Category Archives: Politics

The Joint Effects of Content and Style on Debate Outcomes

I am heading out later today to head to the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) conference. My advisor, Nick Beauchamp will be presenting our joint work on “The Joint Effects of Content and Style on Debate Outcomes.”

Here is the abstract for that work:

Debate and deliberation play essential roles in politics and government, but most models presume that debates are won mainly via superior style or agenda control. Ideally, however, debates would be won on the merits, as a function of which side has the stronger arguments. We propose a predictive model of debate that estimates the effects of linguistic features and the latent persuasive strengths of different topics, as well as the interactions between the two. Using a dataset of 118 Oxford-style debates, our model’s combination of content (as latent topics) and style (as linguistic features) allows us to predict audience-adjudicated winners with 74% accuracy, significantly outperforming linguistic features alone (66%). Our model finds that winning sides employ stronger arguments, and allows us to identify the linguistic features associated with strong or weak arguments.

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A Ban by Another Name

There was the expectation that Presidential Travel Ban 2.0 would be upheld as constitutional.

As NPR reports, it was specifically amended to address previous concerns: “It omitted Iraq from the list of barred countries, removed references to religion and excluded green card holders and people who already had visas, among other changes.”

So it was surprising – perhaps even shocking – when a judge in Hawaii issued a temporary restraining order and a judge in Maryland soon after issued a preliminary injunction; both of which blocked the nationwide implementation of the ban.

Proponents of the ban howled at it’s continued blockage; opponents celebrated the victory; and reasonable people from both sides wondered what was constitutionally right in terms of future present beyond the scope of this immediate issue.

The U.S. Department of Justice believes strongly that the ban is legal – indeed, they revised the previous Executive Order language with the explicit goal of issuing an order that would stand up in court. Proponents of the ban further argue that the judges who have moved to block it have overstepped their judicial bounds; issuing rulings from partisan passions rather than from the blind legal ideal.

But Judge Derrick K. Watson – the U.S. District Court judge from Hawaii who issued a temporary ban – sees the matter differently. Watson argues that he was simply considering the wider context, something which is fully within his legal purview to do.

As NPR describes: “The judge concluded, based on the historical context of the travel ban and public statements made by the president, that “a reasonable, objective observer … would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion[.]””

In other words, it doesn’t matter if the specific wording of the new order is carefully crafted to be technically constitutional: it’s the implementation and spirit that is everything.

While this defense may ring of judicial overreaching, I’m inclined to favor the judge’s interpretation – and I’m fairly confident my opinion isn’t simply due to my own distaste for the order.

President Trump himself has made it clear that he favors a “Muslim ban,” that he wants to block people from a specific religious group from entering the country. The injunctions against this ban say, in no uncertain terms, that such a goal is unconstitutional, no matter how you dress it up.

In the days following the initial travel ban order, there was chaos and confusion as people tried to figure out what was going on. Lacking clarity from the order itself, those tasked with the actual enforcement of the ban had a lot of leeway in how it was interpreted and how it was carried out.

There is nothing to prevent a Muslim ban which is gracefully worded to avoid the word Muslim from becoming exactly what it is intended to be. The letter of the law doesn’t need to read “Muslim,” but as long as the intent is clear – as long as there’s the risk of unconstitutional treatment at our borders – such a ban is and should be considered unconstitutional. A little window dressing doesn’t change that.

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Political Engagement and The Busy Work Day

In ancient Greek philosophy, the role of citizen was both noble and consuming. You couldn’t be a laborer and a citizen, you couldn’t engage in mundane work and be a citizen. Being a citizen was a full-time endeavor, it involved keeping up on the news, participating in your community, and being informed enough to wisely rule over all those non-citizens who actually made the world work.

Our sensibilities have grown a bit more egalitarian – engaged citizenship is no longer the sole purview of gentlemen of leisure. Anyone can be a citizen, and furthermore – everyone has the right and responsibility to engage as in the work of collective rule.

But while I fully support this inclusive vision of citizenship, it does come saddled with the jaunty air of trying to have it all.

Citizenship is hard. It is a full time job. Especially now with our 24-hour news cycles and better connected world, it is literally impossible to stay perfectly informed on every subject – much less spend time thoughtfully debating and reflecting on them.

In Michael Neblo’s book “Deliberative Democracy between Theory and Practice,” I was struck by a statistic mentioned near the end of his analysis: in one survey, he finds that 42% of respondents felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session. I’m fairly certain I’ve seem similar statistics around voting and jury participation, though I’m afraid I don’t have the wherewithal to track those down right now.

The current challenge of engaged citizenship isn’t just one of apathetic citizens, too unenthused to exercise their rights – it’s one of under-confidence in one’s own ability to learn, think, and engage critically and productively.

Some of this, I feel, comes from the increasing professionalization within the civic space: why muck up the works when people who really know what they’re doing are involved? But I think some this all comes from this “having it all” notion of citizenship.

Of course, I want engaged citizens to be informed and reflective – but perhaps we need a better bar of what it means to be informed. I watch, listen to, and read the news regularly, and yet I often find myself feeling badly that I am not more informed. Unlike an ideal Athenian, I’ve just got other things to do.

But below that over optimistic bar of ideal citizen and above that disconcerting low of fake news, it’s entirely unclear to me just what the informational habits of a good citizen ought to be in a world that is more crazed than ideal.

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Political Friendship and Tolerant Gladiators

“The ideal citizens,” Huckfeldt writes, “…are those individuals who are able to occupy the roles of tolerant gladiators – combatants with the capacity to recognize and respect the rights and responsibilities of their political adversaries” (Huckfeldt, Mendez, & Osborn, 2004). While this image of powerful citizens locked in gentlemanly conflict is perhaps more startling than most, it fits well within the broader normative framework of deliberation. Citizens and theorists looking to design ideal democratic systems are quickly confronted by two powerful countervailing forces: diversity, it appears, is both significantly beneficial and, unfortunately, difficult to achieve. Huckfeldt’s tolerant gladiator offers a potential poultice for this problem – a path which allows equally for vigorous debate and the highest cordiality. Citizenship, under this definition, is a Socratic sport; you spar with your strongest arguments, but only in service to the higher calling of Truth.

In perhaps less colorful terms, Mutz describes the role of deliberative citizen as requiring restraint. People should certainly engage in ‘cross-cutting’ political dialogue, but they should not engage with the full-hearted gusto suggested by Huckfeldt. Instead, “discussants must at times refrain from saying all they could say in the interests of smooth social interaction” (Mutz, 2002). While Huckfeldt envisions impassioned debates where participants – whether ultimately agreeing or not – are brought closer together through the experience of discussion, Mutz concedes softly that for social lives to function discussants must “agree to disagree.”

This view is supported by Mutz’s empirical work on deliberation. If, as she finds, the beneficial impact of exposure to cross-cutting views comes primarily from familiarizing participants with “legitimate rationales for opposing viewpoints,” then a good deliberator should not be an outspoken gladiator, but rather a respectful listener. Danielle Allen similarly argues that ideal citizens must share a sense of ‘democratic friendship’ (Allen, 2009). Just as Mutz finds that the social constraint of workplaces creates an ideal setting for cross-cutting political dialogue (Mutz & Mondak, 2006), Allen argues that similar constraints face society as a whole. On the micro-level, we may self-sort into homophilous neighborhoods and institutions, but on the macro-level we are all just as stuck with each other as coworkers. Citizens don’t have to like everyone they interact with, but they do have to extend basic courtesy and respect, forging bonds of ‘democratic friendship’ analogous to the friendship they find with colleagues.

While Mutz finds that exposure to diverse perspectives does not play a significant role in deepening a person’s knowledge of their own position, Huckfeldt finds the opposite: political conversations do “enhance the capacity of citizens to provide reasons for their support of a particular candidate” (Huckfeldt et al., 2004). Furthermore, political diversity does not create a paralyzing ambivalence but rather reduces the potential for extreme polarization. Citizens exposed to heterogeneous messages are “more likely to develop an attitude toward the candidate that incorporates positive and negative assessments.” Ultimately, such exposure may reduce “enthusiasm for the campaign” but does not depress turnout or “encourage people to back away from their commitments as citizens.”

Here we see the justification for Huckfeldt’s tolerant gladiators. If political debate serves to sharpen our own understanding, then we owe it to our interlocutors to press them on their positions; to find the holes in their armor and encourage refinement of beliefs. The process of debate makes us all better – thus allowing tolerant combatants to walk away as friends. Furthermore, such collegial confrontation may also increase the potential for citizens to find better solutions. In his work, Page argues that diversity serves an instrumental benefit: the right perspective can make a problem easy (Page, 2008). Thus any group seeking solutions to an ever-changing array of complex problems would do well to consider diverse perspectives; to find the perspective that makes the current problem easy. However, the mere presence of diversity may not be enough. Diverse perspectives must be brought to the surface and critically considered through the spirited debate of tolerant gladiators. As Bernard Manin argues, “diversity of views is not a sufficient condition for deliberation because it may fail to bring into contact opposing views. It is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity” (Manin, 2005). If citizens follow Mutz’s path of sitting in silence rather than risking confrontation, diverse perspectives – even if present – may not be adequately considered.

While these two visions of citizen responsibility may seem to conflict, there may be room in democracy for both. Consider Lynn Sanders’ thoughtful warning against deliberation:

If we assume that deliberation cannot proceed without the realization of mutual respect, and deliberation appears to be proceeding, we may even mistakenly decide that conditions of mutual respect have been achieved by deliberators. In this way, taking deliberation as a signal of democratic practice paradoxically works undemocratically, discrediting on seemingly democratic grounds the views of those who are less likely to present their arguments in ways that we recognized as characteristically deliberative. In our political culture, these citizens are likely to be those who are already underrepresented in formal political institutions and who are systematically materially disadvantaged, namely women; racial minorities, especially Blacks; and poorer people. (Sanders, 1997)

This is a particularly sharp criticism for debate-centric deliberation. Not everyone wants to be a gladiator, and not everyone is trained or welcomed equally to the task. If we begin by falsely assuming the absence of power, rigorous debate may easily have the effect of silencing the diverse perspectives it is intended to awake. Perhaps, then, political friendship must precede gladiatorial combat. The fiercely tolerant exchange envisioned by Huckfeldt may indeed be the political ideal, but it cannot succeed as long as some voices are systematically silenced. The ideal citizen, then, must learn to navigate the social structures in which political debate is embedded. They must at times refrain from speaking in order to truly hear the other side, but they ought to cultivate tolerant gladiators through these political friendships. After all, if political friends never advance to tolerant gladiators, if they ultimately both sit in silence to avoid uncomfortable confrontation, then they have merely succeeded in a facade of social harmony; no deliberation or real exchange of ideas is ever achieved.

_____

Allen, D. (2009). Talking to strangers: Anxieties of citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education: University of Chicago Press.

Huckfeldt, R., Mendez, J. M., & Osborn, T. (2004). Disagreement, ambivalence, and engagement: The political consequences of heterogeneous networks. Political Psychology, 25(1), 65-95.

Manin, B. (2005). Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion. Paper presented at the Program in Ethics and Public Affairs Seminar, Princeton University.

Mutz, D. C. (2002). Cross-cutting social networks: Testing democratic theory in practice. American Political Science Review, 96(01), 111-126.

Mutz, D. C., & Mondak, J. J. (2006). The Workplace as a Context for Cross‐Cutting Political Discourse. Journal of politics, 68(1), 140-155.

Page, S. E. (2008). The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies: Princeton University Press.

Sanders, L. M. (1997). Against Deliberation. Political Theory, 25(3), 347-376.

 

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The Road Ahead

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about democratic…resiliency, for lack of a better term.

Perhaps this is a bit melodramatic, but it seems like we are well on our way to a constitutional crisis. Our president has repeatedly taken a stance against the judicial system, threatening the division of powers. Before taking office, aides to our then president-elect had numerous conversations with senior Russian intelligence officials. That doesn’t seem so good.

Arguably, not all of this is wildly unprecedented – Andrew Jackson, for example, had his share of acrimony with the court. But past experience isn’t a perfect proxy – as the Atlantic points out, “Jackson criticized [Chief Justice] Marshall on constitutional, rather than political, terms, and he ultimately required Congress and the states to acknowledge the Supreme Court’s authority to interpret the Constitution, rather than threaten to disregard it.” So perhaps such a comparison isn’t meaningful after all.

Part of the challenge, it seems, is that we are a relatively young country. We’ve experienced less than 250 years and only 45 presidents. That’s actually not a whole lot of experience to draw on.

FiveThirtyEight recently published an article, 14 Versions Of Trump’s Presidency, From #MAGA To Impeachment, whose rough content you may be able to infer from the title. But what’s missing from most of their scenarios is a sense of what civil society will look like during or following the Trump presidency.

We entered 2017 as a country deeply, deeply divided. While congressional Republicans are showing signs of distancing themselves – or even attacking – President Trump, it doesn’t necessarily follow that our country will become united in disapproval of the current administration.

Indeed, current Republican back-stepping seems to fit more neatly into an establishment / anti-establishment narrative. Some of the #NeverTrump-ers are still holding on, but their disapproval doesn’t necessarily signal broader, bipartisan disapproval.

I want to know where we go from here – I want to see how we heal our wounds and become a country less divided. I don’t want our democracy to become little more than a ping-pong rally between divergent ways of view the world and our country.

I think our democracy will survive this, but the next several years will not be an easy path. Indeed, we have much work to do.

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Nevertheless, she persisted

One can only imagine that Senator Mitch McConnell had no idea of the sort of reaction he would get when he said of his fellow senator, Elizabeth Warren:

She was warned.
She was given an explanation.
Nevertheless, she persisted.

Warren, as Slate explains, had been “reading aloud from a scathing 1986 letter Coretta Scott King wrote opposing Sessions as a potential federal judge, when McConnell interrupted her mid-sentence to invoke a rule that prevents senators from ascribing ‘unbecoming’ conduct to another senator.”

The vote to silence Warren fell upon party lines, highlighting the fact that while the rule itself may be good, it’s applicability to Warren’s statements is debatable.

And McConnell’s comments afterwards only serves to emphasize the deeper divide: generations of women who have lived their whole lives being silenced and belittled by men hear a ringing truth in his mansplaining poetry:

She was warned.
She was given an explanation.
Nevertheless, she persisted.

I want to write that up and put it on my wall. Right next to my other pseudo-inspirational sign from Camus’ the Myth of Sisyphus:

They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

It’s the kind of statement that inspires the powerless to rebelliousness; that encourages resistance and strengthens resolve. Those with power will do everything they can to punish you, to silence you, to eliminate you – but no matter how many times that boulder rolls down, you keep pushing it back up. Because when you’re on the side of justice, the darkness cannot prevail.

She was warned.
She was given an explanation.
Nevertheless, she persisted.

 

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We Will Not Stop

There have been a lot of theories floating around that some of the most egregious actions of the Trump administration – such as the confusion over whether the executive order banned green card holders – was intended to promote protest fatigue. So by the time all the really horrible stuff started happening, we’d all be too worn out to resist.

It’s reasonable to think that such a Machiavellian tactic would work – after all, the balance of fighting back and continuing life as normal is a precarious one. We still have bills to pay and work to do.

But if that’s the aim of the administration, I think they underestimate the outrage their policies cause; I think they underestimate the American commitment to democracy and pluralism. There may be a white supremacist serving as a senior advisor to the President, but we will not allow his vision for America to become what America is.

We are better than that and we will not stop fighting.

Perhaps I am naive to have such optimism – and goodness knows I am generally not one for optimism – but…today marks the 5 year anniversary of my father’s death. He was a radical, and he taught me to be a radical. I can think of no better way to mark this date than by attending a rally to make Massachusetts a ‘sanctuary state.’

At that rally, they warned of the danger of protest fatigue while the crowd chanted, “we will not stop. We will not stop.”

And, indeed, we won’t. We will not stop; there is so much work to do.

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Demanding Dignity and Respect for All My Neighbors

It’s been a dramatic week. President Trump has signed a number of Executive Orders and Memoranda which strike at the very core of what I believe.

I have been particularly disturbed by two orders signed yesterday; the first on “border security” and the other on “public safety” – phrases which are essentially Newspeak for racial bias and immigrant hatred.  “Tens of thousands of removable aliens have been released into communities across the country,” one order claims.

I am ashamed to hear such hateful rhetoric coming from the President of my country.

But I am given hope by the millions of good men and women who don’t accept such false claims; who have worked and who reaffirm their work to supporting and welcoming all members of our community.

In his Order, President Trump claimed that sanctuary cities – those jurisdictions which have refused to enable a Federal witch-hunt for difference, “have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”

I say that it is these jurisdictions which epitomize the very fabric our Republic. It is these jurisdictions which stand true to American values; who pursue the vision of a land where all people are created equal and endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am proud to live in a Sanctuary city, and I am proud that my mayor, Joseph Curtatone, has said in no uncertain terms that we will not waiver in this commitment. These are our neighbors.

I am also proud to serve as the vice-Chair of the board for The Welcome Project, a vibrant non-profit which builds the collective power of Somerville immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions.

In response to Wednesday’s reprehensible executive orders, The Welcome Project released the following statement this morning. And by the way, you can donate to The Welcome Project here. ___

President Donald Trump signed executive orders Wednesday attacking America’s status as a nation of immigrants. We at The Welcome Project are saddened but steadfast. We will not waiver in continuing the work our communities have entrusted us to do; building the collective power of immigrants to help shape community decisions and pursuing the American vision of liberty and justice for all.

We thank Mayor Curtatone, the Board of Aldermen, and the residents of Somerville as they continue to fight for America and support immigrants, community, and Sanctuary City status.  Somerville continues to be a beacon of light and a hope for many. We know that our community only becomes stronger when all people are free to participate in it; that Sanctuary Cities are not about harboring criminals, they are about reducing crime, increasing trust between the police and the community, and offering a better future for our families.

The Welcome Project will continue to work with all members of our community, supporting all immigrants regardless of documentation status. We will stay vigilant in our mission and push for the rights of all. We will work with the immigrant community to ensure their voices are being heard.  We will continue our commitment to justice, equality, and inclusion. We thank all of you for your continued support as we explore the effects these executive orders have on our organization, our constituents, and our city.

Benjamin Echevarria
Executive Director

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Perspectives on Protest

Last Saturday’s Women’s March has been widely praised as one of the largest acts of protest in US political history. Attendees talked about the amazing sense of camaraderie, and the inspiration of seeing more people than they could imagine taking to the street.

But, of course, the march isn’t without its disagreements. Now that it’s over, skeptics will ask “but how do we turn this into real action?” And leading up to the march, there were a number of difficult and important questions: who is represented in the women’s march? Who is really represented? What is the role of violence in protest?

There have been a number of great pieces about the racism of the white feminist movement, which has historically, unapologetically, sidelined women of color. In the New York Times, Jenna Wortham reflected on a picture from the Women’s March: Angela Peoples holding a sign that reads, “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” Wortham writes that of all the iconic images to come out of Saturday, this was the one she found most resonant: “It felt indicative of the ways in which the day’s events could be viewed as problematic: the notion that women’s rights were suddenly the most important cause in our nation, or that there haven’t been protests and activist movements worth attending until the election of Donald Trump.”

There have also been interesting discussions about core beliefs required for feminism, as a feminist anti-abortion group was removed from the list of official march partners.

Finally, the march has also raised important questions about the role of violence in protest – and the role of the police in responding to protest. The women’s march was praised for it’s lack of violence – which some have attributed to divergent police response to a largely white protest. That praise also overlooks the work of the Black Bloc – which sought to disrupt the status quo during inauguration and resulted in an infinitely meme-able clip of a neo-Nazi getting punched in the face.

In the Nation, Natasha Lennard argued that while such protests are often greeted with distain by more mainstream activists, their work is essential to to overall goal we seek. Most of us are free riders, benefiting from their actions while distancing ourselves from their tactics. As Lennard writes:

To talk with any romance for the black bloc risks falling into the worst tropes of bombastic revolutionary writing. We don’t don black masks and become instant revolutionary subjects. We don’t necessarily achieve more with property damage than a larger, more subdued rally achieves. In every case, the standard of achievement depends on the aims of the action, and all of us are far from creating the rupture we want to see in the world. One broken window, or a hundred, is not victory. But nor is over half a million people rallying on the National Mall. Both gain potency only if they are perceived as a threat by those in and around power. And neither action will appear threatening unless followed up again and again with unrelenting force, in a multitude of directions. You don’t have to choose between pink hat and black mask; each of us can wear both.

I raise this topics of disagreement around the march, because they are all important questions and they will not go away. Coalitions are hard to build and maintain, and we won’t ever agree on everything – from policy to tactics.

There’s a conventional wisdom that conservative win because they are better at collectively getting on message, while liberals are lost arguing amongst themselves.

But I don’t think that failure and disorganization are a intrinsic part of pluralism. As we continue in the work that comes out of the Women’s March, I don’t want to see us brush these disagreements under the rug – I want to see us embrace them. We need to keep raising these issues, keep having these conversations – and we need to keep working together.

I don’t think those ends are incompatible.

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Our Secrets

“None of is us perfect, and each one of us has their own secrets, no doubt. None of is is flawless…but we are sane fanatics of reality living in a treadmill of good compromises.” That is what Comrade Pánczél tells István Balla Bán to get him to spy on his best friend; to get him to give the government incriminating evidence on his friend in exchange for keeping his own dark secret private. None of us is perfect.

This scene comes from a play I saw last night: Our Secrets, by Hungarian actor, playwright, and director Béla Pintér. It’s about government surveillance and control in Communist Hungary, a topic which seemed particularly timely as our own country – which has been no stranger to mass surveillance efforts – prepares to transfer power to a strongly nationalist leader.

There are shows through the weekend at the Emerson/Paramount Center in Boston’s Theater district. I highly recommend you get tickets and go. Spoilers below.

The story focuses on a group of Hungarian folk-music performers. As the play synopsis describes, “Communist Hungary’s dictatorship labeled the cultural acts and their corresponding community events throughout the country as either ‘banned,’ ‘tolerated,’ or ‘supported.’ The folk music scene was labeled ‘supported’ by the authoritarian government, therefore becoming a supposedly safe space for anti-Communist organizers to operate clandestinely, with little government oversight or interference to disrupt communications.”

The staging of the show fully incorporates the role of music in the era, with a giant reel-to-reel playing in the background and the musicians/cast members playing on the sides of the stage.

The story explores the individual tragedies of its characters and “exposes the hypocrisy and violence of the Communist regime, which infiltrated every corner of society to stamp out any whiff of dissent and by any means necessary.”

István Balla Bán and his friend Imre Tatár are both great folk performers. And while Tatár’s girlfriend is zealously pro-Communist, he secretly works as the editor for the underground, ant-Communist magazine, The Iron Curtain. Balla Bán is a pedophile and when the government finds out they offer him a deal: inform on your friend or go to jail. None of us is perfect.

The whole show is fantastic, but perhaps the most startling moment – though undertoned in it’s drama – is when the government turns Balla Bán. They bring him in and Comrade Pánczél asks him to spy. Balla Bán refuses. Comrade Pánczél excuses himself for a moment.

Then out of nowhere another folk-dancer friend comes in. It’s disorienting at first – what is that person doing here? The friend reveals that he’s been working with the government the whole time; that he placed bugs in people’s apartments and therefore recorded Balla Bán confiding in his therapist. The government knows everything because they already have informers.

It reminded me of that moment in 1984 when heroes Winston Smith and Julia seem like they’re going to escape control of the Thought Police, only to discover that the shop keeper who was helping them was actually a Thought Police agent. The whole world gets turned upside down.

And this, perhaps, is the most insidious thing about this kind of government surveillance; about a regime’s domineering demand for control. It’s not just that the possibility of dissent carries grave punishment. It’s that anyone may be turned against you; even your closest friends.

In part, it is this ability to isolate which gives a regime it’s power: if you can’t trust your neighbors; if you have no one in whom to confide, if at any moment your very thoughts could be used against you – organized resistance becomes impossible.

Yet I can’t help but think of the saying: they tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.

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