The Newest American Value: Keep Your Mouth Shut!

Mark Wahlberg’s character in “Broken City” says: “What is this? Everybody speaks in half sentences now?” Nobody wanted to tell him a thing.

Keeping your mouth shut has become so much a part of the culture, that when somebody does speak out – like NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden – even though we already know about what he’s telling us (the NSA spies on us – wow, that’s news!), we’re shocked. Not really so much by what he’s telling us but that he’s telling us. He fully expects to be prosecuted, he says, under the Espionage Act. Free speech is okay as long as it doesn’t reveal any secrets.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison fought this very thing when they secretly authored the Kentucky & Virginia Resolutions to protest the Alien & Sedition Acts (which among other things criminalized speaking against the government). Yes, secretly. Jefferson was Vice President at the time and Madison, a U.S. Congressman, was associated with him. The resolutions were thus put forward by others.

That was two hundred years ago in the Deep South, which even at that time was full of dark secrets and lies. Now, fast forward to Alachua County in North Central Florida. The present. I’m a whistleblower too. I’m blowing the whistle on my local county officials who refuse to enforce the noise ordinance with respect to crowing roosters in my neighborhood. Yes, whistleblowing about roosters. Inconsequential, say you? I ask: is speaking out ever inconsequential?

Although my neighbors were found guilty over a year ago of illegally harboring chickens, including one rooster that three independent parties testified disturbed their peace, various officials wrung their hands and said they were powerless to do anything about it. Meantime the Sheriff, with perfect circular reasoning, ignored the decision and decided that all of the roosters – in this neighborhood only – were feral and therefore the Sheriff would not respond to noise complaints against those harboring them – ignoring the fact that if they are harbored, they aren’t feral.

After two years of subjecting me to incessant, disturbing rooster noise, but just four days after my conversation with the Sheriff – in which I asked her why she was ignoring the year-old harboring decision, and how she determined with no fact-finding that all the chickens in my community were feral, and explained to her that the rooster noise clearly violated the noise ordinance and she not only had the authority and responsibility to enforce it, she had primary jurisdiction – I say, only four days after this conversation, my neighbors suddenly got rid of the rooster they had claimed was feral (and therefore uncatchable), and replaced it with a different, quieter breed.

Obviously, the Sheriff’s priority was not at all whether these people were violating the law or whether she had authority to cite them. Rather it was how to stop me from complaining. Clearly as well, the Sheriff is on friendly terms with my neighbors … or with others in the community here who informed my neighbors of the conversation.

I’m not a very popular person. I live in a small, half-forgotten, semi-rural community five miles outside the city of Gainesville, Florida, set within a large wooded conservation area, with small, close lots and no street lights or businesses. Among the people who live here are “crazy environmentalists,” back-to-nature & grow-your-own-food types, animal rescuers, chicken and dog lovers (and sadly, dog fighters, too), Occupiers, and plain backwoods people – some of whom unfortunately like to leave their underfed, neglected, cat-killing dogs out barking (and killing cats) all day and night, run their chainsaws and burn their yard waste.

These people all have one thing in common: they hate me. On this one issue, all religious, political, and educational persuasions agree. I am a terrible person. I can’t imagine why they think this. I’m a polite, quiet, considerate, respectful person. My critters are quiet. We don’t bother anybody. And all I ask is peace and quiet. All I ask is that people have common courtesy, leave me alone, and follow the law.

I might as well be Jesus, so often have I been crucified for such beliefs.

Apparently, the people here don’t believe in the law any more than the Sheriff does. They were just fine breaking the law with county officials looking the other way before I came here and mucked it all up. I embarrass them by pointing out their dirty laundry when they were pretending to be clean, upright, law-abiding citizens, good officers of the law, and agents of the county.

That I have a legitimate complaint of course doesn’t matter to them (or makes them hate me more). That my neighbor’s rooster on one side has practically driven me to distraction which my neighbor’s dogs on the other side are working to complete, that the wood burning smoke from my other neighbor, which comes into my house and makes me terribly ill, violates state burning laws and that the chainsaw and other loud power tools he uses that scare my animals, violate the county decibel limits … these are no nevermind to them.

Like the majority of Americans, they wanna do what they wanna do – right or wrong, legal or illegal, the louder the better (gotta make their mark, you know, leave something behind, spray that fire hydrant) – and they don’t want anybody telling them otherwise.

And I’m in their way. “Bitch! Mind your own business! Chicken hater! Go back to New York City! They shout, not aware that I’ve traveled and lived large portions of my life in places far more remote (and more exotic and dangerous) than this pretend rural community.

I always thought that speaking out was an American value.

My neighbors, like most Americans, are people who claim for themselves, each in their own ways, that they are living the right way, the better way, the more humane way, the greener way, the more democratic way, or just the American way. Why would they hate someone just for exercising a central American right?

One local called me to ask that I promise not to call the police anymore. That’s right: “Don’t call the police. It’s a complaint-driven process,” she emphasized. “They aren’t your personal police force.” (But she gets courtesy calls from the Sheriff’s office.) She’s an upright member of the community and owner of a natural pet food store in town, who not only also owns chickens (and who of course is violating the possession ordinance and thus claims they are feral), though they don’t live near me, but was the one, another local told me, who brought them into this area.

I’m not sure what I was supposed to get in return for giving up my right to complain to the police. I guess if I didn’t comply, she’d publicly vilify and defame me, which she in fact did do. I didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect, it’s clear she was threatening me. I actually naively had thought she was calling to try to work things out. To be charitable, maybe she didn’t realize that she was asking me to relinquish my constitutional rights to free speech, seek redress of grievances, and enjoy equal protection of the law. These are not optional, revokable rights.

Let me restate that. I have the right to bitch, okay? And I have a right to the protection of the noise ordinance. Neither you nor the Sheriff can decide that you are exempt from the law or that I am the only person who can’t invoke it.

Maybe this local woman – again like too many Americans – doesn’t understand democratic values. Or maybe she thought my constitutional rights were less valuable than her “right” to break the law (by illegally owning and breeding chickens). But nonetheless, I – the victim and complainant – was the one publicly vilified, not the lawbreaker.

My neighbor who has the loud crowing rooster also has a loud yapping dog. She stopped talking to me when I told her for the umpteenth time that she had to stop leaving the dog outside when she wasn’t home because it yapped, loudly and constantly the entire time she and her husband were gone. I told her if she couldn’t be considerate of me, I’d have to call the police, which I had already done about several other barking dogs here. She told me that I was “alienating everybody” and not to call her anymore; it was “harassment.”

Right. I’m alienating everybody because I speak out.

After I had discovered that another neighbor’s dog had escaped from his improperly enclosed yard, chased down, killed, and eaten several of my cats; after I was chased down the street on my bike by yet another neighbor’s 3 or 4 huge dobermans; after I had been awakened so many countless nights by repeatedly barking dogs and mornings by loudly crowing roosters that I (and my critters) can now no longer fall or stay asleep; after I had been forced to take a leave of absence from my online master’s program, being unable to concentrate; after I was publicly vilified and defamed, chicken feathers thrown over my fence into my yard, called a chicken hater, a dog hater, and a tattle-tail (!), and told I should move out of the neighborhood – I am the one alienating everybody.

To be honest, I had nothing against these people or against their chickens before all this. Now, I no longer care if I’m courteous or respectful. And I may not actively hate chickens but I am determined to lobby and advocate against allowing residents to own them without further statutory restrictions on noise and bio-safety. (Chickens can carry disease (including Avian flu), lice, and parasites. Unlike other Florida counties, Alachua has no provision to protect against these. One of my ferrets got chicken lice and coccidiosis shortly after I moved next door to the chicken owners. Coccidia is a parasite that is very difficult to get rid of in a ferret and can cause permanent intestinal damage and death. My ferret now has early stage inflammatory bowel disease and needs to be on meds the rest of his little life.)

My community may be the only one of its kind, but I don’t think so. The truth is, this lack of respect for others interests and rights, and this insistence on keeping your mouth shut, not speaking out, not telling the truth – this is an American disease.

Americans don’t care about free speech. It’s not an American value at all.

Even those who believe in protesting the government don’t believe their neighbors have a right to complain about their noise or pollution. (Several officers told me that what my neighbors did in their yard was their business, not mine. That is such a typical American isolationist belief and it’s not even logical. You’d think with oil spills, toxic waste sites, and global warming, we’d begin to grasp our interconnectedness.)

Rather, what Americans care about is being free to get more for themselves.

Quantity not quality is what matters. I see this as well in the animal rescue world. Because I run a sanctuary, which obviously is limited in numbers, and not a rescue/adoption service, which services many more animals, I’m criticized. Not just unappreciated. Criticized. How dare I offer a limited number of animals more than what anyone else provides theirs! How dare I presume to set a standard of care and quality of life for “kept creatures.” Quality of life is not a matter of great concern to rescuers, beyond the bare minimums of adequate food and shelter for the animals. An animal’s freedom to roam or to choose means nothing. (See the Freedom to Roam campaign

Having more, not saying more – that’s what matters to Americans.

My own grown daughters don’t see speaking freely as either a right or a virtue. One of them sees me as a complainer (which of course she detests). The other believes, like her Dutch father used to say, that I just like to stir up trouble. They don’t see any connection between my complaints and their most fundamental human rights. And like most people, they don’t see themselves in the context of history.

No, I don’t just like to stir up trouble. I am like the British 19th century novelist Mary Ann Evans, who interestingly wrote novels under the pseudonym George Eliot. She said “I have the need not just to be but to utter.” I simply feel the need to speak about matters that concern me personally or morally.

And I grew up on Shakespeare. Words matter to me. I need to hear myself but it is not just my own words that matter; I also need to hear and communicate with others. I hate silent returns.

Silence is one of the cruelest things you can do to another human being. It’s how you torture someone. It’s why men go slowly insane in solitary confinement. Silence is how you treat your worst enemies.

But America is becoming more and more silent. Our greatest value, after wealth, is silence. Those who can keep their mouths shut are the most highly valued members of society.

I’m sorry. In my opinion, that’s not America. It’s not a free society. It’s one in decline. It might be a very Age of Aquarius or Buddhist thing for me to say but we’re all connected and until we realize this and act upon it, I don’t think I’m just a Chicken Little (!) to say we’re doomed. The culture of silence and accusation has got to stop, got to reverse, and we’ve got to start to talking to each other if we are to solve the great problems confronting us now. It’s not just government corruption or Wall Street greed I’m talking about. It’s the future of the planet.

Jennifer Van Bergen has been a truth-teller, a whistleblower, and a believer in the right to speak one’s mind her entire life – on matters great and small, public and private, personal and humanitarian, all for which she has been unfailingly vilified. She was the first to blow the whistle on the PATRIOT Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the presidential signing statements, the violations of the Geneva & Hague Conventions & the Convention Against Torture, and many other issues during the Bush era. She is the author of two books, teaches ArkhelogySM (an innate but long-forgotten human skill & an approach to develop and utilize it for common good), and runs a small nonprofit animal-centered, nature-based, freedom-to-roam ferret and cat sanctuary. She is currently pursuing a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree in Environmental Law through Vermont Law School.