Fearing fear itself

by Dave Roberts

We’re all familiar with the prevalence of voter apathy and the embarrassingly low percentage of eligible voter turnout. Since 1970, less than 60 percent of those eligible have actually voted in national elections and in 2006, the biggest turnover in Congress in recent history (larger even than the “revolution” of 1994), public discontent over the Iraq war, numerous corruption scandals and Mark Foley’s chickenhawking ways still only prompted 41 percent to show up. As a politically active individual, it’s disheartening to see the public take for granted what people in other parts of the world are literally dying to get a taste of.

I’ve heard and accepted a number of explanations for voter apathy: disgust with the increasingly similar and equally distasteful choices; lack of free time to investigate the issues because of longer work hours due to stagnating wages; general boredom with a political process that pales in comparison to the visceral sex-and-violence thrills and exhilarating cinematography of movies and television, despite cable news’ attempts to make politics as entertaining as possible; low attention spans, etc. And all of those seemed reasonable enough. Hell, I follow politics like most men my age follow sports, and there’s only so much C-SPAN and blogospherics that even I can take. And there are times – especially of late with the Democrats’ inability to call President Kookoo Bananas to task for his misdeeds, despite majorities in both houses and overwhelming public support – when I’d rather just watch “The Simpsons” than send Dole and Burr another strongly-worded e-mail.

Recently however, I saw something that altered my perception on the matter. A few weeks ago I had dinner at my mother’s house with my brother and sister-in-law. We were sitting around discussing subjects of varying gravity when the conversation turned to health insurance. My mother mentioned that she would have to sign up for Medicare when she turned 65. My brother, who while conservative in general outlook, is about as committed politically as so-called “Easter and Christmas” Christians are spiritually (let’s call him an “Election Day Citizen”), became incensed at the notion that seniors, not to mention poverty-stricken adults and children, were not automatically signed up for Medicare and Medicaid, respectively, and that if they didn’t sign up by a certain point they missed their chance permanently.

Spying an opportunity to get someone, anyone, more involved in the political process, I suggested he write a letter to his congressman and senators. He declined, saying it was too much trouble. His laptop was out, and in less than a minute I had steered him to the feedback form on his congressman’s web site. I turned it back to him and even offered to help him phrase his letter stating that poor children and the elderly should automatically be enrolled in government health care. His response baffled me.

“I’m not going get in trouble, am I?”

While I contained my shock that someone who had been brought up in the same country that I had – who had an even more ardent sense of nationalistic pride despite his laissez-faire approach to the actual workings of it – would think that he would be punished for voicing his opinion, in a manner which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of his fellow citizens do every year.

“I mean, what’s going to happen? I don’t want to be a blip on the radar, y’know?”

I informed him that I had written letters to my representatives in Washington, DC on a regular basis, at least once a month, on a variety of subjects for several years now and had yet to undergo any sort of negative repercussions. I had not been audited, nor had any men in black suits and dark Ray-Bans visited my home and made vague threats, nor had I been placed on a no-fly list. Instead I had a drawer full of politely worded responses from my reps outlining their positions and why they did or did not agree with mine. Despite my reassurances, he still refused to write the letter.

Thinking the incident over, I began to recall numerous other times that my efforts to engage other Election Day Citizens had produced an almost hostile response, even when they fully supported the position they would be taking and were similarly emotionally involved, with similarly professed concerns that they would “get in trouble” for it, even before the passage of the PATRIOT Act. At the time I had chalked it up to ignorance on their part, undergrads who had seen too many “X-Files” episodes. But here was a grown man, for whom despite our political differences I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration, genuinely afraid that his government would retaliate against him somehow for merely writing a letter.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” It has since occurred to me that Americans can have all the rights and freedoms in the world on paper, but they are meaningless if they believe that they don’t actually have them and can be “black-bagged” just as easily as a citizen of Uzbekistan or Saudi Arabia.

The sad irony of the situation – and I am living proof of this – is that this fear is largely unfounded. If we reach the point where we live de facto without rights simply because we’re afraid to exercise them, what is to stop our government from proceeding with the mere formality of taking them away on paper as well? And that truly is something worthy of our fear.

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