Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An American’s Knowledge Of Freedom, And A Child’s Knowledge Of Lust

Imagine a child – very precocious and bright for her age, but still young enough to think kissing is “icky” and romance is “gross” and she will never, ever involve herself in such yuckiness when she grows up, because everybody knows boys are nothing more than perpetual-motion machines generating cooties in lieu of energy. Eeew.

Now imagine a political sex scandal – or look at any random news site, there’s always one in the headlines – some dude had a good chance of being elected to high office, or already made it there, but then his career and reputation came crashing down around his ankles, right along with his pants.

And the child asks about the politician’s motivation: what made him risk his fortune, career and reputation like that? So you look for age-appropriate ways to explain “Grown-ups feel this thing called ‘lust,’ which makes some of them behave in very stupid ways,” and perhaps the child might understand this intellectually, but until she is old enough to have such feelings herself, she won’t truly understand it in her gut.

Something similar happened to me last weekend, when I took a short vacation to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. For a long time now, I’ve known intellectually that America is no longer the “free country” it used to be, but only when stepping outside it for awhile do I truly feel it in my gut.

I mentioned yesterday some differences between the Canadian and American border guards. But there were other little things, too: in Canada and America, both governments will buy TV ads or billboards encouraging their citizens to behave in certain ways. The Canadian ads I saw contained messages like “donate blood” or “volunteer your time for a worthy charity.” The American ads urged people to feel paranoia and fear, via the infamous “See Something, Say Something” messages sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security. (I had no idea sleepy little farm towns in the Massachusetts Berkshires were such hotbeds of potential terrorist activity, but the billboards assured the farmers they should feel very, very afraid.)

To get to Niagara Falls from my place in Connecticut, the best route involves taking the New York Thruway, which is well-peppered with electronic signboards flashing messages to drivers. I first saw such signboards in the mid-1980s, on a family trip to Washington, DC, and remember being impressed by how high-tech and science-fictiony they were. Back then, the signboards flashed information drivers would find useful: time, temperature, traffic and weather conditions.

The signboards on the New York Thruway last weekend wasted no electrons on such drivel; instead, they flashed constant reminders of state authority and the penalties for getting on the wrong side of it, with “Click it or ticket” being the most common phrase.

A couple years ago, while writing for a now-defunct group blog, I took a trip to Halifax and shared an anecdote: my boyfriend and I visited a fort built to defend the city back when cannon were the most powerful weapon available. Inside the fort, you were surrounded by green grassy walls topped with regular niches where cannon once stood guard. Today, if you climbed the walls and sat in those cannon-spots you’d get breathtaking views of the harbor and city, but you’d also be at high risk of a fatal fall, so there were regular signs posted warning people to stay off the wall.

As I wandered through the fort, I suddenly heard a man yelling “Get off the wall!” I looked in one direction and saw an elderly man who had climbed into one of the forbidden cannon spots, then in another direction and saw an annoyed Canadian police officer whose job, apparently, was to stand in the center of the fort, keep an eye on the walls and yell at people who climbed too high.

As an American woman accustomed to American authority figures, I watched and waited to see what the police officer would do next – kick the old man out of the park? Ticket him? Arrest him? Taser him for non-compliance? The answer turned out to be “none of the above”; the cop merely watched to ensure the old man climbed down. A few minutes later, I heard the cop shout “Get off the wall!” at another tourist, but again, that was all he did.

I had long known, intellectually, that America was no longer the truly free country I’d learned about in school, just as small bright cootie-fearing children might know intellectually “Adults feel this thing they call lust,” but that moment in Halifax, considering the difference between how I expected the police officer to behave versus how he actually did, was the first moment I truly felt it in my gut. But I’d managed to forget that feeling, just a little bit, until I left my country again.

There’s an old saying “Nobody fears being cheated more than a con man; nobody fears being robbed more than a thief.” Apply that standard to modern America, and it says something very disconcerting about our government.


Anonymous Lisa Simeone said...

I'm seeing it and I'm saying it: this country is going down the crapper.

7:10 AM  

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