(Hearing in a town this size, by John Prine and Delores Keane, reminded me of this 2013 post–rerun here, with some edits and a special musical bonus added at the end.)
I’ve reviewed two books by German writer Hans Fallada: Little Man, What Now?, and Wolf Among Wolves (the links go to the reviews), both of which were excellent. I’ve also read his novel Every Man Dies Alone, which is centered on a couple who become anti-Nazi activists after their son Ottochen is killed in the war…it was inspired by, and is loosely based on, the true story of a real-life couple who distributed anti-Nazi postcards and were executed for it.
I thought this book was also excellent…the present post, though, is not a book review, but rather a development of some thoughts inspired by a particular passage in the story.
Trudel, who was Ottochen’s fiancee, is a sweet and intelligent girl who is strongly anti-Nazi..and unlike Ottochen’s parents, she became an activist prior to being struck by personal tragedy: she is a member of a resistance cell at the factory where she works. But she finds that she cannot stand the unending psychological strain of underground work–made even worse by the rigid and doctrinaire man (apparently a Communist) who is leader of the cell–and she drops out. Another member of the cell, who has long been in love with her, also finds that he is not built for such work, and drops out also.
After they marry and Trudel becomes pregnant, they decide to leave the politically hysterical environment of Berlin for a small town where–they believe–life will be freer and calmer.
Like many city dwellers, they’d had the mistaken belief that spying was only really bad in Berlin and that decency still prevailed in small towns. And like many city dwellers, they had made the painful discovery that recrimination, eavesdropping, and informing were ten times worse in small towns than in the big city. In a small town, everyone was fully exposed, you couldn’t ever disappear in the crowd. Personal circumstances were quickly ascertained, conversations with neighbors were practically unavoidable, and the way such conversations could be twisted was something they had already experienced in their own lives, to their chagrin.
Reading the above passage, I was struck by the thought that if we are now living in an “electronic village”…even a “global village,” as Marshall McLuhan put it several decades ago…then perhaps that also means we are facing some of the unpleasant characteristics that–as Fallada notes–can be a part of village life. And these characteristics aren’t something that appears only in eras of insane totalitarianism such as existed in Germany during the Nazi era. Peter Drucker, in Managing in the Next Society, wrote about the tension between liberty and community:
Rural society has been romanticized for millenia, especially in the West, where rural communities have usually been portrayed as idylic. However, the community in rural society is actually both compulsory and coercive…And that explains why, for millenia, the dream of rural people was to escape into the city. Stadluft macht frei (city air frees) says an old German proverb dating back to the eleventh or twelfth century.
Consider: an assistant manager at a Wal-Mart store recently lost his job because of a post he put up on his Facebook page, in which he made some negative and slightly obscene comments about Muslim women wearing niquabs. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) complained, and the man was fired. (Having demonstrated their power, CAIR then kindly asked that he be rehired–don’t know whether he ever was.)
If, in the pre-Facebook era, a Wal-Mart manager living in a large city had made negative comments about some group to friends in person, the odds that it would have resulted in his firing would have been pretty low. On the other hand, if a store manager living in a village were to repeatedly express opinions hostile to the deeply-held beliefs of the majority of the villagers–say, if a rural store manager in 1955 became well-known as hostile to religion–it might well have had an adverse effect on his employment. The electronic village has to some extent re-created the social pressures of the traditional village.
Of course, the village culture doesn’t always reinforce and serve the values of a society’s political overlords. During WWII, for example, the people of Chambon-sur-Lignon, a town in the French Massif Central Range, saved more than 5000 Jews from the Holocaust. The village community can act as a bulwark for civil society against the over-reaching power of distant tyrants, and in some cases–as with Chambon-sur-Lignon–the community culture will be of a nature that can accept and respect people whose belief structure differs from their own.
Certainly, the ability of the Internet to facilitate the distribution of information and opinion, beyond the control of the media gatekeepers, has been and is of tremendous value in preserving liberty. Without it, we as a society would be in even more trouble than we currently are. But the erosion of privacy, and the resultant fear of expressing oneself or acting in “unapproved” ways that might “harm your permanent record” are factors whose influence in undeniable.
The widespread distribution and sharing of information enabled by technology becomes particularly dangerous when the national government is in the hands of people who lack respect for individual liberties–and when the administrative discretion granted to individual bureaucrats is high. Can anyone doubt the high likelihood that information from the Electronic Medical Records being implemented as part of Obamacare will at some point be used to destroy political opponents of the whatever Administration is in power at the time? Can anyone doubt that, with the ideology of “progressivism” becoming increasingly intolerant, ever-larger numbers of people will be denied jobs, promotions, college admissions, based on opinions that they have expressed in a Facebook post or a blog post at some point in their lives?…and that expressions of opinion will–unless the climate changes markedly away from one of “political correctness”–tend to become much more guarded, just as a village merchant might be reluctant to say anything to offend the small group of people on whose goodwill he is permanently dependent for his livelihood?