Have you ever felt so strongly about some matter that you have gone out to march in the streets, that you have linked arms with others of like mind and advanced on the riot police with their black uniforms and their instruments of oppression and even though you have gone unarmed you have not backed down because you are clad in the armour of a just cause? If so, I envy you. I never have.
There must be a thrill to it, to share a mind with thousands of others, millions of others even, and to take on authority in the name of what's right. It's stuff to make the chest swell and the chin lift. How I'd have loved to be the anonymous young man in Beijing who stood in front of a column of tanks in 1989 and dared them to run him over, who called their huge metal military bluff while carrying only what seemed to be a bag of groceries. I know, however, that I'd never have had the courage.
But I think I would have the courage to join the millions on the streets of Hong Kong right now. Their cause is so clear-cut and so far-reaching. For Hong Kong is a fault line. On one side lies representative democracy, which is what you and I have got. On the other lies authoritarian rule, which is what most of the world has got. The people of Hong Kong want the former. The Chinese authorities want them to have the latter.
The problem of power in human society has never been solved, but representative democracy is the best we've come up with. It may be unwieldy and inefficient, but it beats everything else. In essence it means giving people the freedom to elect whoever they want. Then to be as rude as they like about the people they've elected. Then to replace them. Then to be as rude as they like about whoever they've replaced them with. And all of it without fear and without consequences.
The specific problem in Hong Kong is a proposed law that will permit extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China for trial. Everybody in Hong Kong knows that in mainland China a trial isn't a trial. The judges are political appointees and the authorities get the decision they want. Thus the proposed law will be used to control dissent in Hong Kong. It'll be the legal tank that runs over the man with the shopping bags. And so the Hong Kongese have come out on the streets. If they lose this one they lose everything.
And the most ominous thing about it is that most of them are wearing masks - either a white breathing mask as favoured by the Japanese, or a full gas mask, or just a scarf wrapped around the face. The masks are a protection partly against tear gas, but mainly against software.
For surveillance cameras are watching them and facial recognition software these days can record the details of a face in digital form, store it in a central database and then pick it out in any crowd anywhere at any time. And if that doesn't make you shudder I don't know what will.
Surveillance cameras abound throughout the world. The argument for them is always that those who do nothing wrong have nothing to fear. But that argument depends on who gets to define what's wrong. And authorities tend to define what's wrong as anything that threatens the power of authorities. So we have everything to fear.
Surveillance cameras always and everywhere point the wrong way. It is we, the people, who must oversee the authorities and not the other way round. For it is an inescapable truth of human history that those people who seek power are often the ones who shouldn't have it. And once they've got it they tend to abuse it. Those things remain true even in a long-established representative democracy.
Consider the States. It has somehow elected Trump. All his instincts are authoritarian. He seeks to imprison his enemies, enrich his cronies, muzzle the press, establish a dynasty and be president till he dies. And he may yet succeed. For the world is swinging his way at the moment. The bully boys are on the advance once more and democracy's on the retreat. They're out on the streets in Hong Kong, the Sudan, Georgia, the Czech Republic.
And it could happen here in the peaceable South Pacific as readily as anywhere else. We may yet need to get out on the streets. And a part of me hopes for the chance. It would be nice to have to stand up.