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America's history of surveillance and repression

Review by Alan Wallis | January 2, 2004 | Page 9

Christian Parenti, The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slave Passes to the War on Terror. Basic Books, 2003, 273 pages, $24.95.

UNLIKE MOST mainstream coverage of surveillance, Christian Parenti's new book The Soft Cage defies the temptation to marvel at high-tech wizardry. Instead, he puts surveillance in a historical context that is both terrifying and illuminating.

He explains, for example, that pre-Civil War plantation surveillance relied on three "information technologies"--the written slave pass, armed slave patrols and wanted posters for runaways. George Washington's monitoring and punishment of his own slaves shows that examples of repression in the U.S. are no further away than the man on the one-dollar bill.

Popular resistance is a driving force behind this history. Despite laws against teaching them to read, many runaway slaves--like the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass--learned to forge travel passes. Escaped slaves, Parenti notes, tended to seek the anonymity of large coastal towns, where, because they were hunted by white society, they could be hired at sub-standard wages, much like "illegal" immigrants today.

Authorities later replaced handwritten passes with stamped metal badges, which were harder to forge, and these became the first American ID cards with serial numbers. "Function creep" is one of the overarching themes emerging from this examination of surveillance as it advances through history.

Just as numbered ID cards have, since the days of slavery, become fairly universal, the information-sharing system launched in the 1980s to stop immigrants from illegally collecting welfare is now used by social workers to check up on U.S. citizens as well. In this context, the recent news of terrorist watch lists expanding to include antiwar activists no longer seems surprising.

Soft Cage manages to pull together a wealth of examples, past and present, and link them together into a gripping history of state and corporate repression. A letter from George Washington complains that a slave named Caroline made "only" five shirts for him in the previous week. A UPS driver tells of being fired after his Global Positioning System tracking system detected an unauthorized 18-minute rest stop.

And a student notes that at school, "Everywhere you go, there's a camera right above you...If you're, like, with your boyfriend or something they're constantly watching you."

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