Sunday, July 4, 2010

Free To Be Me

Long story short (for once). Photographer takes pictures of BP refinery. Police and BP security stop photographer. Police take sensitive information about photographer, and share it with BP security personnel. Story winds up in news. Online debate begins.

If someone else is harassed for something that you don't do, have any freedoms been infringed?

(Now for the long part.) I'm of the opinion that for many Americans, the answer is "no." And I suspect that as things go forward, that's going to be a greater and greater problem. It's already more or less an article of faith that for the United States as a whole, "Not my problem" is directly equal to "Not a problem." People are more or less expected to form themselves into cliques that will look out for each other at the expense of not only other cliques, but "the greater good" and even the law itself. And it doesn't take long for people to obligingly queue up as expected. The current immigration debate is an excellent example, but not the only one by a longshot.

It's hard for people to draw a distinction between what works for them and what simply works. Americans have difficulty seeing the lines between their lives and the lives of others. And, when they're feeling really ornery, may even refuse to acknowledge those distinctions when they are pointed out. I could give examples, but this will likely be long enough as it is, so I'll refrain. And besides, I'm sure you've met at least one person who fits the bill in your everyday life. And I'm sure that I won't be breaking new ground when I put all of this together and say that it can often be difficult for people to understand how other people feel a need to do things that they themselves don't need to do, instead categorizing them as (perhaps exaggerated) wants or desires.

Coupled with this is the new buzzphrase of the past nearly a decade, the remarkable piece of bullshit: "Freedom isn't free." (I'm calling it out as bullshit because NOTHING is free. Everything has a cost in one way or another. You may or may not be the one to pay that cost, but there is always a cost.) There are two primary factors to this War on Terror aphorism. The first is that our current freedom is under threat by a bunch of unhinged Islamist dirt farmers living in caves out in the middle of nowhere and the only way to prevent them from somehow killing and or subjugating 300 million people over thousands of miles is to a) fight counter-insurgency actions that seem to have done little more than trade casualties here for lots more casualties over there and b) be blindly deferential to the poor sods who signed up for military service. The second is that those of us who aren't out there being shot at in a foreign country should be willing to sacrifice unnecessary things in support of our necessary freedoms.

I'm tempted to say "combine all of things together and what you have is a willingness to sell other people's freedoms down the river in the name of combating one's own sense of fear," but to be honest, I think that I'd have the causality backwards if I went that route. I think that a willingness to sell other people's freedoms down the river has always been there. Doing so in the name of combating a specific threat is merely the most recent reason.

To go back to the debate about the MSNBC story that I started out with, those people who feel that the ability to photograph an oil refinery for a story about an oil company with a couple of really spectacular black marks on its safety record is an acceptable casualty of the War on Terror feel no need to have pictures of oil refineries. And they see no reason why anyone else needs them either. If a story about an oil company lacks any pictures of refineries, they're okay with that. And if someone gets into trouble for doing taking pictures, that's okay too. They're safe (or safe enough) in their surroundings. That's all that matters.

But, of course, we can slot any number of other activities into this debate, instead: ownership of guns, same-sex marriage (or inter-racial marriage, for that matter), accessing pornography, online privacy. And neither side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on wanting a right cherished by the other to be done away with. There's a poem about standing by and watching while other people's freedoms are taken away, and then realizing that when it's your turn, that there's no one willing to speak up for you. It's a classic, if not stereotypical (or even clich├ęd) cautionary tale. But it has the same limitations as every other cautionary tale. Mainly that it has no way of overcoming the sense that many people have that the rights they champion for themselves are universal and necessary, and those that others champion are parochial and optional. Mainly because, well, sometimes that is the case. Sometimes, people are of the opinion that their problems are everyone's problems, and in doing so, seek to elevate their own issues to the level of an all-encompassing crisis, and they're better off left to solve their own problems.

But that's a gamble. I'm not sure that the collective we has the wisdom to make that determination well, and I'm not going to bet on myself in that regard, either.


Archaeopteryx said...

If there was some way to give this post a thumbs-up, I'd do it.

Aaron said...

Thanks, Arch! I appreciate that.