Communion Of Dreams

“Just go along.”

Many years ago, I read a book which changed how I view the world. It was William Allen’s The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922 – 1945. I no longer remember whether I read it for a college class, or just on my own. And I can no longer really tell you many of the details of the book, but there was one overriding lesson I took from it which remains: that most people will go along with changes instituted by authority figures, so long as those changes seem minor and “for the greater good”. Because the thing about the Nazi rise to power is that it was enabled by ‘good Germans’ – the vast population who were not Nazi ideologues, but were unwilling to stand up to incremental infringement of their civil rights because it would be just too much bother.

I see this as a recurring theme in human history. It is the rare individual who will resist such creeping authoritarianism directly, though many others will find ways to subvert or resist passively (as happened in the USSR and Soviet-block countries), and still more often people will just leave a country under an authoritarian regime given the chance. This is a common theme in literature, and certainly in Science Fiction (read just about anything by Heinlein for the most clear-cut examples), so certainly I was familiar with the trope. But to see how it actually played out in one small German town was sobering.

And it is always sobering to see it play out in small ways in our country today. One such example comes from Michael Righi, writing about his experience of being arrested at Circuit City because he refused first to show a store employee his receipt and let his bag be searched, and then for refusing to provide a cop (whom he summoned) a Driver’s License. From a summation which Righi sent to BoingBoing:

Today I was arrested by the Brooklyn, Ohio police department. It all started when I refused to show my receipt to the loss prevention employee at Circuit City, and it ended when a police officer arrested me for refusing to provide my driver’s license.

There are two interesting stories in one which I thought would be of interest to Boing Boing readers. The first involves the loss prevention employee physically preventing my egress from the property. The second story involves my right as a U.S. citizen to not have to show my papers when asked. (Despite having verbally identified myself, the officer arrested me for failing to provide a driver’s license while standing on a sidewalk.)

You can read the full account at Righi’s blog, and I would urge you to do so. It is disturbing that he was treated this way, and admirable that he stood up for his rights.

But what is most disturbing are the number of commentors who criticize Righi for doing so. These are your fellow citizens who are perfectly happy to “just go along” in the interests of expediency, efficiency (cost savings), and for the common good. They don’t see why Righi should object either to his treatment by Circuit City or by the demand from the police officer that he provide proof of identity.

Now, I’m not saying that the US is in some incipient form of Fascism. But there sure are plenty of people with authoritarian instincts, and even more who are willing to accommodate those instincts in day-to-day life. And that is how rights are lost, freedom forfeit.  As Righi puts it:

I understand that my day would have gone a lot smoother if I had agreed to let loss prevention inspect my bag. I understand that my day would have gone a lot smoother if I had agreed to hand over my driver’s license when asked by Officer Arroyo. However, I am not interested in living my life smoothly. I am interested in living my life on strong principles and standing up for my rights as a consumer, a U.S. citizen and a human being. Allowing stores to inspect our bags at will might seem like a trivial matter, but it creates an atmosphere of obedience which is a dangerous thing. Allowing police officers to see our papers at will might seem like a trivial matter, but it creates a fear-of-authority atmosphere which can be all too easily abused.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

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