Our Town: Big Brother is watching — all of us

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Welcome to the age of surveillance

Clearly we should have seen all this coming years ago when they started using red light cameras at busy intersections. The argument was that red light cameras helped prevent accidents by suppressing the urge to speed through intersections when the light turned yellow. But the obvious take-away for any sentient human was that they created the feeling that the state was engaging in profiteering and that Big Brother was watching.
The image of the eerie watchful eyes of T.J. Eckleberg on the billboard in “The Great Gatsby” was a good symbol of the nation’s growing paranoia, but recently we’ve taken surveillance to new heights of anxiety.

A trip to your friendly dermatologist now requires you to have your temperature taken. A visit to your podiatrist to have your ingrown nails managed will require a game of 20 questions before you enter and then both temperature and oxygen levels taken. And if you are unlucky enough to require any form of surgery, pre-op now means your nose will be swabbed and you will sit in a state of dread until you hear the results. COVID or not-COVID, that is the question. Who would have guessed life could be such fun.

I played a round of golf recently and noticed a strange device on my bag, which must have been attached before I teed off that day. I opened it up and saw all sorts of high-tech lights blinking. I had no idea what this was all about until I got a call from the pro shop when I got home asking if I still had the device on the bag. I said yes I did and I asked what it was there for. I was told it keeps track of how fast I played. Ouch! Big Brother is always watching.

One must wear masks for fear of imminent death. One must stand 6 feet apart or risk sudden illness. One cannot touch another because if you do you will be contaminated with a zombie-like problem. Surveillance of the zombies is the right way to describe this. As in many blockbuster zombie films like “I am Legend” or “World War Z” you have your eyes scanned to see if you are a carrier. And if you test positive, good luck.

Paranoia and surveillance are the twin sisters we have all come to recognize. We watch each other and we fear each other. Technology has allowed us to assess slight changes in body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen levels, and sweat. All this surveillance produces a dehumanized feeling that we’re boxed in and under someone’s control. Whether this control is coming from the military, the government or the medical profession the result is that people don’t like it. The dehumanizing effect of surveillance is partially what has driven all the angry marches and strange new trend of taking over parts of cities with no rule of law. It seems like a throwback to the communes of the 1960s but with hate and fear being the force rather than love.

It is ironic that the last 90 days of lockdown gave people a chance to pause, take a breather, get to know themselves, reacquaint with their families, neighbors and neighborhoods. I see kids riding bikes again. Humanity has raised its head for a moment and smiled. But we all realize that this respite will be short-lived. I see cars coming back to life and the roar of traffic and the return of angry drivers. Masks, social distancing and fear will be here for a long time to come.

I keep thinking of the sad and poignant scene at the very end of the great novel “Hawaii” by James Michener. You see the ancient Chinese matriarch Char Nyuk, who with determination and will power had managed to survive slavery, prostitution, a leper colony, a plague and discrimination, to eventually rise to power and influence in Hawaii. In the very last scene, Char Nyuk, who is well into her 90s, must go through her nightly ritual of taking off all her clothes and carefully investigating her entire body surface to check if any signs of leprosy have emerged.

I am afraid that is what we are faced with now as Americans. We have managed to survive civil wars, world wars, cold wars, economic depressions, endless stress-filled days of work, exhaustive class warfare and income inequality until finally as a nation we emerged as leaders of the free world and the envy of all. But we still have this fear we are vulnerable and on the verge of coming down with a dreaded disease that will kill us. This is not the right legacy to embrace, but fear tends to linger on and on and on. We are just like Char Nyuk, endlessly surveilling our bodies for any trace of disease or illness or death.

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