Soviet America

HAL PIPER

December 12, 1992|By HAL PIPER

This country is getting more like the old Soviet Union every day. When I lived there, 15 years or so ago, I thought I saw a metaphor for the two societies in the way you bought gasoline. There, you gave money to a beady-eyed, wary character who fixed the pump to dispense not one ounce more than the prepaid amount.

Sure, that's the way we buy gas in America today. That's my point. Only 15 years ago we pumped first, or somebody pumped for us. It wasn't a working business assumption that the customer is always larcenous. That was the difference between the open, trusting Americans and the guarded, suspicious Russians, I thought.

And then pay-in-advance stations began opening up in the United States.

There were traffic checkpoints in the Soviet Union. The police could stop cars at random to see if unsavory folk were using the highways -- wanted fugitives, people with incomplete documents, or other undesirables.

Another difference between the two countries, I thought. But now the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) want to institute ''sobriety checkpoints.'' If a police dragnet could intercept even one drunk driver, they say, a life may be saved.

That's Soviet logic, but nobody dares to say, oh hell, let's sacrifice one life if it will keep me from being inconvenienced on my way home. (Certainly I don't dare say that.) So one more little breach is chipped in the right of citizens to be presumed law-abiding and let alone.

Now we have adopted another Soviet custom, ritual public humiliation. There was Marge Schott on the radio the other morning, confessing woodenly that whatever racial scurrilities she may have mouthed, only her mouth sinned, while her heart remained pure. (And Senator Packwood said, or will say, it was only his hormones harassing those women, while his heart voted feminist.)

Does insincere self-abasement expiate sin? I'm not about to defend Mrs. Schott, but up until now being boorish was only disgusting, not criminal.

Up until now. The other day on television there was this ACLU fellow explaining about free speech, which seems to have changed since the days when I wrote annual checks to the ACLU.

Back then -- not so long ago, come to think of it -- free speech was a constitutional guarantee to all of us. Now free speech operates on a sliding scale that diminishes as you go up the power ladder. Bosses and big-shots have no right to speak ''insensitively,'' but rap artists, for example, being common folk, or at least articulating the rage of common folk, may freely call for the assassination of President Bush.

The theory has its attractions, since in practice it is usually the bosses and big-shots who say what they want, while the rest of us must bridle our tongues.

Still, the principle that freedom is divisible, that some animals are more equal than others, worries me. I'm fairly sure that I'm more equalthan Marge Schott, but what if next month somebody decides I'm less equal than somebody else?

I'll tell you the Soviet practice that really worries me, though -- internal passports. Everybody there was classified by ethnic origin, attested by identifying documents carried on the person at all times.

Of course, everyone had the same rights, but the practice emphasized group identity, not common citizenship. In Moscow I knew many Jews who had never regarded themselves as anything but Russian until some encounter made them realized that their government considered them a caste apart.

Could it happen here? It already did. A century ago, many Southern states assayed their citizens as mulatto, quadroon, octoroon or other blood mixes of black and white. Voting rights and other matters of legal status depended on these classifications.

The federal census now subdivides Americans into ever more categories. Well, that's great. The United States is and ought to remain an immigrant country, a diverse society.

But let us be Americans; Yugoslavia should warn us where tribal loyalties lead. By its end, the Soviet Union recognized more than 100 separate ethnicities. It couldn't hold them together.

I suppose something has to replace the Soviet Union, now that it's gone. But I hope it won't be us.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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