The initial conversation between Beth Jusino, a publishing consultant, editor and former literary agent, and Holland Kane, a veteran of the US Army Signal Corps, took place at Office Nomads in Seattle. The remarks have been edited and will be added periodically as the conversation continues at various venues, and by e-mail.
The Nomads office is located within a restored last century building, smartly designed to show off its old brick and oak floor heritage. Individuals use offices, cubicles and desks they rent to suit the occasion. There is a busy air of work on the upstairs floor this Monday. The latent aura of computer screens illuminates the area as Jusino leads Kane to a glass-walled office with a conference table large enough to accommodate an editorial committee. Here they can speak in private. They sit at right angles to each other, and Jusino asks~
Q: Your novel Winter Reeds offers readers a love story set in a small town that takes a skeptical look at government authority used to spy and intimidate citizens. Were you surprised at last year’s admission from the Department of Homeland Security that it’s been monitoring social media sites for such non-inflammatory words as “pork” and “Mexico.” Privacy seems to be under attack by government forces.
A: I’m passionate about this subject. If you explore the mind-set of officials as I have, especially on the local level outside the intense probing of journalists we are familiar at the national level there is hardly a public official, no matter the party affiliation, who doesn’t like a new law that gives them more power to intrude on citizen’s lives. Only a rare legislative leader, and if we are lucky, a judge, stands up for a citizen’s right to personal privacy against the Government’s insistent invasion.
Q: But if honest people have nothing to hide—
A: Yes, of course, but we are more than civic widgets at the mercy of room monitors. Privacy is a matter of dignity; our lives lived inviolate against government probing. This applies to the vaginal sonogram probes intrusively mandated by some legislators for women who choose not to advance a pregnancy, and to the trivial as well. Who wants a government recording of one’s nose-picking? Honest people have many habits and thoughts that they prefer to keep hidden. Sloppy or innocent, unsanitary or merely dippy, things like failing to wash your hands after going to the bathroom, or perhaps reading Fifty Shades of Grey, or even books that are already more than several generations old, like My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday, sub-titled, Women’s Sexual Fantasies.
Q: [smiling]Are those books a political or policing problem?
A: [laughter]It could have been a policing problem with an Ayatollah, Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney in charge.
Q: Should the government police our thoughts?
A. In the news last week is a New York City cop who fantasized about cannibalizing women.
Q: Devouring Love?
A: I can’t imagine this guy’s wife getting a good night’s sleep. But Eating Raul was a funny art house movie a few years back. A couple wanted to cannibalize their neighbor.
Q: I would have pitched it as a foodie movie. But the cop you had mentioned isn’t about comedy. He’s on trial right now.
A: That brings up interesting and serious questions. Let’s take this cop with his eating disorder, an extreme and awful example of a thought crime. Our typical good cop, free of such fantasies, obliged to serve public safety, and worried that he or she is not catching all the bad actors in town, might be offered a solution by the ever present high-tech surveillance sales crowd. The good cop, let’s say she’s the police chief, would then go to the City Council, and should the Constitution allow it, propose to the council that every citizen residing in and doing business in the city have a police chip secured to his head that would transmit a constant stream of his thoughts to be monitored at the central station. Many sophisticated thought filters could be used to define and separate venial bad thoughts from mortal bad thoughts. It would then be an easy next step to nab the bad thinkers before a physical crime is committed.
Q: That’s imaginative!
A: The legislation would be pitched as a public safety law.
Q: But even small towns have city attorneys to advise against legislative foolishness?
A: Small towns don’t necessarily operative on a high constitutional awareness level. The city attorney’s function, typically, is to give opinions that offer legal cover to those who pay their consulting fees. We can look at the attorneys working at the national level to get a clear picture of how this works. Look at Guantanamo, so fresh in our minds, and so far removed from Melville’s Billy Budd. Yet who would have imagined that we would be imprisoning people without trial or evidence in the 21st Century in America? The government attorneys approved it; they say Guantanamo is in Cuba, so it’s okay. And who would have imagined we would endorse government torture at a dozen black sites? The attorneys approved that, too. And who could have imagined our President killing US Citizens with drones and without judicial review? The attorneys approve it. And that’s just on the national level with investigative journalists on the beat to expose every wrinkle. What happens when this totalitarian mindset filters down to the local level, in the shadows beyond the bright lights of national media?
In my experience, legislators, executives, bureaucrats and planners in small towns are pushovers in making ever more restrictive laws. The cops already have too many laws to enforce, so they pretty much decide what is legal. In the Seattle region cops took to dropping wallets at Sea-Tac airport and arresting passengers who found them but did not turn them in promptly. The cops called it fighting crime. They should have instead gotten jobs at McDonald’s assembling hamburgers.
Q: I wouldn’t keep your wallet.
A: Thank you.
Q: But your novel is not about law enforcement.
A: Thank God. I wouldn’t want to bore my readers with an essay. But that aside, the policing mind is a serious problem, a modern state of mind.
Q: The policing mind?
A: Yes. Business people have powerful policing minds. They have a more intense appreciation of policing and surveillance than the cops do—policing of customers and employees, phone monitoring, key-stroke checking, and of course data gathering, too. And they have the money to spend on such matters.
Q: But employers can only fire you. They can’t put you in jail like the police can.
A: True. Troubling, too. Many local communities are advancing toward a totalitarian agenda, and selling it as “public safety.” Not yet the brain chips ordered to be implanted in our heads, not yet, but in more subtle ways. First by persuading voters that privacy is not our inviolate and inalienable right should we choose it. Business and government organizations are working hard to persuade us of this. For example, ordinary citizens are no longer allowed to know what their government is doing when it is spying on citizens, and seeking information is in itself a sign of disloyalty as seen by our bureaucrats, and a potential crime.
Should we even mention car license sweepers and local red light traffic cameras? There isn’t a driver I’ve met not associated with government or the police, or the private industry pitching surveillance, who is in favor of such cameras, or license sweepers, but police chiefs love them for the money they bring to their departments, and legislators are patsies when it comes to voting for what they so egregiously and mistakenly call an improvement in “public safety”.
It is in fact another method of civil imprisonment, albeit at a low security prison. But in the policing mind, everything is permitted and nothing disallowed—pretexting and surveillance and entrapment—not to mention that cops have been routinely caught lying on the stand. The typical law enforcement argument is: the bad guys do it, so we can’t be outgunned and we need those tools too. No longer seeing themselves as public servants, some are on the way to becoming SWAT- armored wardens. Even at our public schools. If the kid throws a spitball, they arrest the kid for assault. It’s a modern totalitarian approach that is growing. And the law backs it up. Let us not forget that the viral ethnic nationalism grown Germany before the WW II grew in a country whose citizens were programmed to accept the rule of law. Autocrats have no problem establishing legitimate lawful means, but no seemed to be looking at the ends of the horror-filled ends. Without public awareness, it will get worse. Surveillance technology is becoming more powerful and much cheaper. Citizens are losing power in this struggle with state authoritarianism. We need more judges and astute politicians to stand up for ordinary citizens.
Q: How did this all start?
A: It started with good intentions. It started with our insane, lost, and expensive, “war on drugs” — initiated by President Richard Nixon, remembered for his leading historical contribution to the Presidency, and to our political culture, as the President who said, “I am not a crook.”
Nixon’s initiative led to the growth of a “war on drugs” police and prison bureaucracy, and like all bureaucracies described by the late James Q. Wilson in Bureaucracy, the “war” fed a huge and voracious appetite for more federal money by our law-enforcement and prison establishments – gold plating their job security and retirement programs, and contractor profits. Not something they wish to give up now.