Foregoing Fear of Big Brother For the Fast Lane

I’m thinking again about Orwell today, in part because of a comment received setting forth a particularly dire quotation from him.

I confess to being, well, too optimistic a person to be terribly comfortable with Orwell’s dire quotations.  I do have great admiration for Orwell;  his ability to distill political phenomena into both momentous narrative and an original and precise vocabulary–newspeak, groupthink, Big Brother, thought crime–may be unparalleled.

And (though some readers may doubt it), I do have some understanding of the fear of governmental/official power and legally tolerated unfairness.  Official power, unfair laws, a lack of economic and political clout, are things that have oppressed my sex (female) for centuries, and still oppress women (as well, of course, as many others) throughout the world.   Ironically, I just finished reading a decidely pre-Orwellian novel, Wilkie Collins’ 19th century mystery, The Woman in White, in which one of the heroines (the beautiful one) is dispossessed of her identity and her estate by a fraud, supported by legal authority, that is only finally reversed by her bearing a son.  (The novel’s other heroine never actually has a chance to be so oppressed due to her physical ugliness.)

So. As any reader of novels (much less history) knows, abuse of individuals and groups by statute and authority is not particularly new, not only a product of totalitarianism, and something of which to be wary.  That said, it seems as if Orwellian ideas are frequently trotted out and then turned on their head in today’s media and political speak.  People adopt the idea of conspiracy at the drop of a hat (the sleight of a hand).  Glenn Beck traffics in this readiness with crazy illogic:  see e.g. Lewis Black’s Glenn Beck’s Nazi Tourettes–“Glenn, get a grip — they came for the Jews to kill them; they came for the banks and car companies to give them 700 billion dollars!”

My most recent experience with this kind of Orwellian mood came a couple of days ago in the person of an upstate New York car service driver who, grumbling about Big Brother, characterized EZ Pass as a government conspiracy designed to know exactly where he was at all moments.  I was a bit concerned about his vehemence against EZ Pass since we were on our way to JFK (on various toll roads) with very little time to spare.

Still, I was (sort of) sympathetic.  It’s very possible that EZ Pass evidence has been admitted in criminal prosecutions. I’ve also heard that some jurisdictions use it as a tool for dishing out speeding tickets when drivers cover distances in times that are not possibly legal.   (I have not researched these issues.)  Even so–and I may be naive–the only conspiracy I can see in EZ Pass’s original conception and in the way it’s generally administered in today’s world of strapped state governments seems to be to relieve the State of a certain number of low-paying toll jobs.  (And possibly to earn revenue in speeding tickets.)

I pointed out to my driver that people who were concerned about being tracked on EZ Pass could simply pay for their tolls in cash.  And then, watching the clock, I immediately bit my tongue.  Maybe he was one of those truly principled types who would steer us into one of the long slow lane of other principled (or disorganized) non-EZ drivers.  Maybe I was even encouraging him to do that.

But, for all the grumbling, the driver drove straight into the EZ pass lane, then, when the light went green, sailed on through.

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