible-thumper. As the 1970s gave way to the ‘80s, his work began to announce him as a born-again Christian. ‘There’s only two kinds of people — there’s saved people and there’s lost people. Jesus is the Lord. Every knee shall bow to Him,’ Dylan told an audience in  Arizona in 1979. He produced three ‘Christian’ albums in as many years: Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). It did not go down well in the corridors of cool.  Critics panned the albums, disregarding that they were, in fact, melodically and otherwise among his very best. Keith Richards ludicrously called him ‘the prophet of profit’ — as though Dylan needed to make more money; as though, even if he did, producing Christian albums would be a smart way of doing it.  

It was said that Dylan had met some born-again chick who had turned his head. But in Bob Dylan; A Spiritual Life, author Scott M. Marshall accounted that Dylan had referenced Bible verses 89 times in the two decades before his first public statement of his Christianity. 

‘I’ll tell you one thing, there’s no way I could write something that would be scripturally incorrect,’ he told Bill Flanagan in an interview for his 1986 book Written in My Soul. ‘I mean, I’m not going to put forth any ideas that aren’t scripturally true. I might reverse them, or make them come out a different way, but I’m not going to say anything that’s just totally wrong, that there’s no law for. Because the Bible runs through all US life, whether people know it or not. It’s the founding book. The Founding Fathers’ book anyway. People can’t get away from it. You can’t get away from it, wherever you go. Those ideas were true then and they’re true now. They’re scriptural, scriptural laws. I guess people can read into that what they want. But if they’re familiar with these concepts, they’ll probably find enough of them in my stuff. Because I always get back to that.’

All Along the Watchtower features two characters, a joker and a thief.  The ‘watchtower’ refers to the Tower of Babel, the tower built by men presuming themselves capable of reaching heaven on their own. Like a lot of his songs, its inspiration is directly Biblical, in this case deriving from  Isaiah — 21: 5-9 as quoted above. 

In these verses the prophet Isaiah prophesizes the fall of the great Neo-Babylonian Empire, which would fall in 539 BC. In  the Book of Revelation, Babel and Babylon represent all powers, of all ages, which oppose and are hostile to the coming of the Kingdom of God. 

The title of Dylan’s song excited controversy at the time on the basis that it made no sense. A watchtower, after all, is a vertical, not a continuous structure. Various theories had it that Dylan was simply playing with words to facilitate the scan of the line, but this displayed ignorance of Dylan’s work and method on various levels. 

The intention of the line is visible from the overall structure of the song, in which Dylan plays with time, starting with a conversation that seems to happen out of sync. The three short verses appear to create a circularity that has the story begin at its end and move towards its beginning.  The effect is to create a kind of incantation-on-a-loop, by which the song and its watchtower are insinuated into continuous eternity, or at least the duration of human history.  Dylan’s ‘watchtower’, then, is a constant presence though time, keeping watch for the early signs of the disintegration of the City of Man. 

The song’s two characters, confront the challenge posed to all generations: to take a position on Evil, to choose a side. In the song, the joker sides with Babylon, but the thief repents and is allowed to leave in time. 

In all ages, every individual human being is called upon to take a moral stance towards Babylon. The call is timeless. The song echoes Revelation’s prediction that the civilisation is about to fall. Dylan takes such warnings seriously, and also their meanings. Life is no ‘joke’, no random phenomenon, but something ordained and ordered. 

One telling has it that the joker is Dylan himself, whereas the thief is Elvis, betimes accused of stealing the music of black America. It is more probably that the dialogue is a riff off the good-thief/bad thief motif from Golgotha. 

The duo are heard to discuss the age-constant question: Which side are you on? If your heart lies with the City of Man as does the heart of the joker, you are doomed; if you repent, like the (good) thief, and get out of Babylon before it falls, you will be saved: 

Then I heard another voice from heaven say:

‘Come out of her, my people,

 so that you will not share in her sins,

 so that you will not receive any of her plagues.’

                                        (Revelation, 18:4)

But what is most striking about Dylan’s framing of the story is not merely that he places it as a recurrent theme in history but that, in this he would appear to have prophesised also the nature and means of the destruction that now approaches. In this song, written and first performed at the heart of the ‘freedom moment’ of the 1960s — released the year before the ‘revolutions’ of ’68, Dylan was reiterating the warning of Revelation and Isaiah: that the City of Man always leans like the Tower of Pisa, as though perpetually destined to fall. Eerily, Dylan appears to conflate the image of the watchtower with the collapsing city, with — most uncannily of all — the surveillance method seemingly destined to be used to take away the freedoms that the song, at the fingers of Hendrix, at the height of psychedelia, appeared to serenade.

Hendrix happened to get his hands on a pre-release copy of John Wesley Harding, the 1967 Dylan album with the song on it. Profoundly drawn to the song, he decided to record his own arrangement, which subsequently Dylan adopted in his own performances of the song. In the liner notes of his collection Biograph, the song’s creator said: ‘Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way. I liked Hendrix's record, and ever since he died, I've been doing it that way.’

Towers of Babel always fall. It cannot be otherwise. Evil always falls, though there is no guarantee that it will not be supplanted by greater evil.

Still, it is the hope of all men in all times that the tower not fall in their lifetimes. 

So here we are. Or are we? Is it possible? The very idea remains dizzying, though the evidence mounts before our eyes. 

What if we were, right at this moment, halfway through a transition from what we thought of as democratically underpinned freedom to something that we would be in no doubt was something like its antithesis: a tyranny such as we had but read about it in books, or seen on some kind of screen? Would we resist? Would we even care? If you had asked those questions 15 months ago, you would have been met with derision possibly giving way to outraged condemnation, as though the answers to these questions were so obvious that it represented some kind of insult to ask them. And now? Perhaps these questions would still be met with outrage, but it would be of a subdued kind, its outer huff-puffery belied by a certain equivocation. So what if we have lost our freedom? Who cares? Were we ever really free anyway? What is freedom but a full belly and a few quid in your pocket? Sure, it’s all an illusion! 

Yes, you might respond, but you could get in your car and drive to Donegal and sit outside a café in Ballyshannon and wonder about the pain that might have underpinned the exuberance and artistry of Rory Gallagher, for instance.  Now you can’t, or at least not without running the gauntlet of a bunch of licenced thugs calling themselves policemen acting like they are entitled to ask your business and issue you with a fine if they don’t like your answer. 

Does this matter? I think so but recognise that I am, for the moment, in a small minority. A good 90 per cent, presented with the evidence of this slippage, would produce in the manner of Tommy Cooper from his pocket, an equivocation, rationale — something to do with health, the ‘common good’, blah blah — and this a good 12 months after it was already clear that this was all fabrication for the purposes of deceit.  

Of course such a rationalisation/rationale will not, as it may seem, be a justification of the official responses to the ‘pandemic’. We’re surely well beyond the point at which any sentient being could take that idea seriously. It will, rather, be the expression of a rationalisation for why the speaker continues to insist on defending this indefensibility, the articulation of denial. For by now it is clear to all but the donkeys that we have been royally duped, that there is no pandemic, never was, and we have been inveigled into surrendering our freedom in the name of nonsense. That this may be too much to bear for most people is entirely understandable and perhaps even a little reassuring. It tells us, at least, that they may not be as indifferent to what has occurred, to what they have allowed to occur, as may appear. Their need to obfuscate and dissemble tells us that there remains a little hope that, when the loss becomes utterly palpable, they may actually be moved to do something —other than, for example, flinging abuse in the direction of those who are trying to do something in spite of their struggling like drowning day-trippers in the hands of a lifeguard. 

There are those who claim that such hopes are deluded, that most people — yes, 90 per cent — do not care for freedom so long as their bellies are full and their other base instincts satiated for the night. (It is instructive to reflect that pretty much all the most contentious of recent political debates in this country have been to do, in one way or another, with satiating the baser instincts.) 

Such prognostications may well be correct. I cannot say for absolute certain. This, after all, is not a movie, and we cannot presume that, round about the middle of Act 3 (the day after tomorrow, by my calculation) the energy will shift and the denouement begins to unfold. Decades of shifting in such as cinema seats has taught us that, at such moments in the unfolding, we are entitled to feel both edgy and unperturbed. The edginess is part of the emotional pattern we have paid our tenners to experience; the lack of perturbation belongs to the real world, to the inner certainty that, no matter what happens in the next half hour, we will by standing outside the chip shop at midnight, nibbling a lightly crispened Golden Wonder. 

But surely it occurs to us, at the present moment of waiting for the April plot-twist, that the chip shops are all closed. The searchlight passes like an umpire’s gaze. April fool!

That feeling of complacency we may have at this moment, born of a thousand buttock-clinching moments of cinematic or soapy suspense-making, is needless to say misplaced. In the real life context it relies on something that no longer has substance: the belief that our public representatives, our leaders, have our best interests at heart, that they are ‘looking out’ for us. That, for all their obvious faults, they are the good guys in our make-believe-movie. This is a tragically misplaced belief. In truth, they are bought and paid for. They long ago surrendered what remained of their souls to outside interests who do not have anyone’s best interests at heart but their own. This is our public representatives’ single (somewhat) redeeming aspect: that they know not what they have done. 

We allowed our politics to become so dirty that it could be occupied only by rats, and then it became even dirtier. The judiciary, the third arm of government, was allowed to become an unqualified offshoot of politics, and so became just as dirtied, which is why it is impossible to challenge what is happening, a pattern we have seen in courts sitting variously in Washington, London and Dublin declare tautologically that, if there is a pandemic, it is not for the courts to question whatever the government decides to do, therefore the courts cannot go into whether or not there was a pandemic. This applies, it appears, even after it has long been clear that the ‘pandemic’ was nothing of the sort. 

The connoisseurs of tyrannical patterns in history also point out that democracy is a fragile plant on the landscape of human habitation, a mere 2,500 years old (and for most of that offering freedom for the few only) and therefore not to be in any sense regarded as a definitive outgrowth of the human. They also tell me that these ‘freedoms’ were merely temporary and carefully circumscribed concessions from the Masters of the Universe, and are now subject to repossession. By this telling, democracy has had its day — was never all it was cracked up to be and now about to give way to a ‘better’ system, in which public obedience (the obedience of the public to the public realm in the common good, in matters both public and private) will become paramount. 

It is not hard to envisage how this could be spun in our current degraded condition: Democracy, through no intrinsic fault of itself, has simply run out of road; the illusion of rights and freedoms was the most manageable form of governance for as long as no ‘superior’ form was possible, but now that is no longer the case. Now, the advances in technology have made possible a more refined system of control, the masquerade — ahem, experiment with universal emancipation —  can safely be discontinued.

And maybe we will indeed, as our first act of obedience under the new dispensation, discount human freedom out of existence. Maybe an iPhone in your pocket is an adequate replacement? 

Include me out. I have lived too long with the idea that man is born free and ought to die free to jump horses at this stage of the gallop. But I know — or at least have learned through observation over the past year —  that here, too, I am in a shrinking majority. 

I gaze in wonder at those who tell me that they have ‘no interest in the Constitution’. I like to ask them if they also have no interest in going to the shops, visiting their grandmothers, inviting friends to dinner, moshing to Coldplay (okay – unlikely, but theoretically . . .); taking weekend breaks in Paris, London, Rome or Barcelona; driving in their cars to see the high Cliffs of Moher, or just mooching about the place minding their own business. All this, and much, much more, I assure them, is recognised and guaranteed by the Constitution of Ireland.  Now we have learned that these were not matters we could take for granted. As we have discovered in the past year, when governments decided to override this, and the judiciary looked the other way, the paper Constitution was not worth the solemn oath of a Garda Commissioner. 

There’s another breed that’ll tell you that the Constitution is ‘out of date’, not relevant to the times, like they’ve been told repeatedly in the between-track patter of their favourite disc-jockey. Really, you think so?  Don’t I realise, they demand, that it’s 84 years old?  Yes it is, I rejoin when I can be bothered: That Constitution is more or less exactly one-thirtieth as old as the democracy you seem to imagine falls like rain from the sky. How often would they like it rewritten to ‘keep up with the times’? Would once a week be sufficient?

With all this in mind, a question: Is it possible that we might find ourselves in a Chinese-style surveillance culture in which our right to do things depended on our ‘conduct’ politically speaking? Is it possible that we might even volunteer for this. Yes and yes. Right at this moment this must be regarded as in fact the default position: it will happen unless we move against it, unless we do something to try to prevent it, unless we register an objection with the dying gasps of our democratic breath. 

Unless there materialises an unless.

And what if there is no unless? Game over, is what. 

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