Some big bothers over Big Brother

The Baltimore Sun

It's about time someone stood up for Big Brothers everywhere.

Ever since that hack British scribbler George Orwell decided to pin the B.B. title on his fictional tyrant in his semi-hysterical novel 1984, eldest male siblings everywhere have been taking it on the chin.

Never mind that since the beginning of time, big brothers have played a heroic role in their families. Think of Sonny Corleone, dying in a hail of bullets, rushing to protect his battered sister from her low-life husband. Think of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, saving younger brother Harry from drowning in It's a Wonderful Life.

"To my big brother George, the richest man in town," Harry says in the 1947 film. It was a good time to be No. 1 Son.

But then, in 1949, middle-child Orwell comes along to take out his birth-order angst on senior siblings by equating all of us with Stalin (born third) or Hitler (another middle kid). Orwell, Schmorwell.

So why the riff on Big Brothers?

It was prompted by one of the e-mails received in response to a column last month praising a bill to expand the use of speed cameras as a modest first step toward cutting into the ridiculous death toll of more than 600 each year on Maryland's roads.

"The cost of speed cameras is big brotherism," writes Reed H. Cole of Glen Burnie.

Since Orwell, the "Big Brother" label has become a favorite political bogeyman. Call some idea "Big Brother" and you put its proponents on the defensive without the heavy lifting of rational argument. Who, after all, wants to defend totalitarian government snooping?

But what was it that Orwell's fictional Big Brother was watching anyway? Not traffic. As I recall, the novel focused on government intrusion into the private realm -- what you thought, whom you loved, what you did in your own home.

There's no doubt that some readers see a threat to their privacy in cameras being used to deter them from running red lights or cruising down residential streets at 70 mph.

"Speeding cameras do follow a pattern of privacy invasion that is sweeping through state and federal government," writes Dan Vona of Towson. "The Patriot Act is the most egregious of these, but speeding cameras is also part of the slippery slope."

Personally, I love privacy. The idea of government sticking its nose into my choice of books, my e-mails to friends or my overuse of garlic is as repugnant to me as it is to the governing board of the American Civil Liberties Union.

But public is public and private is private. Few things in our society are less private than how we operate motor vehicles on the public highways, where one driver's misconduct can have fatal consequences for others. And nothing subverts real privacy more than ill-founded attempts to extend it into areas that are a legitimate public concern.

So is speeding, apart from being a factor in one-third of the nation's 42,000 highway deaths each year, a legitimate public concern?

Vona has his doubts.

"These types of programs in all forms are based on selling the ninnies and sheeple who live in our nation that somehow something like speeding 36 in a 25 or 41 in a 30 is a dangerous threat to our lives. Thank you for your part in selling this agenda, Mike! This type of speeding no more a threat to anyone than dandruff."

Vona's right in one sense. If I'm cruising down a residential street with a limit of 25 mph doing 36, it's not a particularly dangerous threat to my life. But let's say you have a 4-year-old, with all the common sense of a 4-year-old, whose ball has rolled into that street. Suddenly you have a life-or-death stake in whether I'm going 25 or 36. Chances are you'll be happy to have Big Brother watching -- whether in the form of an older sibling, a cop or a police camera.

(Can we also stipulate that if drivers going 11 mph over the speed limit were the extent of the problem, we wouldn't be having this debate?)

It's understandable that drivers would be skeptical of government motives and want appropriate safeguards. But the bill pending before the Maryland General Assembly to expand the use of speed cameras bends over backward to be fair to would-be speeders.

The real question is whether we're so wedded to this dubious concept of privacy in public places that we're willing to accept the current level of carnage on our highways.

At least one Baltimore reader is not.

"The paranoia about speed cameras has always amazed me. Folks don't like to be caught breaking our laws and they hate it when it's a camera and they can't game it. Nonetheless, they have proven very effective at intersections in eventually slowing folks down and making them safer. The revenue issue is an obvious red herring," he wrote.

I'd give you his name, but he asked me not to use it. He had been reading some of the postings to the Sun Web site in response to my column and found the vehemence frightening. I don't know why. Camera-phobes didn't call me anything worse than "liberal fascist," "an idiot," a "little Commie" and a "comrade" of Fidel Castro.

As for that other label, I've been Big Brother to my five younger siblings for more than 50 years. There's worse things to be called. (Slow down, you little twerps, or I'll tell Mom.)

gettingthere@baltsun.com

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