Fear Factor 101
My brother's girlfriend is warm; witty; generous - ideal sister-in-law material. What my cruder kinfolk call "a real keeper." She's also something of a pop culture savant, the kind of girl my brother, himself a walking encyclopedia of kitsch, never dared dream existed but I'd always hoped he'd find. (Which I'll admit was as much for his sake as for my own. I mean, if there's anything I've learned from all my years as his sister, it's that being his sister is great fun. Indeed, a roomful of people like him is my idea of party heaven. Consequently, any cozy little get-together with the real deal and his girlfriend is pure bliss.)
Except for maybe our cozy little get-together of last month, when, smack dab in the middle of a friendly discourse on who was "Bewitched's" better Darren, Dick York or Dick Sargent, my brother's girlfriend snarled something unprintable about the USA Patriot Act.
At least it felt like a left-of-center, out-of-nowhere sort of snarl at the time.
Because, now that I think of it, we'd already declared Dick York the better Darren and were discussing Mrs. Kravitz, "Bewitched's" sickeningly nosy neighbor character, when my brother's girlfriend got snarly. (And the thoroughly unlikable Mrs. Kravitz, what with her total disregard for other people's privacy and her overly suspicious little mind, is the stuff of the ACLU's - of which, it should be noted, my brother's girlfriend's father is a prominent member - collective nightmares.)
In any event, my brother's girlfriend's segue, however "logical" in retrospect, knocked me for a loop.
I heard her say, "It's scary to think that the government can hack its way into your laptop without probable cause." And I heard myself think, "Yeah. Especially since the government doesn't have anything better to do these days than wonder what a native citizen who's never gone to flight school; applied for a Yemeni passport; beaten an explosives rap; married a mullah; sued Louis Farrakhan for child support; or taken the Fifth on behalf of Sirhan, Squeaky, and 'kindred spirits everywhere'" has bookmarked on her sleek little Sony.
And I heard her say, "...assault on our basic liberties," which reminded me of my late '90s visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
Sited at the vastly refurbished, long defunct Lorraine Motel - the scene of Dr. Martin Luther King's 1968 assassination - the NCRM is one of the most moving memorials to injustice, intolerance and the indomitable human spirit I've ever seen.
A genuine Rosa Parks/Montgomery, Alabama city bus; simulated "Freedom Rides;" galleries of liberty-loving luminaries, from the Boston Tea partiers to the Anti-Defamation League, from "Civil Disobedience" author Henry David Thoreau to the founders of the AFL-CIO; Dr. King's eerily preserved (down to the 35-year-old cigarette butts in the ashtrays) Lorraine Motel room...
"Are we keeping you awake?" my brother barked.
"Oh, sorry," I said. "I was just thinking about the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Next time you two get out that way, you should skip Graceland and check it out."
"What does that have to do with the Bush administration's -"
"A-ha!" I interrupted. "There it is, the 'Bush administration.' And what are we blaming it for today? Kim Jong Il's hairdo? The Beatles' break-up? Your DSL service?"
"What do you mean?"
"What I mean is, have you even read this Patriot Act you're so afraid of?"
"No," my brother yawned. "And I don't want to. Not now, anyway. Let's watch 'Billy Jack.'"
His girlfriend said, "yes, lets. And no, I haven't read it, either. But the thing that scares me -"
"- is the messenger," I interrupted again. "Scratch someone who opposes the Patriot Act and, more often than not, you'll find yourself scratching someone still bristling over Election 2000."
"No way," my brother's girlfriend said.
"Way," I replied. "Try scratching, say, one of your dad's cronies; subtly, of course. Something along the lines of, 'I see you're opposed to the Patriot Act. Might I interest you in a 'Not my President' bumper sticker, as well?' You'll see."
"Speaking of fear," I interrupted yet again, "are you afraid of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride?" "Of course not!" my brother and his girlfriend, both big Disneyland freaks (I told you they were compatible), squawked in unison.
"You can thank your dad and his cronies for that," I said.
"What do you mean?" my brother's girlfriend asked, for the second time that night.
"What I mean is, it wasn't so long ago that your dad and his cronies were afraid that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was, to paraphrase you, an assault on the basic liberties of pirates. And prostitutes - 'wenches,' in Disneyspeak. So they lobbied to make the ride politically correct, even had the damn thing shut down for a couple years. And now that it's, oooh, no longer 'scary,' well, for me, anyway, it's boring beyond belief."
My brother's girlfriend said, "What does that have to do -"
"- with the Patriot Act?" I interrupted for the fourth and final time (that night, anyway.) "Everything. Because one person's misplaced fear is another person's justifiable concern. Here in Ojai, for example, a lot of people are worried about a local government official's proposal to turn an old jail into housing for the mentally ill. Anyone in favor of the idea dismisses the naysayers as paranoid loons. Or, worse, intolerant. Despite the fact that the local government official in question has admitted, more than once, that such a facility, if approved, could 'evolve' into something entirely different than what he's proposing.
'So what!' the supporters cry. 'What about the basic liberties of the criminally insane? Have we no compassion?'
Beats me. I still haven't decided if the Supreme Court of 1882 - which other trivia buffs will note included, surprise, surprise, one Stephen Field from California - was wrong or right to declare the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 (giving government the authority to prosecute Klansmen as terrorists) 'unconstitutional.' But I'm leaning towards wrong.
Hey, am I keeping you guys awake?" I barked at my brother and his girlfriend, both of whom were, much to my chagrin, unabashedly snoring.
"Oh, sorry," said my brother. "Do you still have 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' on tape?"
I did, but we were all too pooped to watch it.