We Thought We Were Free...
Are we really the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On Thanksgiving Day, 26-year-old law student Cesar Baldelomar was pulled over by a police officer in northwest Miami. So what was the reason for his stop? He was playing the song “F**K Tha Police” by N.W.A on his radio.
According to the Miami New Times, police officer Harold Garzon confronted Baldelomar at a stop light, and reportedly said to him, “You’re really playing that song? Pull over.” When Baldelomar pulled over, the officer claimed that it was illegal for him to being playing music that loudly within 25 feet of another person. Being a law student, Baldelomar knew that wasn’t the case.
In fact, as Baldelomar told the Miami New Times, “In 2012 the state supreme court struck down any law banning loud music. I knew that because it was a case I had actually studied in law school." Officer Garzon then reportedly issued Baldelomar a ticket for not having proof of car insurance (even though he did and offered it to Garzon) and tickets for not wearing a seatbelt and having an out-of-state license.
Cesar Baldelomar’s Thanksgiving Day run-in with the police isn’t just another example of abuse of power. It’s a symptom of a much larger problem in America: growing levels of authoritarianism.
Authoritarianism is a disease. It moves and grows gradually, but inexorably. Eventually, it grows to the point where it has completely taken over society. America is dangerously close to that point.
Think about it. Authoritarianism rears its ugly head in America every time a police officer uses excessive force.
It rears its ugly head every time we stop ourselves from saying jokes while waiting in airport security lines, and self-censor ourselves when interacting with police officers and figures of authority. And it rears its ugly head every time we think twice about what to say in our emails and text messages, because we realize that someone might be reading them.
Fortunately, we can stop the spread of authoritarianism in America, but first we must understand just how insidious it is, and how easily it can spread. That’s where the book “They Thought They Were Free” comes in.
“They Thought They Were Free” was written back in 1955 by Milton Mayer, a longtime journalist who worked for the Associated Press, the Chicago Evening Post, and the Chicago Evening American. The book details Mayer’s journey to Germany, just 7 years after Hitler’s demise.
While in Germany, Mayer got to know, and even became friends with, 10 average German Nazis. The book details his experiences, but also gives tremendous insight into how Nazi Germany came to be and into the nature of authoritarianism.
For example, Mayer writes that, “Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany - not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted - or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want.”
He goes on to say that, “I came home a little bit afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under the combined pressure of reality and illusion. I felt - and feel - that it was not German Man that I met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I. If I - and my countrymen - ever succumbed to that concatenation of conditions, no Constitution, no laws, no police, and certainly no army would be able to protect us from harm.”
The story of how the Nazis took over Germany, and much of Europe, is a classic example of how authoritarianism spreads. Slowly but surely, the government begins to grow it's police, surveillance and military power. People begin to accept it. They learn to live it. It becomes the new normal. And then it's too late.
We can’t let authoritarianism continue to grow and become the new normal in America. More importantly, we need to retrieve our own American values from the trash-heap of history where Bush and Cheney threw them. We need to assert that we don’t need to torture people, we don’t need to spend more money on defense than every other country in the world combined, and we don’t need to be the world's police.
As Mayer points out in his book, when Germans began to realize just how bad things had gotten in Nazi Germany, it was already too late to fight back. But it’s not too late for us. It’s time to stop living in fear, and turn America back into the land of the free and the home of the brave.