Free to Be You and Me–Mostly.Posted: April 17, 2007
Hannah writes in a comment on my first The Lives of Others post that she found the movie “surprisingly relevant.”
The more I thought about the movie after seeing it, the more I, too, felt a relevancy. About 90% of the movie’s greatness is how grippingly it dramatizes the repression of life in the former East Germany; even Westerners who were paying attention at the time may have their eyes opened. But the other 10% is in a feeling that floats up out of the movie, unbidden and unwelcome, that there are likenesses between that world and ours.
We have incomparably more freedom; no one who lived in the GDR would have been able to write without fear the sentences I’m writing now. Nor would the movie have been permitted in the GDR. No Bush security initiative, no Ari Fleischer “this is a time for all of us to watch what we say,” brings us anywhere near life in the GDR, when, at its worst, one in every fifty East Germans worked for the Stasi spying on the other forty-nine. So let’s stipulate that we have exponentially more freedom than they did, and are lucky to have it. But it is still possible in our society to be punished for saying the “wrong” thing. Ask the Dixie Chicks. Or anyone who’s had his career derailed by an ill-considered remark in a conference room. As I type, Simon Cowell is being raked over the coals in the media–and needs to apologize or face the consequences–for making the wrong facial expression when an American Idol contestant mentioned the Virginia Tech incident. The wrong facial expression–my God, what have we come to? The film’s young Stasi bureaucrat who makes an impolitic joke in the cafeteria pays a price for it; but not all repression comes from government. In our society, it tends to come from the corporations we work for (who butter our bread), from a media ever-ready to define the appropriate and the inappropriate, and from other people. Under capitalism, we do a very good job of policing ourselves, so good a job that we don’t need a Stasi to keep us in line. But repression is repression.