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The Quieter Americans

“Edward Who?” Said the Doctor

by ALEXANDER REED KELLY

If you’re an American working in the service sector, you probably don’t have the luxury of expressing an opinion about Edward Snowden.

Snowden, you may or may not know, is the former intelligence contractor and National Security Agency employee being pursued by the U.S. government for leaking details of the NSA’s indiscriminate global spying program.

I say “may or may not know” because it can be difficult to determine the average restaurant- or shop worker’s level of social awareness. This is not a slam against working people. The difficulty is a consequence of the taboo placed upon workers against speaking about anything a patron within earshot might construe as politically or otherwise controversial. Customers may not like what they hear, and driving them away is the last thing a business owner wants to do. Employees who want to keep their jobs stay quiet.

I perhaps witnessed this phenomenon at my dentist’s office this morning. I was lying in the examination chair following a routine cleaning when the doctor appeared. She was characteristically pleasant, and after our initial greeting asked how my work was going.“Exciting,” I said. “Are you following the NSA story?”

“Hmm?” she responded. She turned to the instruments on the nearby table.

“The news over the last couple of weeks. For years now the National Security Agency has been spying on Americans’ phone calls and Internet activity,” I answered.

“Oh. Right,” she allowed. She adjusted the light and readied the mirror.

“It’s a big deal,” I said. “We’ve known about this for a while, but never in this detail. Now we have it confirmed in documents written by the spies themselves.” I showed her my newly polished smile. “What do you think of Edward Snowden, the source of the leaks?” I asked.

Goggles and a mask now concealed her face, but I could tell she was grinning and looking me in the eye. “It’s a wild and crazy world,” she said. Light laughter drove the words through the air. A moment of silence followed. Then she asked about my teeth.

This anecdote proves nothing about what’s going on in the larger society. But it is representative of an experience I have just about every time I try to discuss a subject of national importance with a service worker in his or her place of work, be it in New York City, San Francisco or Duluth, Minn. This includes places where conversation between customers and employees is expected and the environment is not busy, and with people who are otherwise happy to talk at length.

No doubt other settings are more suitable for this kind of talk. But it merits recognizing that, aside from family members and colleagues, secretaries, servers, clerks and others whose jobs involve being social represent a significant portion of our opportunities to interact with those with whom we share society.

The notion that such people should be expected to be genuinely personal with those they serve is strange to many younger Americans. Some even find it repulsive. But my friends who lived through the 1940s, 50s and 60s tell me it once wasn’t so uncommon. Apart from horrors like the communist witch-hunts, when strangers met they spoke their minds about a broader range of subjects, they say, and they were less concerned with the possibility of offending each other.

For the reasons given at the beginning of this piece, it is easy to grasp why Americans would be tight-lipped in the workplace. Competition for paychecks increases as the population grows and proportionally fewer jobs are available. The resulting anxiety has a constricting effect on what a person is willing to say and do in the presence of those who hire and fire them. A willingness to cooperate on the part of workers is not new, but a deteriorating economy, with a disappearing margin for worker error, easily turns cooperation into coercion. Americans fear their bosses. And rightly so—the risk of losing their livelihood makes them less free in the workplace.

The worse things get, the quieter Americans seem to become about the issues that affect them as a group. When people are silent with each other, is their mental development not impeded? Or what is worse, do their minds not shrink? The significant issues include the facts made available to us by Snowden, knowledge that our political leaders and their partners in business are engaged in wholesale worldwide spying that enables them to become more and more like our workplace managers: ever more powerful bosses of what the rest of us do, say and think.

Alexander Reed Kelly is an assistant editor at Truthdig.

This piece is reprinted from the author’s soon-to-be-active website, This Is A Crime Story.

© 2013 Alexander Reed Kelly