Sunday, June 19, 2016

Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose

The years since 9/11 have been of government watching us in many ways.  The same years have also provided us with phenomenal digital technological wonders that also keep watching many, many things we do and think.  A typical young person today has grown up in this environment of being watched practically all the time and, by and large, they seem to be ok with it.  It does not seem to trouble them.

These trends bother me.  They worry me.

Even the nearly two years of experiencing life under Indira Gandhi's "emergency" was enough for me to understand the value and importance of freedom.  A freedom in which we do not have to think about freedom itself.

It is this freedom, and the near total lack of it, that Herta Muller writes about in a haunting and surreal poetic prose that is as much a "witness literature" as is Svetlana Alexievich's.  I jumped to Muller's book out of sheer logistics--Alexievich's Secondhand Time is hardcover, whereas Muller's The Land of Green Plums is easy to carry paperback, which was convenient for the travel.  The writing styles are different, the locales are different, but both are about humans and their lives in repressive regimes.

Muller's Nobel Prize speech is a wonderful bonus in the book.  I read that even before I got to the book.  A few pages into the book, I wondered whether the speech ought to have been a prologue of sorts, so that readers like me would have been mentally primed for the haunting tale that Muller tells.

Romania's Nicolae Ceaușescu and his totalitarian state is the setting in which Muller weaves her surreal images.  In an interview two years ago, Muller said that she didn't quite buy into the notion that the Romanians didn't have organized resistance "because they were more tightly controlled, the country is small and more easily monitored":
But I always wondered about this. You had this magnificent language, and then there was this combination of utter cluelessness—as a kind of default predisposition, a preemptive stance—and brutality. But it’s precisely this cluelessness, this utter lack of interest in political affairs, that’s the problem. Because people who aren’t interested aren’t prepared for hard times, they’re quick to give in, quick to conform, and then they’re quick to act brutally against others so as not to put themselves in jeopardy. 
The cluelessness, the utter lack of interest in political affairs, in this country--especially among the young--deeply worries me.  Particularly because throughout this twenty-first century, various processes have made conforming to be the easier route.

Even if we want to dismiss the worries that I have, the life that she describes in the fictional work will come across as not that different from the ongoing Syrian crisis, for instance.  Muller writes:
Everyone lived by thinking about flight.  They thought of swimming across the Danube until the water becomes another country. Of running after the corn until the soil becomes another country.  You could see it in their eyes: Soon they will spend every penny they have on detailed maps.  They hope for fog in the field and fog on the river for days on end so they can avoid the bullets and the guard-dogs, so they can run away, swim away. ... You could see it on their lips: Soon they will whisper to a stationmaster in exchange for every penny they have.  They will climb into freight trains so they can roll away.
Practically a line-by-line description of those fleeing Syria, right?  And she adds:
The only ones who didn't want to flee were the dictator and his guards. You could see it in their hands, eyes, lips. ... You could feel the dictator and his guards hovering over all the secret escape plans, you could feel them lurking and doling out fear.
Freedom is a very recent concept and it is quite a struggle to make sure we don't lose it.  My worry is that there are far more people eager to curtail freedom than there are to fight for it.  The cluelessness, the utter lack of interest in political affairs, in this country, in an era of increasing technological surveillance and ready-to-conform behavior worries me that America, too, might end up with a fascist in power.    


Ramesh said...

Ah; just as I was wondering what happened to the summer reading !

I don't think there has been a lessening of the desire for freedom. Snooping by the government in today's democracies is tolerated, because it doesn't really affect you and me. You can still yell Obama is a b&^%$#@ and nobody is coming knocking on the door. The loss of freedom because of commercial usage of your data is not really seen by Joe the Plumber as an infringement of his freedom.

Your reading depicts a different kind of loss of freedom, when if you were late to worship Ceausescu by 5 mts in the evening, you could be shipped off to the gulag.

Sriram Khé said...

Of course, writers even conjure up scenarios like 1984. Fiction like that forces us to think about the possibilities and, therefore, what we need to be worried about. So, yea, for today, the government surveillance and technological data gathering is not much to worry about. But, we worry about down the continuum ... One candidate is publicly calling for government snooping on one particular group of people and he has millions cheering him on!!! Today I can yell whatever, but remember that old one: "first they came for the Jews, and I didn't do anything. Then they came for the gypsies and I didn't do anything. .... finally, when they came for me, there was nobody to defend me"?
And then a SCOTUS decision like today makes me worry even more that I can be searched, frisked, fingered, by cops with guns. Sotomayor's dissenting opinion is an awesome statement ...

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