Early in the George W. Bush administration, my friends and family thought I'd gone a little crazy. Policies such as dramatic expansion of "Free Speech Zones" to limit where people could protest the president made me apoplectic. I thought the whole country was a free speech zone. They thought I sounded like a conspiracy theorist.
By the time we got to wiretapping, I nearly burst a blood vessel. Spying on our own citizens? Lots of other people noticed, too, though, and I looked less nuts.
So, to those of you who have been feeling like Edvard Munch's screamer in a wilderness of earplugs for the last few years, I'm sorry. I get it. As Americans, we're running the risk of being frogs in the waters of democracy. The cool temperatures of freedom are slowly warming. If we're not alert, thoughtful, and aware of the long-term implications of our and our government's actions, we could be in a pot that smells, tastes and feels a little too totalitarian before we realize it.
Three converging trends put me on common ground with your average Tea Party member for the first time in my liberal-New-England-elite life: government action, technological advancement and American attitude.
Government action is the low-hanging fruit. The IRS should question political groups seeking tax exemption. But only the ones who disagree with the government? The administration should think carefully about using force in a Middle East diplomatic compound on the anniversary of the September 11th bombings. But withholding protection of citizen servants for seemingly political reasons? And as far as AP subpoenas and the investigation of journalists as spies go... I don't have a first half for that sentence. That's just bad.
Now look at technological advancement. Drones are terrifying, and privatizing. It is technically possible for someone to fly an unmanned plane over your back yard and watch how poorly your pants fit as you pull weeds.
Google just came up with Google Glass, so excited that they could it seems they didn't sufficiently consider whether they should. Think you're having a private moment in a public place? The person in glasses next to you can, without your knowledge, begin photographing or filming you with those glasses and upload said photo or video to the web for sharing with other interested parties.
And while photography, to quote writer Andrea Volpe, "one could argue... is more democratic... than it's ever been," she in turn quotes Susan Sontag, who noted, "A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing has happened." So what do we do with the fact that Samsung is advertising a smart phone that can remove people from pictures in a way that makes it appear they were never there, or existed?
The classic push back to we who worry we're creating technologies for personal entertainment that someone could use to make 1984 look like a utopian year is, "We're safe here." We live in a democracy. Our government is by, of and for the people. We'd never use such things against ourselves.
Really? It seemed perfectly reasonable, including to me, to lock one million people down for a day to find two terrorists here in Boston. Anything for our safety, which is why I now let people at the airport essentially see me naked before I get on a plane. How long a trip is it with governments that wiretap people and track reporters' phone records before a domestic drone might seem absolutely necessary to keep us safe, too?
Which brings me to American attitude. We're an angry people right now, and we're frightened. Historically, this is the condition in which people both give up freedoms in order to feel more safe, and tend to put governments into office that take those freedoms, and then a little more, in their desire to do the job. By the time people realize they don't like it, too many freedoms are gone to take them back, and it's too easy to find and deal with the people who disagree.
Democracy is humanity's greatest innovation. Not the printing press, the wheel, or cooked meat. Therefore, we have a particular responsibility to be attentive in protecting our democratic practices and ideals.
I feel like we're a little drowsy. The water is comfortably warm.