Visit Your Local DMV

Image Credit: Unknown

For an expat, going to the Visa Centre in many countries elicits the same feeling as going to the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) for an American. They both bring any pretenses of who you may have thought you were in your day job, and remind you that you’re a human being. That we’re all just human beings working to survive.

I visited my local DMV today. If you’ve never been, the staples of the DMV experience are always the same: the dispassionate, bored, and disconnected dispositions, the ugly government building design, done at lowest possible cost, the water fountain area, the restrooms, and, of course, the large waiting room of bucket-seats — where the real action happens: waiting. These winter days, of course, due to the Wuhan virus, the waiting has to happen outside, in a queue. 

Passed all of those standard fixtures of the experience, though, there are the humans who are just trying to survive and provide for their close ones. And due to the close quarters, it is inevitable that people’s own realities open up and seep (or sometimes, gush) out from around them. A man giving guidance over the phone to a family member in a bad situation. The long-haul trucker, who is just at the DMV for a permit — but is also just a trucker because it’s the only job he could get that would help him pay off his home mortgage payments. People working fast-food service to pay their rents or mortgages. The middle-class, working unglamorous jobs. Americans, just trying to get by.

It was the long-haul trucker who interested me most. He had been giving advice to a close friend or family member (I couldn’t tell) about getting away from toxic family members. It seemed the girl on the other end had a mother who was manipulating her, stealing money, and otherwise taking advantage of the girl. I’ve been in similar situations with people who I let attach themselves to me, wanting nothing more than to bring me down with them, and I could imagine how bad things could get for an adolescent girl in such a situation. Her father was advising her in no uncertain terms a silent move away from her mother, and to not tell her where she moved to. “Find a new job, start a new life, and move silently,” he repeated urgently.

I can only guess how many other people there are, single or otherwise, trying their best to survive while also being responsible for their dependents. This is the reality that a very large proportion of our country is living. It’s not facebook, Netflix, and being offended. It’s not the reality of $200,000 a year salaried IT workers for Google or Apple on the West coast. It’s not the reality of the Washington D.C. elite. But I believe this is the reality of what could perhaps be called the “silent majority of middle-class America” — people too busy working to survive to give themselves a voice on media.

Maybe we should all visit the DMV more often.

Can We Defeat Totalitarianism Without Becoming Totalitarian?

Image Credit: Unknown

In late 2009, a man ran through a crowded Beijing street with a sword, stabbing around 18 people and killing an unknown number of them. Who was he, why did he do it? People will never know: It was banned from being reported as it would disturb the public to know something like this had occurred — there was no benefit for the Party if it was reported. Thus, the Party determined it would not be on the news and any mention or discussion of it online would be scrubbed.

The only reason I know of this event is because a friend of mine worked for Chinese state TV at the time, and they had been told by the party not to report on the event — so, of course, by telling people what not to report, they knew roughly what had transpired.

In 2014, when a terrorist attack in Kunming killed dozens of people at a train station, it was reported widely. The knife-wielding attackers were terrorists furious over ongoing Uyghur repression in Xinjiang, and stoking fear, anger, and overseas sympathy all served the party. State newspapers and foreign newspapers alike reported on the tragedy for weeks.

In relatively free societies where media and other facets of life are not tightly controlled by the state, it is not a political party or government who determines what news is reported on, but instead the prerogatives of the journalists and editors. I say “relatively free”, because today the vast majority of newsrooms are based on ratings/clicks for revenue. Without a tightly state-curated online environment, individuals are free to upload content to private corporate platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Substack, Reddit, et al. if they wish to report on their own news. In this case, certain content and perspectives are projected according to the publication, and censorship is performed by the staff running the platforms according to their own beliefs and interests.

Time for the big questions: How can a society plagued by petty in-fighting and divided artificially resist the combined power of another people bound by a singular ideology, regardless of how bankrupt that ideology may be? How can such a loosely organized, chaotic and distracted people come together and achieve what is necessary to prevent the ever-creeping encroachment of totalitarian dictatorships?

Do we need a unifying media presence? Public news that is neither for profit, nor censored according to private companies’ ideologies? A coordinated, cohesive voice that tells people what to pay attention to and care about so that we can actually get something done rather than pull ourselves apart? Is there even a way for such a thing to exist anymore, and if there were, would it even be sufficient? And would doing so not put that society at risk of becoming totalitarian itself?

And, don’t forget the kicker: The result of falling to totalitarianism is becoming totalitarian. These might be difficult questions to ask and answer, but we avoid asking them at the risk of losing the ability to question at all.