To call America a free country today requires reading the civil liberties landscape through an anthology of retro qualifiers: The USA Patriot Act is homage to George Orwell. The Department of Homeland Security is Franz Kafka's newest castle. The Department of Justice is run by a dangerously sober Elmer Gantry. Guantanamo Bay is a tropical one-stop of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Siberian gulag. And whatever goes on in the White House is a cross between Dr. Strangelove and "Groundhog Day."
The government's security crackdown in the wake of the terrorist attacks two years ago was understandable. Liberties are meaningless if they're not protected. Less understandable is the way the crackdown has grown roots, grown walls and been tendered by a cowed population like inmates decorating their prison walls. This, even after it became evident that fixing a cracked intelligence system was most likely to ward off the next mass murder. Passing dark-shaded laws and copying East German bureaucracies only parodies the freedoms we stand for. Still, let's not exaggerate. For most of us 290 million Americans, the crackdown hasn't made a noticeable difference. The government has the makings of a police state. The infrastructure is there, the cameras, the wiretaps, the Internet trawlers are in place, the uniformed brigades are certainly eager to validate their buffed up eminence. But life continues pretty much as we've known it. The Labor Day weekend's lounging was a reminder.
It was also an astutely deceiving reminder, because if we worry disproportionately about what the government might do to the liberties of a few thousand people, we worry not at all about what everyday workplaces are doing to the liberties of 110 million working Americans: If it's privacy we cherish, or free expression, or personal rights, or even the right to have erred in the past, paid for it and moved on, the USA Patriot Act has nothing on how the corporate culture has eroded those rights in the workplace.
There are a few headline examples (drug maker Eli Lilly started running background checks on workers and sent one packing for having bought marijuana eight years before, fired another for bouncing a $60 check). But it's the routine incursions in everyday workplaces that reflect the pernicious surveillance mentality on employers' part -- and, more dangerously, acceptance on employees' part. In enterprises large or small employers snoop into their employees' credit histories, their driving records, their criminal records. They scour sexual-offender convictions and bankruptcy filings. They check into whether employees have been party to civil lawsuits. They read employees' e-mail and eavesdrop on their phone conversations (you don't really believe that bunk about supervisors listening for "quality assurance," do you?).
The pretext on employers' end is always something like security, liability, the dubious notion that employees are "agents" of a company whose words and deeds even away from work reflect on the company. It's a curious extension of the 40-hour business week into a 24/7 claim on an individual's identity. You're always free to go if you object. But work is a necessity for most, not a luxury, and the sameness of the corporate environment is such that changing jobs is only a change of locks. It's a no-exit sort of freedom.
None of this is new. Henry Ford used to say that he was "more a manufacturer of men than of automobiles." He had a Sociological Department staffed with inspectors who visited workers' homes and kept tabs on people's family lives, their mortgage payments, their debts, what money immigrants sent back to the home country. Immigrants who didn't enroll in Americanization classes were fired. Those who led lives he considered loose outside of work were encouraged to change or were fired. He didn't want kinks in his assembly lines, whether mechanical or human. In the 1950s corporate presumptions were so overt that they were easily satirized by the likes of Sloan Wilson and William Whyte in "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" and "The Organization Man" (those workplace versions of Orwell, Kafka and the rest).
The methods have changed, thanks to casual Fridays and other harmless perks of the
made-over workplace. But the principles persist. "Human resources" is every company's Total Information Awareness department. For-your-own-good scientific management still ionizes the air you breathe. You won't get fired for refusing to attend Americanization classes. But you will get fired for not attending sensitivity training (a $10 billion industry kept flush by its diversity-mongering consultants) or submitting to whatever coercive fad happens to be ornamenting management's control panel. "What is an intellectual playground for an entire class of consultants and gurus is, for the majority of Americans," Thomas Frank wrote in "One Market Under God" three years ago, "a living hell of surveillance and degradation in which every emotion is faked and every response anticipated."
In an atmosphere like that, the USA Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security are more like natural extensions of what we're used to. At the moment, anyway, they're not the problem. They're not even the greatest threat to liberties. They're among many symptoms of a surveillance society that long pre-dates Sept. 11, and that thrives on submissive, unquestioning compliance. The workplace is its most loyal collaborator.
© 2003 News-Journal Corporation