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The Streets of America Feel Different

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Zeitgeist: noun, German. The spirit of the time; general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.

The word zeitgeist occurred to me while reading a March 22 headline in the New York Post: “Military-Style Drones Will Patrol NYC.”

The report sprang from comments made by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his weekly radio broadcast to New Yorkers. Bloomberg predicted that drones would be conducting covert surveillance on New York City residents within a few years. Calling them “eyes in the sky,” he patronizingly explained,

Everybody wants their privacy, but I don’t know how you’re going to maintain it. It’s just we’re going into a different world, uncharted, and, like it or not, what people can do, what governments can do, is different. And you can to some extent control, but you can’t keep the tides from coming in.

The word zeitgeist occurred to me because walking down a street in America feels different now than it did ten years ago. It is not merely the surveillance cameras or the increased police presence. The atmosphere, the feel, is different.

Bloomberg’s embrace of military-style drones flying over New York City expressed some of the shifting attitudes that have made the very cement feel less safe, less free. These attitudes or themes are haunting a wide range of political conflicts from gun control to the militarization of law enforcement. Collectively, they represent a sharp shift in “the spirit of the time.” Or, rather, they stand in sharp opposition to the more traditional zeitgeist of America, which is still robust enough to compete: the spirit of individualism, the celebration of merit, and the guarantee of basic rights.

Politics shifts under our feet

There has been a creeping difference in the attitudes of many politicians and the politically connected. In grabbing for power, they are often almost casually blatant, as though their authority is so secure that there is no longer a need to sugarcoat their motives. For example, Bloomberg acknowledged that the drones fit into a Big Brother scenario, but he ridiculed any possible privacy concerns, exclaiming “The argument against using automation, it’s this craziness — oh, it’s Big Brother.” He warned his listeners, “Get used to it.”

Bloomberg can be an extreme example, but a similarly unadulterated arrogance is coming from many political directions. A Salon article (March 6) reported on testimony given by Attorney General Eric Holder to a Senate Judiciary Committee: “Holder today declared that the president can authorize lethal force against Americans, and that Congress can not constitutionally limit such powers.” He asserted Obama’s authority to kill American citizens who receive no more due process than an executive order based on undisclosed evidence. In essence, Holder championed the same sentiment as President Richard Nixon expressed to interviewer David Frost in 1977: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” But when Nixon uttered those words, a firestorm of denunciation followed.

The drunk-with-power attitude now extends downward even to law-enforcement officers who show zero tolerance and become quickly brutal if their authority is questioned. It pervades all levels of government.

A corollary theme is the unfettered contempt that many authorities now display toward the average person. The contempt may have always been there, but, again, there is the sense that it no longer needs to be masked or moderated.

Contempt is the bedrock of the nanny state, which views average people as incapable of making correct choices even in such personal minutiae as the size of soda to buy. No decision is too trivial to escape the nanny state’s notice. A common justification is that because peoples’ bodies are a burden upon a tax-funded health care system, their poor health choices are a political matter. Of course, those health care choices have been stripped away by the nanny state itself, which then uses the dependency it created to take away more choice.

The surveillance state also views the average person as a danger; it is the unwashed masses who storm fortresses and form revolutions. Maintaining social control is a main motive behind the current push to have “eyes in the sky” and acquire unlimited access to data and communication flows. The surveillance state wants to know everything. Bloomberg admitted that drones would have the ability to peek into private residences, but he hastened to reassure listeners that anti–Peeping Tom legislation would protect some of their privacy. In short, he asked them to believe more government would solve the problems more government was causing. Thus, he expressed both contempt for and fear of average people.

A schism is deepening between average people and politicians or the politically connected, who now constitute an elite. In his broadcast, Bloomberg explicitly endorsed a double standard in the law for average people and for officials. He stated bluntly, “It’s just we’re going into a different world, uncharted, and, like it or not, what people can do, what governments can do, is different.” The difference is already evident in the various legal immunities granted to civil servants, court officials, and law-enforcement agents. But it is still surprising to hear a prominent politician admit that government is not “we the people”; the people and the government are two separate political and legal categories.

Another common theme captured by Bloomberg’s drone remarks is that many political issues today immediately devolve into profound constitutional challenges. Perhaps this is because so many issues are direct attacks upon fundamental and guaranteed rights. In Bloomberg’s case, he challenged the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” In fact, Bloomberg’s window-peeking drones and the glee with which he predicted facial-scanning devices in New York City are not challenges to the Fourth Amendment; they are dismissals of it.

Equally, gun-control zealots dismiss the Second Amendment guarantee of the right to bear arms. Obama’s assassination of American citizens (Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan) on the strength of his signature alone is an absolute denial of the due process guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. Attempts to control Internet communications flout First Amendment protections of freedom of speech; the contraception mandate in Obamacare violates the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion. The list goes on and on.

The schism in American politics is immovable, because it is not a political disagreement but one that embodies the “spirit of the times”; it is a difference of worldview. The schism exists, not between Republicans and Democrats, but between elites and average people.

The streets of America feel different because I am an average person who wishes to be accorded respect, not contempt. The war between zeitgeists is going on in the streets, in the attitude of Americans toward themselves. Are they a free and equal people who stand firmly on both feet, or are they the contemptible danger that government believes them to be?

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).