Living in Zimbabwe for about a year and a half in two separate stays, one in the early 1990s, one near the end of the same decade, I found that there were a number of basic things about the government and its connections to everyday life that I had a deep, primal loathing for, things I never, ever wanted to see in the United States. Now, mind you, this is all before the spectacular economic and political disasters of the last five years in Zimbabwe. I’m talking about small things, not grotesque flaming gestures of misrule, about the ordinary behavior of civil servants.
1) Mind-boggling lines at all government offices combined with the extensive assertion of government supervision or authority over most aspects of everyday life. Now I grant you waiting in line at the DMV in any U.S. state is no picnic, but the lines that Zimbabweans routinely endured in the 1990s (and the churlishness of the civil servants handling the lines) make the worst DMV experience you’ve had child’s play by comparison. When you coupled the lines with having to fill out Rhodesian-era paperwork by the boatload and the insistence of the government on regulating phone services, etc., an awful lot of one’s life ended up involving waiting, in the good old bad days before the new bad days where the government concentrates more on torturing and starving its own people. Americans gripe a lot, but our civil service is reasonably efficient in most respects by this standard of comparison.
2) Crudely pro-government media coverage in both outlets controlled directly by the state and those it dominates in some fashion, plus sycophantic public statements by ruling party members and their hangers-on. Here, as I’ve noted before, the U.S. is beginning to tiptoe uncomfortably close to the tinpot standard established by regimes like Zimbabwe’s.
3) High levels of arbitrary or petty exercises of authoritarian behavior by police, customs officials, soldiers and assorted bureaucrats. Such as hassling people who are taking pictures of public places or government offices, bugging people for no reason when they’re travelling, or threatening people on the street who move or appear disrespectful of the Presidential motorcade when it comes through town. We appear to be sliding towards this abyss as well.
4) Adulatory pictures of the President in every possible public place plus highly choreographed gestures of adulation and cult-of-personality celebration wherever the President is seen in public. Uh-oh, that’s starting to crop up here and there too in the US, though I suppose generically that’s really just the art of politics. It’s just the crassness in 1990s Zimbabwe that got to me, the graven-idol character of it.
5) Mind-boggling levels of governmental incompetence coupled with flagrant corruption. Again, this is before the flaming car wreck of the last five years in Zimbabwe. While every once in a while, local municipalities in the US make a real go at achieving comparably disastrous malfeasance, we haven’t managed to touch some of the special achievements of both local and national government in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s.
What concerns me first about cops hassling people with cameras, extensive choreographing of public adulation, or the government seeding the news media with pro-government stories is that they lack class. This is before I get to the issue of having a government respectful of rights and bound by laws, and the threat to that kind of government that’s inherent in these kinds of behaviors.
What I had the most primal, hackle-raising reaction to while living in Zimbabwe was the cheap, shabby, lack of class the government habitually demonstrated. That was before it really put the pedal to the medal to demonstrate its dictatorial chops, even before it set out to systematically rubbish every positive asset and resource Zimbabwe possessed once upon a time. That’s how I feel first and foremost now when I read about some official goofball harassing some guy on the Staten Island ferry for having roleplaying manuals in his backpack, or some cop trying to prevent someone from videotaping them, or some political flack hauling a guy out of a rally for President Bush because he’s wearing an anti-Bush t-shirt: it lacks class.
Just as much as the guys who rush to every complaint of this kind by saying, “That’s what we need to do to protect ourselves from terrorists! You won’t be whining when some terrorist blows your house up!” That’s exactly what Zimbabwean sycophants used to whine when someone complained about this sort of thing in Zimbabwe in the early 1990s: “I see, you must be a supporter of apartheid terrorism! You must not believe in the right of Zimbabweans to make their own laws! You must be some kind of colonialist!” That lacks class, too. Come on: we’ve all had to deal with the crossing-guard or hall-monitor who goes crazy with the miniscule fraction of power given them: is it so hard to grant that some of the employees of the TSA, or a few cops, or a high school principal, or political operative for the President are doing the same? It starts to become a systematic rather than idiosyncratic issue precisely when too many people make excuses for this kind of sleazy, careless, petty behavior. That’s exactly when we slide from a few isolated cases of stupidity to a real threat to our rights and maybe more immediately our dignity. Humiliation and even needless wasting of time and energy aren’t just trivial matters: what makes living in America feel so free, in part, is that you can go about your business easily, that government officials mostly act sensibly and with consideration for citizens, that you don’t have to be worried about randomly humiliated. This is what African-Americans are right to complain about in some parts of the United States, that they don’t have that freedom or comfort; it would be bad to lose ground in that respect and have everyone end up in the same abject situation rather than levelling the playing field to liberate everyone from it.
I don’t want to overreact to useful security procedures. A cop shouldn’t stop someone from taking pictures, but he might want to observe someone quietly who is extensively photographing industrial infrastructure. A TSA official can be vigilant without being an asshole. The point is that the American public has every reason to expect that the everyday operations of government will be sensible and classy, and every right to complain when they’re not.