By Kwame P. Dean
Posted August 6, 2022
As I arrive back in the US for another extended visit, I’m always jolted by the tenor of political speech here. “Pritzger sucks” and “Let’s go Brandon” signs in my rural hometown qualify as legitimate political commentary. I come back to a Republican Party that is embracing Viktor Orbán and Hungary’s democracy light movement. People can vote as long as Orbán wins. Orbán proves you don’t have to use centuries old social grievances to whip up an illiberal mob as the threat of non-European immigrants and their non-European genes is just fine, among other things.
The Republicans have also taken the “see something, say something” notion of mutual surveillance a step further by advocating and rewarding citizen snitches in the classroom to discourage “divisive” teaching and in the very personal business of policing pregnancies.
Living in Germany allows a particular window into the relatively recent past. The existence of the GDR, East Germany, is not that long ago and right up until its demise in 1989, it was a vibrant police state led by their secret police nicknamed the Stasi. I know many who grew up in East Germany. I’ve heard direct accounts of victims of the police state in tours of Stasi prisons. I’ve seen the tools used to spy on neighbors in museums.
Historian David Cook writes that there is evidence that 1 in 30 East Germans acted as Stasi informants…and we don’t have all of the evidence. To put that in perspective 1 in 30 Americans would be nearly 11 million people officially providing information to the state against their friends, neighbors, families, and colleagues.
A scary thought is that we willingly provide advertisers more information than the Stasi could dream of. Big Data and data mining tools allow keepers of massive amounts of information to have insights into our individual lives that we don’t have ourselves. Imagine if they start using all of that for reasons other than selling us stuff.
Beyond the data is the corrosive role of suspicion. In East Germany, suspicion of your neighbor as an informant was obviously warranted. Sometimes people didn’t know they were informing on someone as a story here, or bit of information there shared unwittingly with an informant or undercover agent could be compiled into the picture a Stasi official could use to threaten to destroy a future. Things didn’t have to be illegal, they only had to look illegal to the right decision maker to kill job or educational opportunities.
Is that where we’re headed? Virginia Gov. Youngkin, who used fear of black history to gain political backing, instituted a tip line for parents to inform on teachers. Youngkin’s stated purpose for the tip line is to, “Help us be aware of … their child being denied their rights that parents have in Virginia, and we’re going to make sure we catalogue it all. … And that gives us further, further ability to make sure we’re rooting it out.” The rights parents are denied is the right for their children to be unchallenged and comfortable in the classroom. Maybe it’s the right not to have to answer difficult questions when their children get home from school? Naturally, Youngkin is also fighting to keep tip line data from being made public.
The insidious Texas anti-abortion bounty is even more craven by offering a reward for legal action leading to the conviction of abortion providers or anyone who assists in the provision of an abortion in the state.
As a 2021 article in Vogue described it,
“If an individual were to suspect, say, a Lyft driver of taking a pregnant person to an appointment for an abortion after the six-week mark, said individual could sue the Lyft driver and collect a judgment of $10,000—and a refunding of their legal fees—from the Lyft driver if the lawsuit were successful. “
Of course, the Supreme Court has made the necessity of the provision of six weeks to legally have an abortion obsolete. Idaho and Oklahoma have already followed the Texas bounty model that turns private citizens into potential litigants against people who actively support women’s access to abortion. How many other of the 14 states that currently ban abortion will follow suit is not yet clear. Many other states are using their existing criminal justice systems to enforce their anti-abortion laws.
So it begins again. Some of us know all too well the price of continuous suspicion and friendly neighborhood surveillance. I can only imagine the level of scrutiny union organizers got in the 50’s or get at Amazon today. It’s almost like a black teen in a department store. If public tolerance of tattletale policies continues, we stand to lose the ability to trust others who are in our boat, making it even harder to organize for our interests. Who is interested in that outcome, I wonder?