Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why Are You Whispering?

“Say, did you happen to make it to that Veteran’s Day ceremony downtown?”  I asked my elderly neighbor, Mrs. Dichter.  

“What’s that?” she asked.  “You have to remember to face me when you’re talking, or your voice wanders off in another direction.”

“The Veteran’s Day ceremony downtown,” I said, facing her and yelling.  “Did you go?”

“No need to shout,” she said.  “I’m not deaf, you know.  But it’s no use my going to speeches.  Or plays or movies, for that matter.  They all mumble so much I can’t make out what they’re talking about.”

“The speaker said that freedom isn’t free.  It has a price, and we’re still paying the price because we’re still at war.”

She snorted.  “I wouldn’t have needed to go downtown to hear that.  There must have been thousands of speeches around the country that day with the exact same theme.  I heard people say it dozens of times myself when I was younger.  It’s quite a cliche now.  It’s been said so often by now that a lot of people believe it’s true.”

I looked at her, shocked.  “What are you saying?” I asked.  “You don’t think it’s true?  You don’t think freedom has a price?”

“Of course not,” she said.  “It just sounds so right because of this society’s assumption that everything has a price.  Freedom is free.  Anytime, anywhere, you can act and speak freely.  You could say anything you wanted, right now.  I wish more people felt free enough to do that in this country.”

“But there are consequences for saying some things.”

“Of course.  Everything has consequences.  Have you taken a look at the consequences of  ‘paying the price’ these speakers are urging on us?  They’re pretty ugly.  It also so happens that the same people telling you freedom isn’t free are the ones who will administer those consequences.  And they’re making the consequences more drastic all the time.”  

“But how can you just ignore that our soldiers are bleeding and dying right now to preserve our freedom.”

She looked sad.  “Ace,” she said, “I’m not ignoring it.  I’m appalled by it.  It enrages me that our young people are being duped into ‘paying the price’ by people who will reap the profits.  Our kids in uniform aren’t fighting for our freedom; they’re simply being used.  They may not be able to see it, but they’re fighting for empire, for oil profits, for market share.” 

I was shocked.  It’s surprising how little we know our neighbors sometimes.  “Mrs. Dichter, how did you get to be so cynical?”

“I’m not a cynic, Ace,” she said.  “I’m an idealist through and through.  The cynics are those who deliberately use the language of liberty and love of country to betray good-hearted, well-meaning people.”  

“I gather you don’t think people feel free to act and speak in this country?”

“People who don’t pose a challenge to the status quo probably feel free, because none of the weight of the state is brought to bear on them.  But it’s a different story for people who actually do something that the folks at the top don’t like.”

“Like who?”

“Like people actually fighting for human rights, civil rights, economic justice, or peace and environmental issues.  Look, you’re a journalist of sorts.  Did you read the results of the survey that PEN America did of 520 American writers, checking on the impact of NSA surveillance?”

I ignored the “of sorts.”  “Uh, no,” I said.  “I must have missed that.”

“I can understand how you would,” she said tartly.  “It wasn’t on the sports page.”

“Okay, you got me,” I said.  “What about the survey?”

“Well, 1 in 6 writers admitted they haven’t written or spoken about some topic because of concern about NSA surveillance, and another 1 in 6 admitted to seriously considering squelching their thoughts.”

“So a few writers got the jitters.  We’re a paranoid bunch.”

“Nice to see you defend your own profession so eloquently.   Tell me this, then.  Do you think the Occupy Movement, which was spreading like wildfire, just magically disappeared on its own, in a matter of weeks, in towns and cities across the country?”

“Uh, to tell the truth, I hadn’t thought about it much.”

“You might turn off your TV and take a look at how that came about.  It’s amazing how easily the Obama administration, working with banks and universities and local police, dismantled the Occupy Movement.”  

“I wouldn’t have thought someone your age would be so sympathetic to a bunch of young people camping on public property.”

“Ace,” she said,  exasperated.  “Just look around you!  Look at the harsh prosecutions and sentences being meted out to environmental protestors like that nice young man, Tim DeChristopher.  To animal abuse protesters who try to improve conditions at slaughterhouses and poultry processing plants.  And have you noticed that honorable whistleblowers who reveal fraud or waste or illegal government surveillance have the book thrown at them, but the frauds and crooks and incompetents they exposed go unscathed?”

By now she was making me really uncomfortable.  “You know, Mrs. Dichter,” I told her, “I don’t think we should be having this conversation.”

“Pardon me?  I didn’t hear what you said.  Why are you whispering?”  

© Tony Russell, 2013

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