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From Liberty Street: Relief, of Sorts

John Turner

Being away from George Bush's face, voice and words for eighteen days was liberating, after a fashion. Still, his absence made me aware of what a burden he is to the American psyche. The few times he came to my mind while I was in England and Scotland, I felt strongly ashamed.

Americans like to delude themselves that they are the freest people in the world. Nobody plays on that falsehood more than the president does. It's empty blather but by repeating it endlessly, Mr. Bush evidently causes some people to believe it. And in their belief they open themselves to being suckered by their government.

The press in America is terrified to report on the genuine motives of government officials. Reporters will say that the government is bumbling and inept but one does not hear them say that the government's goal is to create a docile people who will go along with anything the government says and does. And yet observing the difference between the way people are treated by government operatives in Great Britain and America leaves one convinced that popular docility is the principal aim of the government of the United States.

Little things matter, and not just as instances of inconvenience. The people who check you onto airplanes in England and Scotland are more courteous than airport workers in America are. One could explain the difference by saying that people who work at airports in the United States are poorly educated and didn't have parents who taught them how to behave when they were growing up. And that would probably be the truth. Still, it doesn't explain why such folk are charged with ordering you around in airports. Why are they the ones who get airport jobs? And why are they not trained to behave themselves differently than they do? Might it be that when the public are treated persistently like inmates of some sort of total institution, they, over time, come to think of themselves that way and expect and enjoy being bossed brusquely by vulgar officials with raucous voices. It is said to make the public feel safer and perhaps it does. When we reach the point that we enjoy seeing other people shoved around more than we dislike being shoved ourselves we are excellent candidates for believing Mr. Bush's vacant words about American liberty. And is that not what he wants, for us to believe him no matter how opposed to the truth his words are?

The little requirement of having to take off your shoes before you get onto an airplane in America is a fine example of how the system works. Removing shoes does not make airplanes safer. No one has shown that to be the case. But it does cause people to feel awkward and less in control of themselves. Even without having to pull your shoes off, getting through an airport security check is troublesome. You have to carry documents in your hand which impede your ability to take off coats and rummage through your pocket for small items that might set off a beeper. You're worried that you're going to drop something essential and not be able to find it again. And then, in the midst of it all, you have to bend over and take off your shoes, with all the papers still in your hands and no place to sit while you're getting the shoes off. Meanwhile, the checkers smirk at your fumbling and bark orders to move along. In the United Kingdom, nobody mentions your shoes.

In Edinburgh, I went into the new Scottish parliament building. Nobody frisked me. I walked up to the gallery of the chamber and there on the floor just a few yards away was the prime minister, meeting with a group of school children, who were asking him polite but pointed questions about why he had taken this and that position. There were no policemen or security guards anywhere within dozens of yards, just a government officer, by himself, striding up in a friendly manner to answer the questions of young citizens, and then insisting on getting in amongst them so he could be part of their group picture.

The children were polite but they were not in awe. There was no panoply of power around the prime minister. The students spoke and laughed easily, and when one of them dropped some of his papers the prime minister bent quickly to pick them up for him.

I couldn't help contrasting the scene with how it is when people are allowed into the presence of the president. Then, everything is programmed. The people are told about their freedom, they seldom ask the president about it. He tells them how privileged they are, and they had better damn-well believe it.

Both democracy and liberty are in the feel of things, and I must say I felt more free and more democratic in Great Britain than I ever do at home where I'm incessantly being visited by Mr. Bush's aggressive assurances that I'm the beneficiary of the freest and most democratic system in the world.



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