Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Who are we?

Robert Hicks has a piece in the New York Times entitled, "Why the Civil War Still Matters". I don't care much either way about his thesis (the Civil War has never interested me), but his final paragraph is worth quoting:
True, we have not arrived at our final destination as either a nation or as a people. Yet we have much to commemorate. Everything that has come about since the war is linked to that bloody mess and its outcome and aftermath. The American Century, the Greatest Generation and all the rest are somehow born out of the sacrifice of those 750,000 men and boys. None of it has been perfect, but I wouldn’t want to be here without it.
Hicks writes of what has happened. I would like to know who we are.

We're a nation that still struggles with race, as sporadic public uproars keep reminding us (Paula Deen, or, going back a little further, Mel Gibson).

We're a nation that still struggles with religion, perhaps because we fiercely protect the right to have one (though we don't seem nearly as content to allow a person not to have one).

We're a nation that struggles with sexuality. We're obsessed with it because many of us believe it isn't a fit subject for public discussion. Many others believe it's that sense of taboo that makes our national discussion of sex (and sexuality, and sexual orientation, etc.) so profoundly weird.

We're a nation that struggles with fear. Right now, we probably have less justification for existential fear than any nation in history. Yet looming over us all are the shadows of the vanished Twin Towers.

I'm particularly reminded of our struggles with fear by recent revelations that the government is monitoring our web of associations via phone, email, and, as revealed today, our postal mail. The government has what it says, and what a sizable number of people believe, are good reasons, all involving criminals and terrorists (who we have been repeatedly told are not the same).

Myself, I grew up with the idea that the government not only wasn't allowed to monitor my associations, but wasn't able. Now that I know it can, the question remains: should it?

A lot of people, perhaps a majority, say yes, if it could help to prevent another terrorist attack.

I think the world would be better off if governments stopped busying themselves with people's private lives. Whom people associate with should never be in an FBI file or NSA database.

"What do you have to hide?" That's always the rejoinder. However, it's not the question that was meant. The intended question was, "Have you done anything illegal that you're trying to hide?" For most of us, the answer is "no", and that's where the supporters of surveillance leave the matter.

Perhaps, though, we ought to make the question, "Have you anything to hide?" I think most of us do. Not illegalities, of course, but simply things of which we're ashamed. They're probably harmless, but you still wouldn't want them aired. Yet how could you be sure they wouldn't be if the information sat in a federal database? And why should you have to live with that possibility hanging over your head?

Law enforcement is no longer enough: now we demand preemption of law-breaking. That, though, requires investigating the innocent: you can't preemptively find wrongdoers without looking at everyone.

What does it say about us that we treat everyone as a potential wrongdoer?

How does being under omnipresent suspicion make us "the land of the free"?

What does it even mean to be free, if our actions are constantly under observation?

Who are we?

That's what I'd like to know as we celebrate our day of independence, because it seems to me we prefer to focus on what has happened and not who we have become.

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