Recently I was watching a 1980s film called Night Crossing about the real-life account of two East German families who escape to West Germany in the late 1970s by a hot-air balloon. Production issues aside (some actors have English accents, some American, then others German), I appreciate the film – made before the Berlin Wall fell – for showing what those in communist countries had to deal with and what motivated them to seek better lives. If you’re into Cold War films, I recommend it (If you have kids, it’s make a great starting point for discussing the evils of communism).
Curious to learn more about what actually took place compared to the film version, I looked up the families and came across a website Günter Wetzel, one of the men who planned the escape, had set up providing his version of the events.
I was fascinated by the motivations provided for why he and Peter Strelzyk (the other man involved in the plan) decided to risk their lives, and that of their families, in a desperate attempt to make it to the West (emphasis added; also, if the syntax sounds strange it’s because it’s a translation of the original German text).
Life in East Germany was far from satisfactory for us. There was a whole list of things we found objectionable because we had to put up with and factor in so many constraints. Fundamental reasons were that it was not possible either publicly or in one’s private circle to voice one’s opinion because one could never be certain whether one or even several persons present were police informers. In addition, opportunities to travel to countries other than a few others in the Eastern Bloc were either nonexistent or extremely limited. Even the job one could choose was limited, especially if one was not true to the Party line. One could make one’s life easier by becoming involved with the authorities in the correct manner e.g. by being a member of the Communist Party and helping the state authorities but I did not want that either. There were of course many other reasons which I cannot list here but economic motives also played a role.
This got me thinking. At what point will it be like this in America, where uttering politically incorrect thoughts in private settings will get you arrested? Have we reached that point yet?
I think we’re approaching the same goal of censorship, but in a different way. There’s no secret police, for example. We censor ourselves, out of fear, because ordinary citizens will freely and voluntarily turn others in. They don’t need to be paid informants. They’ve been taught through their state-run education to be loyal citizens.
As I wrote in a previous post:
What we have today is a Soviet society in which people censor their own speech, irrespective of how factual or truthful their beliefs are, because the rabble run the show. People don’t talk about certain things, no matter how private the company, as they fear a knee-jerk reaction, followed by social ostracizing.
People flee from any politically incorrect talk like cockroaches before light, afraid they might be associated with it. Not because they don’t believe it themselves, but because it might get them branded as a social pariah. Even when they do talk about such things, it is ever so carefully.
Years ago, Fred Reed pointed out how our system brings about the same results through less blatant means:
When people have to look over their shoulders before speaking in public places when they are afraid to utter reasonable criticism of very questionable governmental policies we’ve reached the suburbs of Moscow. I’m not trying to be cute about this. Ours is very much the same system of social control, but without the truncheons. It’s cleverly done, so that we have no way of revolting and nothing really to revolt against.
He even has a term for this ritualistic means of identifying like-minded people, the DC Bob.
As people talk, in fern bars, in eateries, on the sidewalk, an incorrect thought occurs something that might upset Them. You know who They are: The racial, sexual, religious, and political groups that One Doesn’t Offend, the ideas and policies one mustn’t mention, the simple observations of fact that one may not make. We all know where trouble lies. And we are careful.
The incipient malefactor leans forward. He’s getting closer to his hearers to avoid eavesdroppers. Next he drops his chin and looks furtively over each shoulder in turn to see who might be listening. This is the DC Bob. It is routine. People don’t even notice that they are doing it.
The heretic whispers, “I’m sick of affirmative-action hires. We can’t get anything done in my office .”
The DC Bob. You have to watch what you say in America.
Some may say that social ostracizing doesn’t violate the NAP, but this is a superficial way of looking at the issue. In the day and age of the search engine, writing about the unspeakable can brand you unemployable. Speech is more than just mere words; it also means where you donate and to what causes. Just ask former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich.
While I believe people have a right to discriminate in a free society, again, it’s a little more complicated than that. Government regulations coerce people into working for someone else rather than being self-employed; this gives certain people leverage they wouldn’t have otherwise.
As Wetzel wrote:
Even the job one could choose was limited, especially if one was not true to the Party line.
Discussing the right to discriminate in the workplace also has to take into account our fascist-style economy in which government coercion affects people’s choices in terms of employment options and which sectors of the economy they can work in. It is because of this system that discrimination in the workplace is so effective, because onerous regulations make it hard for the ordinary individual to make a living on their own. How many people, if given the feasible, practical option of working for themselves, would continue to work their cubicle desk job a la Office Space?
Looking back at Wetzel’s observation, I’ve come to realize how free Americans are to speak without fear of arrest, but how constrained that speech is because they have been successfully conditioned not to speak of such things. I also think your freedom of speech is inversely proportional to how much of an impact your speech has.
Consider how radical my writing is compared to what is considered acceptable in mainstream society. Yet, I have had little to no headaches or inconveniences for voicing my opinions, so far. No fears of being doxed or getting hacked or threats to my life. I’m not concerned about the FBI breaking down my door or the fact that the NSA is spying on me, because I’m a small speck, a gadfly.
If I was generating millions of hits per month, and had the ability to influence a chunk of Americans, I promise you I would be getting more than the occasional negative comment.
Of course, the reason I started this blog was to write about things I wished to discuss but had no other place to do so. Over the years it’s proved difficult for me to have a frank conversation with other people. They’re completely emasculated to the point where they will only utter the most carefully pre-approved opinions and bark at any utterance of life’s unpleasant reality.
One of life’s great joys, it seems, is when I get to chat with someone who will speak the unspeakable. It shows there is at least one other people with their wits and sanity still about them. At those times, it feels as though we are actually living in an East German society.
Some may think I’m exaggerating or being melodramatic, but the older I get the more I realize how many truths are evident but ruthless suppressed through social conditioning or fears of retaliation in some manner.
Speaking your mind today comes with terrible costs. I used to think many men were cowards for keeping silent when I brought up controversial matters, but now I realize just how dire the consequences are, particularly for those who have responsibilities beyond themselves. These consequences are wonderfully hidden from plain view and applied indirectly. You don’t see the ramifications unless you’re looking for them.
Sometimes I wonder whether it is just the area I live that is the problem, but this suspicion is easily dismissed when I read articles and comments from others across America saying the same thing. Conformation bias is one thing, but coming across writers from different regions and backgrounds who write exactly what you think to the point where it creeps you out is quite another.
Unfortunately, escape from this situation is farther away than any hot-air balloon can carry us.