The Vise Tightens


December 11, 2005


Browse in Commons Freedom

I was in Washington this week and Capitol Hill feels like a state of siege.   The place is saturated with police – not friendly cops walking the beat, but police cars, often two or three at an intersection, faceless and grim. Fences and concrete barricades are everywhere.  You used to be able to walk through the tunnels under the Capital to get from the House to the Senate office buildings.  Now a staffer has to escort you.

You feel like an intruder in your own government, and in the buildings you yourself pay for.  The lobbyists still are there.  They exit from cabs in their tailored gaggles, crowd the couches in reception areas.  What’s missing is a sense that anyone else belongs.

Yes, security concerns are real.  But like the invasion of Iraq, the start of a security state in Washington has happened with an alacrity that suggests a prior wish.  There is no hint of regret.  When Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968, a fence went up around Lafayette Park across from the White House, which was a frequent venue for protests against the Vietnam War.  President Bush, in a meeting with Republican Senators, called the Constitution a “goddam piece of paper.”  The security lock-down is a proclivity as much as a response to an actual threat.

The sense of enclosure – of space for democracy shrinking—is of a piece with other changes around town. In Dupont Circle and other neighborhoods, the quirky shops and budget restaurants are just about gone.  Schwartz’s Pharmacy, where once you might have run into a young Ralph Nader at the magazine rack, or I.F. Stone,  or Carl Bernstein having Sunday breakfast, his bike locked outside, is now a Starbucks – one of three that monopolize the coffee trade at the Circle. On Capitol Hill, the old places like Sherrill’s Bakery are gone as well, replaced by establishments more in line with the tastes of the less democratically inclined.

In this at least the nation’s capital really is a mirror of the nation.  The same thing is going on from coast to coast.  There is a connection, I think, between the police state on the Hill and the corporatizing of the neighborhoods. A retail chain that demands conformity in its thousands of outlets is of a piece with a government that demands conformity from its citizens.  A chain that seeks to claim every block in a city (in parts of San Francisco this is no exaggeration) is related to a government that seeks to claim, in one way or another, most of the world.

It has to do with control, and with grabbing everything. They call it “freedom”, which I guess it is for those that do it. But for the rest of us it is a vise tightening, and less room to breathe.  The House of Representatives moves to sell off National Parks and turn the rest into corporate billboards. State legislatures, at the behest of telecom corporations, ban localities from establishing municipal WiFi networks and thereby claim the air as a democratic commons.  Corporations claim school classrooms as advertising venues.  Wal-Mart decimates our Main Streets.  On and on.

Their space expands, and ours shrinks.  It is a syllogism that is larger than any of the people doing it. The crew in the White House is cheerleader and enabler for something it did not invent  We can be grateful in a way.  For decades these tendencies have been working quietly and in disguise. Now they are out in the open, with an aggressive bravado. We can name them, and maybe start to deal with them.

What’s the form of government that joins authoritarian government with corporate convenience?  The word is not awfully useful today, associated as it is with the racial politics of the Nazis.  But the thing is upon us.  The clock is ticking; and if we don’t start building boundaries now – more, if we don’t start to construct a shrewd politics of boundaries – there is no telling where it will end.