It’s right to yell fire when the theater is burning

One of my all-time favorite TV shows was Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC, 1993-99). Richard Belzer’s character, conspiracy theorist Det. John Munch, carried over to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 1999 and has been there ever since, usually written as a pale imitation of his former self. But I digress.

Homicide crossed over with the original Law & Order a few times, and in the final crossover, Munch’s brother officer Lenny Briscoe (played by the much-missed Jerry Orbach) took great joy in reading Munch’s FBI file, which Munch had bragged would be quite extensive: It was a single sheet, saying that he was mostly harmless, an amateur radical, really.

In fall 1992, I wound up on Nashville television with the UT Martin chapter of the College Democrats at a Clinton-Gore rally in Nashville. I was the tall dude holding the sign that said we were the “UTM Quayle Hunting Team,” and I’ve often joked that’s probably when my FBI file started. Between petitions I’ve signed, newspaper columns I’ve written, donations I’ve given to various causes and organizations, family members’ involvement in labor unions, and my Massachusetts voter registration as a socialist, not to mention my having had two occasions to visit the FBI field office in the town where I was a journalist, I figure I’ve gotta have one, right?

You can get your FBI file, you know. But if you didn’t have one before you submitted your request, you surely will afterward. (I haven’t ordered mine for this reason … and because if I have one, I’m afraid it would read more like John Munch’s, less like Dr. King’s, and I’d rather live in hope that I’m more of a menace than I probably am in reality.)

I was born the day Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned his office, a year before President Richard Nixon would follow, and I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, the age of Iran-Contra and dirty wars. When I should have been watching Sesame Street and The Electric Co., I was watching the news and “grown-up” shows in the primetime hours. The Clinton years — the first president I voted for (in 1992) and against (Nader in 1996 — but not, I hasten to add, 2000) — were a break from the criminality against the American people and the rest of the world that I’d seen all my life, and then we got Bush Jr.

There’s a point to all of this, besides the fact that I’m old. The recent news about the Obama administration’s surveillance programs only confirms what I already assumed was in place. I’m more surprised that it’s treated as a surprise than by the facts revealed by whistleblowers, to be honest.

I mean, really, we knew a lot of this was going on during the George W. Bush administration. The Unitarian Universalists, the Quakers, the Reform Jews, some Muslims, and the peace churches were out there protesting him while the conservative religious establishments debated whether Bush was the Second Coming or just a saint.

Bradley Manning and Eric Snowden are heroes, but that’s not going to stop the government and most corporate news media from treating them as villains even as they cravenly use the benefits of these men’s document drops to sell some papers or ad minutes. I’m disappointed that the Obama administration is coming down so hard on whistleblowers, but I’m not surprised — at least Bill Clinton had the decency to say the words “Leonard Peltier,” even if he didn’t free that Native American political prisoner, but Barack Obama hasn’t to my knowledge done even that much.

Benjamin Franklin said something to the effect that people willing to sacrifice freedom for safety would deserve neither and lose both. Michael Franti one sang that he was not concerned by who politicians were, um, having relations with in private, and that he was much more worried about with whom they were, um, having presumably nonconsensual relations in public. (Hey, you try cleaning up rap lyrics for an academic, theological forum.)

I have no grand insight into how to balance security and privacy, this week’s suggested blog topic. I just know that we’re still in the same seriously dysfunctional society that put Sen. Ted Kennedy and Quaker activists on the no-fly list; that Muslims are still treated as guilty until proven innocent — if then; and that the Republicans who gave Bush a pass on spying are now attacking Obama, while many of the Democrats who called Bush a fascist war criminal change the channel when the news starts talking about drones killing children or the email and phone surveillance.

Ben Franklin said, after the drafting of the Constitution, that it had created for succeeding generations “a republic, if you can keep it.” I fear that he and the other founders underestimated the coming generations’ capacity for laziness and willful ignorance. Yeah, sure, Guantanamo Bay prisoners are on hunger strike, but did you hear what Kim and Kanye are naming that baby?

There are religious leaders from the left still calling upon President Obama to live up to the promises he made before his election in 2008. Their work could have been augmented by religious voices from the right, except those folks have worn their voices out by screaming that he was the Antichrist and Hitler and Stalin and that guy who beat them up for beating up that guy’s kid brother rolled up into one, and so they left credibility behind several false witnesses ago. So once again, it’s most likely going to be … well, the Unitarian Universalists, the Quakers, the Reform Jews, some Muslims, and the peace churches who are left to criticize the current president … while corporations keep calling the shots behind the scenes.

I’m not saying give up because it’s pointless. I’m saying resist, even if it’s pointless. The government can take away your privacy, and there’s not much we can do about it. But we can sure do something about whether it can take away our conscience.


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2 thoughts on “It’s right to yell fire when the theater is burning

  1. “I’m saying resist, even if it’s pointless. The government can take away your privacy, and there’s not much we can do about it. But we can sure do something about whether it can take away our conscience.”

    Your piece reminded me of an article I read a few weeks ago:

    It seems in America, we’ve been conditioned to think that it’s pointless to resist. Part of me hopes that isn’t true.

    1. Many thanks, Pierre. I had not heard of that particular web site before, but I share what I think you’re saying here: Part of me also hopes it isn’t true, but part of me suspects it is.

      How odd that in a society with the highest level of technology and fastest means of communication in human history, we still seem incapable of learning despite repeated opportunities what happens to a dream deferred.

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