Hanging Out in the Neighborhood vs Protecting the Wiretappers

Within the course of a single week, the American press brought us to two extremes of what life is, was, can be, ought to be. Maybe this happens a lot and we don’t always see the connections. Or at least I don’t!

The first article was actually a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal of Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007. I don’t know how long the letter will remain available in its original source, and so I quote it here:

If you are of a certain generation, you remember standing next to your mother, her skirt billowing about her legs, while she hung out the wash. And if you were a girl, you thought that when you grew up, there you would be, pegging up your own sheets to snap in the breeze, your husband’s trousers to dance, his shirts to twirl and dry, all the while your own children carefully handing up to you the clothespins as the bright sun shone in benevolent good will. And then, later, down it would all come so sweet and fresh you just had to push your nose into it. OK, agreed, that’s an aesthetic profoundly in the past tense.

But now we find that the clothesline, that clean-clothes institution of absolute industry and perfect common sense, is considered such a horror that its presence, looming out there in the backyard like some porn shop across the street from the elementary school, means that you no longer have a “nice neighborhood” (“The Right to Dry: A Green Movement Is Roiling America,” page one, Sept. 18). We can only imagine what malevolent force, what vacancy of mind, has decided that the very presence of a clothesline and dangling clothes damp from a good scrub and spin, signal poverty, ignorance, bad people among us, people who cannot afford a clothes dryer? Is this how we now judge each other? Are these really the neighborhoods where we seek a home, the conditions under which we agree to live? If so, then we deserve clothes that smell like dryer sheets and sheets that smell like a long day at a boring job.

Julie Lange
Sequim, Wash.

I don’t know if that brings back memories for you, but it certainly does for me. I’m of a generation, as apparently is Ms. Lang, that grew up with clotheslines in everyone’s backyard, just as she describes, with shirts, pants, skirts, sheets, towels, and yes, underwear, hanging on the line in the bright sun for a few hours in the afternoon. I remember my mom even had these expandable metal frames that she’d put into the pants legs, to keep them flat, and to force a crease into them while they dried. And I remember running out when it was just about to rain, hurriedly gathering everything off the line so it wouldn’t get wet. Usually we did get wet, because we had waited too long. But that was part of the culture.

To jump to the modern age, then, and to consider communities that are saying that these clotheslines “signal poverty, ignorance, bad people among us”, etc., well… I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Lang in her conclusion. We do deserve what we get.

Now, the other article. This one was from The Nation, but on the web only (i.e. it was apparently not included in the print edition), from Sept. 27, 2007. The main focus of the article is secret wiretapping, or rather, the immunity that has already been delivered to the nation’s communications carriers from liability for spying on American citizens. You didn’t know? Well, neither did I. My brother sent me this article. I don’t know where he heard about it, but I’m glad he sent it.

Our Constitution was supposed to protect us with a variety of checks and balances that were designed to keep any one branch of the government from getting too unruly. It seemed like a good idea at the time! The document’s framers knew how people were. And we’re not any different today. Yet today we are so inundated with information that we can’t possible make sensible decisions about most of the very real issues that are put before us (not to mention those that are not even put before us, but rather are decided for us by our of course well-intentioned elected officials). And so when those to whom we have handed our trust, and the power to make decisions for us based on that trust, decide to change the rules of the game that we had heretofore been playing under, we often are not even aware that that has occurred. It’s just layer upon layer upon layer of obfuscation, fuzziness, interpretation, translation, misunderstanding, appropriation. I would contend that from where any of us sit right now — us, the regular people, the voters, the citizens — it is actually impossible to know the real truth of any of the issues being reported on in the press.

But I digress. What about this wiretapping, this email scanning/screening, this cell phone call monitoring? What can be done about it? Sadly, not a lot. With every convenience we’ve found or made for ourselves over the last 50 years or so, there’s been a cost that most of us didn’t foresee. I have to think that some did, and perhaps that was the reason for these things coming into existence in the first place. But again, for most of us regular people, we thought that telephones were a good idea. We thought that email was a great new quick and convenient way to communicate. We thought that cell phones were awesome.

But wait a minute. What do you mean, my emails are not really mine? That if I’m emailing from work, they belong to my employer. And if I’m emailing from home, or from the airport, or from my Blackberry, they belong to… well, actually I have no idea who they belong to, but the one clear message is that they do not belong to me. And cell phone privacy? Forget about it. It’s not the people around you on the bus or at the supermarket that are overhearing you, it’s forces unseen.

Why do they do it? Mostly, because they can. That’s all there is to it! They screen, analyze, catalog, cross-reference and archive electronic communications because electronic communications are easily screened, analyzed, catalogued, cross-referenced and archived. Much of the information will never be used. But boy, if they ever have to know how many times the words “poodle dressed up as a ballerina” appeared in the same message or phone call as “a Citroën doing 120,” they’ve got that information at their fingertips.

A few weeks ago I was going off on one of my many tirades about the things we have chosen to develop or popularize versus those that we have not chosen. I had the need to get a particular document to the west coast as soon as possible. Not the image of that document, but the actual document. I would like to have gotten it there that day; or even that hour. But that’s not possible. Overnight is about the best I could do. So I was going off, half-jokingly (or ok, 99% jokingly, but with some slight bit of seriousness), that instead of these crazy networks of wires carrying electronic data, we should have developed massive networks of pneumatic tubes like they used to have in banks and department stores to carry documents, cash, etc., from one place to another. Maybe they still have those at drive-up windows at banks, I don’t know. It’s been so long since I’ve driven to a bank, I have no idea. But certainly, there’s no place where I can drop my documents into a cylinder, and place that cylinder into a pneumatic tube, and have that tube carry my cylinder and its documents from my office in New York to, say, an attorney’s office in Los Angeles, or my mother’s house in Washington. And there should be, dammit!

I am not an idiot. At least not a complete idiot. I know there are some logistical problems with developing a global network of pneumatic tubes. But to think about these things, to ponder what we would have gained versus what we would have given up had we taken a different course, is the interesting part of the exercise. Even much more palpable what-ifs, such as what if they hadn’t broken up and deregulated “Ma Bell,” the telephone company? What if it were still basically a utility, like tap water, or the sewage system, or electricity? I know that even these are mostly deregulated now, but they have retained far more stability and connectedness than has the telecommunications world. If telephones were treated as a common utility, there would be much slower but much more reliable change; there would for example be fewer dropped calls, better sound fidelity, fewer contract scams, less telemarketing.

So, people, at long last, here’s my message: don’t look askance at those folks hanging their clothes out to dry. Or those folks who refuse to use a cell phone. Or those that still write a note, put it in an envelope, and drop it in the corner mailbox. Not only are they remembering and participating in the sheer joy of acting in the physical realm, but perhaps they are also just a tad more sensitive to the risks of “modern technology,” and less willing to live with its compromises. When faced with the choice of waiting a few days for a response to a letter, or answering to a pair of well-dressed strangers over the contents of their recent cell phone chat, there are those among us who would gladly choose to wait for the mail. Don’t knock ’em; maybe they’re smarter than we are.


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