CCTV cameras: of arrogance and ignorance

Feb 16, 2023
In the Security Control Room.

What motivated the Australian government when it announced that it would get rid of CCTV cameras on public buildings because they were Chinese devices? They are to be discarded not because they malfunction but because they function all too well.

The contention is that, if a Chinese firm produced them, they are bound to relay sensitive information back to China. Why was this not realised when the cameras were bought and why has it become important now? Was it because Australians are just trying to curry favour with the US as it uses every cudgel it can find with which to beat China down? Or, because the always smouldering ages-old racism that is part and parcel of Australian history is enjoying a revival? Or, because a ploy is needed to instill more fear in Australians and thereby justify treating the Chinese people as enemies?

While all these things may play a part, a better, because it is more universally applicable, explanation is provided by an insightful article by John Menadue. Its title tells us that “The US sees China through the dark mirror of its own unbridled aggression”. It speaks to a dangerous and dangerously prevalent way of thinking.

“We” think that the Chinese government will use the supplier of CCTV cameras to Australia to get access to “our” secrets because if “we” had such cameras in place in China, “we” would use them in that way. In fact, Snowden told us that US Intelligence did seek access to private firms’ collected data.

This projection that “our” view of how people must be behaving is based on vulgar arrogance and ignorance. It says that the other people, if they are enlightened in any way, will choose and do what we would choose and do. If they don’t, they should. It resonates with that famous Kissinger pronouncement on why the US favoured the overthrow the Allende government: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people”. It echoes the way in which Christian colonisers went about their business. “We” were doing God’s work taking the resources away from people who did not use them properly, even if this meant dispossessing millions of people, savaging their ancient traditions and cultures which, after all, were primitive because they were not like ours. “We” did them the favour of teaching them more useful languages and persuaded them to give up their silly cults and adopt a true religion. In our benign way, “we” took away their children to make them like “us”. In short, the starting point of this reasoning is that the only reason that others might not think and act as “we” think and act is because they are either barbaric or stupid. Vide the way in which the US and its allies characterised China’s approach to COVID. It was not just scientifically wrong but was clearly anti-democratic, exemplifying the failure of China’s value system. Maybe we should help them out…

In contemporary times, this principle of arrogance which makes us see other peoples and practices as unenlightened, inefficient and deserving of “our” justifiable condemnation—and if we dare, “our” corrective intervention—has led to a demand that the world should live by the anti-social principle that all individuals should act as atoms, all of them serving their own ends. There is no such thing as society, said Margaret Thatcher, one of the political heroes of this cant, informed by intellectuals such as Hayek, the Mont Pelerin Society and their ilk. Nation states which live by this motto see the reluctance of other polities to adhere to this dogma as hopelessly out of touch with reality and in need of education, by sanctions or even regime change where possible. Anyone who cannot understand that the characterisation of a human being as being, first and foremost, an economic being when, Homo Economicus, are just plain wrong. Selfishness and greed are the essential characteristics of all human beings.

But what if none of this is true? What if many people, in many places feel more comfortable with a different view of social relations, of duties and obligations? What if Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Prize in Economics is right when, based on her lauded research, she concludes that more socially successful and productive societies have been, and will be, communal ones which are based on associations of people whose dominant drive is the recognition of the needs of others? What if humans are not primarily economic beings but have other needs and instincts and that  “we”, when acting though our lens, destroy practices, cultures and traditions that made, or could make, people more humane? To “us”, the arrogant and ignorant, this is a dangerous line of thinking to open up. No less a person than Margaret Thatcher saw this. In an interview in The Sunday Times she noted that her homo economicus policies had a goal: “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul”.

This is what the manipulations, large and small (like the CCTV cameras vaudeville skit) are about: they are there to focus on the needs of those who truly profit when we accept their narrow view of our potential as human beings. This should be countered. A start might be made by teaching ourselves more about “our” actual history and educating ourselves better about various political philosophies so that we can see others better. Of course, such suggestions might be disparaged as being too “woke”.

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