If you don’t speak German you probably have never heard of Wolf Biermann, who many people (I am one of them) would consider to be the greatest, or at least one of the greatest, political songwriters of the 20th century. Unfortunately, text-heavy songwriting doesn’t cross borders well, so he is almost unknown outside the German-speaking world. But he is an extraordinary poet and musician, and I’m not sure who could compare to his blend of wit, righteous anger and political sophistication.
At the moment, I’m particularly thinking of his 1974 Stasi Ballade, a sarcastic paean to the internal security service (Staatssicherheit, or Stasi) that had kept him constantly under surveillance since the early 1960s, when his communist idealism had been pegged as politically deviant. I’ve included the whole German text below (certainly a copyright sin, but perhaps a venial one). A crude translation of parts of it give a sense of Biermann’s text:
I feel myself somehow entwined
with the poignant Stasi swine
who watch my house, who come and go
in pouring rain and sleet and snow.
Who installed a microphone
to listen in on all my moaning,
songs and jokes and mild bitching
on the toilet, in the kitchen:
Brothers from Security —
You alone know all my grief!
Words that would have disappeared
are stored by you on eight-inch reels,
and I know how, now and then,
you sing my songs at night in bed!
For years I’ve been depending on
the Stasi as my Eckermann.
When I come home late at night
from the pub tired, maybe tight,
And some crude peasants were to lurk
in the darkness by my door,
and they attacked most vulgarly
to do, I don’t know what, to me –
But that’s impossible today.
The comrades in their battle grey
from the Stasi would — I’d bet you! —
Prohibit an assault or battery
Because the papers in the West
Would try to blame the crime — I’d bet you! —
on the Communists …
The Stasi is — I must regard it
as my loyal bodyguard!
Or we could reflect a while
upon my foolish carnal freestyle –
My habit, such a source of strife,
that always discomposed my wife –
This monstrous, mad, and reckless tempt-lure
pulling me toward new adventure.
Since I know how Argus-eyed
the comrades watch, I haven’t tried
to pick my cherries anymore
from the trees on other shores.
I know I’d risk that such events
would be recorded, and soon be sent
to my wife with clear intent –
Such a huge embarrassment!
And so I skip these sideways swerves
so save my strength, my time, my nerves –
And there’s no question that this spark
I save redounds to fire my work!
I say, in short: the Security
Secures my immortality!
So, let’s summarise: Biermann thanks the Stasi surveillance for three services:
- Recording his words. Assuring that they will never be forgotten, and that someone is paying attention. Of course, it’s not clear how much attention GCHQ is allowed to pay, according to current law, but they could do a lot more to win over the hearts and minds of the public on the other score. Imagine GCHQ Backup. Never lose another file. If you have a disagreement about what was said in a telephone conversation, just use the webform to contact GCHQ’s round-the-clock service representatives, who will be happy to provide you with the recording. Maybe they’ll even get people to agree to leave their webcams on at all times, in return for cataloguing and backing up their non-telephonic conversations.
- Protection from crime. They’ve emphasised this so far. I’m not sure that there is more to be gotten plausibly, at current funding levels.
- Preserving morals. This one is delicate, but may have the greatest potential for development. Of course, it’s implicit in the argument that people make, that those who have not committed crimes have nothing to fear from surveillance. We know that the NSA has already been experimenting with the use of electronic surveillance to control sexual deviance. They could offer a service that automatically mails to your partner the content of any conversations that include certain keywords. The application is not limited to sexual morals, of course. Employers could be alerted when their employees discuss company secrets (or theft of company property). Or maybe you’re a Muslim youth who is worried that you might be tempted into islamist terrorism. The problem is, some people don’t want to be prevented from having affairs, or consorting with islamists, or whatnot. This part still needs work.
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