An excerpt from The New York Times Sunday Book Reviews, “Surveillance States” by Azar Nafisi:
“The real reason for government surveillance is fear, in this case the state’s fear of its citizens. Governments that spy on their people want to gain information and thus control not only over their enemies but over everyone, keeping them perpetually suspicious. What begins as a political action quickly permeates every aspect of life, including our most private spaces. What originates in fear of an enemy, sometimes founded in reality, quickly attaches to the familiar and mundane. The enemy becomes our eccentric colleague, the new neighbors speaking in a foreign tongue, those three people talking quietly to one another on the metro. Soon, every bag carries a bomb, every question contains a trap and all the places where we felt comfortable are no longer safe.
“It stays with you, that fear. It burrows under the skin. Even after you escape and are thousands of miles or many years away, you will still sometimes feel you are being watched. Something within you has been permanently damaged by the terrible knowledge of the human capability for cruelty and your own weaknesses in the face of it.
“When I came to America in 1997, for a long time I was in a state of euphoria, basking in the freedom to say anything to anybody. But euphoria doesn’t last long, in the real world or the fictional one. The fear I thought I had left behind when I immigrated caught up with me. In Iran surveillance and violence against citizens are naked and obvious. Here it is insidious. Here we are threatened by indifference. I fear the reign of ignorance, of citizens uneducated in their own and others’ histories and cultures. How can we find answers to the predicaments we face, without knowing what the questions are?
“Saul Bellow expressed anxiety over how those who survived the ordeal of the Holocaust would survive the ordeal of freedom. I don’t fear the ordeal of freedom. I fear the moment when we stop thinking of freedom as an ordeal.” (emphasis added)
Freedom is, should be, an ordeal. Our freedoms are something for which we should never cease fighting. Here in America, we often hear the phrase, “Freedom isn’t free” as it pertains to military service. But what of our responsibilities as citizens in a alleged free society? What of our responsibilities to uphold one of the most cherished documents in human history, the Bill of Rights? Do we truly believe our government and economic leaders are going to uphold our civil rights of their own volition?
The fight for freedom is more critical within America than it is outside America. This is a vital understanding of America’s founding creed, for the founders assumed – in all the writings and documents and ideals that created America – that Americans would not be a nation of individuals engaged in hedonistic consumption, but a nation of citizens actively engaged, of creating a check and balance against governmental usurpation of powers never intended for it and today, multinational corporations’ usurpation of governmental powers. We, as citizens, were provided the free space to pursue this role of check and balance thanks to our Bill of Rights.
In fact, the Bill of Rights’ raison d’être is to protect our civil rights thus enabling us to pursue engagement. It is not there to provide cover for us to yell fire in a theater, or turn our backyard into garbage dump, or any other “liberties” that are, in truth, licenses that damage the freedoms of others. In addition, the Bill of Rights does not provide the equivalency of personhood to government, or multinational corporations, or any other institutions, and the reason behind this is simple: institutions do not possess a conscience, they are not individuals acting as moral agents.
This is why we, acting as citizens, are under the obligation to fight back, to engage, to smash the brick of truth through the window of power.
But we Americans have lost this, we have become sheep, as Charlie Chaplin depicted us – over 80 years ago – in the opening scenes of Modern Times. “I fear the reign of ignorance, of citizens uneducated in their own and others’ histories and cultures,” Nafisi rightly states. The reign of ignorance, indeed, of apathy, is what has turned us Americans into sheep.
We have become sheep because we are deprived of a solid, rounded public education thanks to our power structures, structures that are not interested in educated Americans, save for those narrowly-focused studies that turn our academics into nothing more than vocational schools, readying us to provide profits and tax revenues to economic and governmental institutions, profits the share of which will prove microscopic compared to what we will lose as humans: the substantive love of another, the cohesiveness of our families, the familiarity of our communities, the sense of dignity we could build within ourselves, if we weren’t working 80 hours a week to buy the next generation smartphone, or luxury car, or maintaining the financially correct address… or even just to survive and pay the bills.
If you feel ineffective, if you feel you no longer can believe your political leaders, or marketing, or the media, or the spewing of brutal neoliberal proclamations from CEOs (or worse, the insidious black seam they quietly weave in our politics via lobbyists), then end the reign of ignorance: read. Don’t take my word for it; I’m just another blogger with an opinion. Read for yourself. Read the original source material that founded this country.
And no matter your political leanings, do not assume you know or understand what this material represents, for it is as radical and avant garde and cutting edge and bold as the times in which it was written. I’m not interested in hearing ad hominen attacks, of the shortcomings of our founders. They were human, they had shortcomings… so have all leaders and thinkers and gadflies and revolutionaries throughout history. Let he or she who is without sin, cast the first stone.
I’m interested in ideals, in the grease that keeps our wheels moving forward, in what could make American society the envy of the world, rather than a model of how to turn a free society into a feudal one.
Be insatiable in your reading, for you will never learn – at any level of educational attainment in America – what you will uncover when reading the original sources that helped form the American Creed.
Start now. Start today. Take reading as seriously as the need for a proper diet and exercise, because your life – your mind and mental state of health – depends on it.
And then? Engage. Engage so that your community becomes more meaningful. Engage to help others less fortunate than you have a way up, without waiting for our Federal government to act. Engage to make your local government work for you and your fellow citizens living there. Engage until you learn that other Americans in your community – regardless of skin color, or culture, or heritage, or gender, or faith, or whatever other surface differences keep us suspicious of, or even angry at, one another – are simply trying to attain the same things you are: a safe home, a cohesive family, a social network, pastimes to purge our stresses, a viable school system.
Engage to rid yourselves of the unwarranted fear that is created by living within a surveillance state. Those in power understand that as long as we fear one another, or fight one another, or isolate ourselves from one another, we turn into sheep.
And sheep do not represent a threat to those in power.
Eradicate the surveillance state and the fear that it builds within us. We don’t live behind an Iron Curtain, for crissakes. We supposedly live in a land of liberties and civil rights and freedoms. We used to believe our ideals were worth fighting for, and we started this journey in the late 18th century believing in the basic dignity of the individual.
Sheep cannot comprehend such ideals. So what in the hell happened to us?
We didn’t heed Benjamin Franklin’s warning: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”