When I was growing up, I was taught to respect authority. I sat quietly in class, with my legs properly crossed, and listened with rapt attention to everything that my teacher told me. I watched the town mayor walk by in the annual parade, with the giant medallion around his neck, and was suitably impressed by the dignity of his person. I learned from an early age that the armed forces were charged with defending liberty around the world, and police men and women were there to go to in the event of trouble or danger.
Over the years, though, I began to see more and more examples of the dark side of authority. There were the news reports of terrible events transpiring in Vietnam and Cambodia and other places around the globe. There was Watergate. There was a school project in grade seven about the conspiracy theories arising out of the Kennedy assassination.
In recent times, many of us have come to believe that the forces of authority are frequently involved in the process of undermining freedom, rather than protecting it. We have seen the rise of extremism in the U.S. under the regimes of Reagan and the two Bushes. We have witnessed brutal acts of suppression of dissension, such as the tear gassing and police violence directed against the World Trade Organization protesters in Seattle. Those of us who have read alternate news sources and books about the events that have shaped recent global politics have become familiar with horrifying acts of political manipulation carried on by western governments throughout the world in the name of protecting democracy and freedom. And since the awful events of September 11, our civil liberties and individual freedoms have become more endangered than at any other point in our lifetimes.
In Canada, it sometimes seems that our politicians, at all levels of government, care more about kowtowing to U.S. foreign policy and protecting the interests of large corporations than they do about protecting the welfare of average Canadians. Despite rosy economic conditions brought about by our hyper-driven consumer society and squandering of natural resources, homelessness and poverty continue to increase, and the gap between the riches and poorest in our society widens every year. Also, in the city in which I live, there have been disturbing reports about acts of police brutality that have not been adequately and independently investigated.
All of this contributed to the mixed feelings I had the other day when my elementary school daughter told me of the police officers who visited her school to give a talk about traffic safety. She was so excited about speaking with a police woman, and I was filled with a sense of nostalgia about the absolute sense of faith in authority that she still has. For all of the disappointment over the years brought about by the actions of those in power, though, I still believe that most police officers, military personnel and politicians are going about their business with good intentions. Above all, I don’t want to foist cynicism upon my child.
On the other hand, I do want her to question all that she hears, and to think for herself. I want her to realize that, as has often been said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. It is only by speaking the truth as we see it, even if that means defying authority when we see it is wrong, that we will be able to maintain the peace, order and good government that we, and all the human race, deserve.