Saturday, November 20, 2010

Updating Havel's "Power of the Powerless" for Airline Passengers

Vaclav Havel's Power of the Powerless, is a brilliant analysis of how a totalitarian government keeps its population obedient through the use of seemingly minor, but obligatory functions.  There are many, many things that could and have been said about TSA's new scan or grope policy.  I posted about this already last January.  In my mind this crosses way over what normal people should be subjected to in order to get on a plane.  There are other ways than getting naked pictures of everyone to prevent hijackings and suicide bombers.

I think the most basic reason I'm opposed is how it moves us one step closer to totalitarianism.   So I'll just post this aspect of my objections for now.
Photo form the Guardian
From Havel's Power of the Powerless from history.hanover.edu:

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: "Workers of the world, unite!" Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment's thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
Let's update this.

The airline passenger obediently lines up at the airport, takes off his shoes, puts all his belongings onto a conveyor belt to be x-rayed, and walks through a scanner,  which essentially sees through his clothes and shows quite clearly his body including his genitals. Why does he do it?
 
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life "in harmony with society," as they say.

Update:  The compliance with the security measures is to protect himself and his fellow passengers from terrorists.  If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for being uncooperative and jeopardizing air safety and someone might even accuse him of disloyalty.  Plus he won't be allowed to board the plane.

Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: "I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace." This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer's superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan's real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer's existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?
Update:  While many passengers may feel safer knowing everyone has gone through a scanner, many others believe there are more efficient and effective ways to prevent terrorist attacks than forcing every flier to submit to body scans or the equivalent to what would be illegal molestation if done by anyone else. Submitting to this huge invasion of privacy, verbally might be expressed this way:  "I, the passenger, know what I must do.  I behave in a manner expected of me.  I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach.  I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace (after I'm scanned or groped.)"

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan "I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;' he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, "What's wrong with the workers of the world uniting?" Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

Update:   Let us take note: if the passenger had been instructed to sign a loyalty oath,  "I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;' he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The passenger would be embarrassed and ashamed to sign an unequivocal statement of his own degradation, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity.

 But there's no ideology in this case, you say, it's just safety.   In this case it's fear fueled by the ideology that proclaims Islam a terrorist religion that lives to destroy freedom and capitalism. Look, even if ten planes crashed killing 3000 people, it would still be less than  10% of the annual US traffic deaths.  So it isn't concern for lives or we'd allow cameras to catch red light runners.  But that would be an invasion of privacy and freedom.  (More than these body scans??!!)  Or we make sure people with two or three DUI's could not drive again. 

There are better ways to save lives than these scanners.  There are better ways to prevent terrorists on planes than these scanners.  But someone is making a fortune selling scanners to airports.  In the meantime, as Havel suggests, when the government treats us all as they treat terrorist suspects, we are closer to a totalitarian regime.  And when we comply against our will and without protest, we help the government get there.  

I'm hoping to develop a list of alternatives in a coming post.  

See also:
Why Would TSA Delete These Images?
Creating Child Porn to Stop Terrorists

3 comments:

  1. Turn around and the next thing you know they'll be marching all of us off to concentration camps for a bit of hard labor.

    I wonder how many corprate natives and their masters will make a buck off of this as well ?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Steve, what's with the teeeeeeny tiny font? It's miniscule in Firefox even when I hit ctrl-+ a couple of times to enlarge it. Please just use your ordinary font, and make sure when you past stuff that you explicitly change it. Your font is tiny enough already.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anon 5:47 - I'm not sure that Native Corporations stand to make a disproportionate amount or anything off of this though I understand one or two have interests in security companies. Do you have specific information?

    Harpboy - sorry, it copied that way and I didn't notice it. Hope this is better now.

    ReplyDelete

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