Monday, December 05, 2011

Little Brother

In George Orwell's classic dystopian novel 1984, we are invited to view a future where Fascism has triumphed. Every aspect of our lives are monitored by the state, and giant posters of Oceania's omniscient dictator plaster the streets with the caption: “Big Brother Is Watching You”! Such were the fear's of a post-war Britain and U.S., and such are the similar complaints made today by the Tea Party and traditional conservatives everywhere.  However, what they fail to recognize is, in the words of Pogo Possum: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

I live in a relatively small town, worn out by corruption, unemployment, and a prescription pill epidemic that has garnered it national fame. I am also a writer, who enjoys getting away from the distractions of home to sort out my thought's, and to take in the fresh air where I can find it. Apparently these are two mutually exclusive conditions doomed to inevitable conflict.

Being an indigent community, areas set aside for solitary reflection are few. I am normally left with but two choices, a place along the river or, the city cemetery, which is not the morbid place it might at first seem. It's generally well maintained with many beautiful trees for shade in the summer, and a show of colors in fall.

Unfortunately, these same two places are also warrens for drug trafficking and prostitution, which keeps the local police perpetually occupied. On one occasion, alarmed perhaps by my repeated presence, I was questioned by them. I was somewhat tickled by the excessive lengths they took before approaching me. It took two officers in two police cruisers pinning me (the dangerous suspect) in from both sides, so I wouldn't make a dash for it I suppose, and made up some excuse about suicides in the cemetery to legitimize their action's, although I had never heard of any. They seemed genuinely surprised to find a man simply eating his lunch, and were a bit credulous that I had not been up to something more.

Likewise, the river front offers little difference. More known for prostitution then drugs, visitors are more likely to stare in at you rather than out towards the river as they drive by, the view of which they are ostensibly there to enjoy in the first place. For you see, a parked car there at anytime of day is always suspected of harboring a street-walker, and passersby simply can't help but indulge their prurient side in hopes of catching one at her trade. All of this leads to some questions: How much privacy may we expect in public? And how can we judge the state for its spying when we're happy to do the state's job ourselves?

There is no shortage of debate, both legal and ethical on where the boundary lies. One must assume that, to be in a public place is to expect that one is on display, that one has considered this, and willingly put themselves at the discretion of social scrutiny.

However, this appears too pat. There are various levels of “public”, from what one overhears of a conversation at a distance, to one who consciously crawls on all fours behind the park bench. If one is standing in the middle of an open field we might argue that that person has fully accepted that they will or may be stared at. On the other hand, sitting in one's vehicle with the doors closed may indicate a person's desire to be left alone. The fact that many have their windows tinted would seem to indicate this even, and especially if, the intention is to hide from the law. (That a car is not a private residence is of little matter. Considering the current job market there are plenty of citizens who have been reduced to making their vehicles home sweet home.)

Getting back to my original point, it is less the local police that annoys me then other citizens and their knowing smiles. Everyone is Mother Superior now. The young are merely seeking to catch you in some illegal act for a laugh, the aged consider themselves the arbiters of morality, and thus duty bound to interfere.

When it comes to the elderly snoop I have some slight empathy. No doubt they are often acting out of a sense of misplaced civic responsibility, perhaps even concern. However, the irony of their prying appears lost on the individual. If it is indeed taxes they wish to squabble about, perhaps we should give them their wish, shut down the police departments across the nation, and return to the institution of the Night Watch, were Grandma' and Grandpa' may volunteer to interfere in the action's of their neighbors and make the impersonality, and thus impartiality, of law a thing of the past.