Civil Liberties  
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Our Society Is Turning Into One Giant Prison

We've gotten to a point where society is so unmanageable we must partition ourselves off from every feature of it.

Those were the good days when a man had friends in distant clans. Your generation does not know that. You stay at home, arid of your next-door neighbor. - Chinua Achebe, "Things Fall Apart"

With too many fists slung, too much spittle hurled, too many guns pointed, too many bats swung, it has now become necessary for tellers, bus drivers and even cashiers to partition themselves from customers. A couple of weeks back, driving through an unnamable Indiana town, I walked into a gas station for a brief break. While waiting in line behind a young black boy (of about 8) who had in hand a bag of chips, I noticed a thick glass window protecting customer from cashier, but with limited opening underneath to roll cash or change through. Excitement built up at once: I self-assured whatever concerns I could conjure were but the exaggerated fears of a paranoid leftist thinker, and that in the next few seconds those fears would be allayed good and well.

Then through a microphone the cashier boomed to the boy, "Is that all?" I wondered if he knew what was about to happen, or if some form of oral manual was required to hold his hand through. Like an expert, however, he flawlessly, and without prompting, held up his bag of chips to the glass, the cashier scanned it from inside, he dropped his cash, she pushed his change, and he walked off undaunted. "Next!" she called out. Disturbed to my core, I burst my gums open, and undoubtedly inspired security concerns. It took a couple of minutes to recompose and let out a short request for $20 worth of gas.

As I returned home, the scene replayed in my mind - the boy stepping before me, lifting his baggage; the cashier responding with precision; the boy stoic but studied in this art, walking off without care; and my inability to pull him aside, shake him up, and let him know what had just happened was a travesty and a manifestation of how unmanageable society has become - where human beings fall into cubicles in the workplace of life, where contact is diminished drastically, where the frenzy-for-safety forces many into partitioning themselves (professionally and personally). I felt a failure for stifling the urge to put in his hand Henry Giroux's "Public Spaces, Private Lives" and clamor: "Read this or Die! You now live in a Glass Society, younger brother; and you had better get used to it because the worst is yet to arrive, and your elders rank you so low on the priority rung that to expect rectification anytime soon would usher in many dashed hopes which at your age cannot be healthy."

So far gone are the days when corner stores provided meaning for a whole community: when customer and clerk spoke the same tongue, shared the same values and communicated without concern. In a Glass Society, occasional "hi's" and "hellos" are exchanged, but sincerity falls short. It becomes just polite conduct to acknowledge the other person's humanity - but briefly enough to prevent unnecessary badger. Workers in the same office don't know each other. Sure, they "collaborate" on "projects" and "brainstorm" on "ideas," but relationships are outlawed. Each one is against the other. Each one just as suspicious of the other. Each one trying to annihilate the other - at any signs of weakness.

Society, not just schools anymore, is becoming modeled after the prison culture: most are inmates, a few are guards (who fare little better than inmates), and only one or two, wardens, can claim autonomy over their affairs. Inmates know guards have families to feed, and that the paycheck often comes at their expense. Guards know inmates deserve better from the society they owe debt to, but to protest policies could lead to loss of paycheck - or worse. Each one works daily to bend rules and cut schemes. Each one is aware of the other's deeds. Each one has, more or less, abandoned hope for a transformed society.