Freedom and Dignity

In 1996 I was a college student in Ukraine. One day, we were sitting in class, the professor was speaking, the students were taking notes. Suddenly, an irate secretary from the Dean’s Office burst in. Interrupting the professor in mid-sentence she screeched,

“Everybody, get up and go out. You will be sweeping the alley outside. Now! You, too!” pointing at the professor.

The professor, a youngish guy we thought was very cool because he had traveled the world and spoke an almost fluent English blushed and started stuffing papers into his bag. Everybody got up. Except me.

“What’s going to happen if we don’t?” I asked. “This isn’t the USSR any longer. You can’t make us.”

“Get up and go sweep now!” the secretary bellowed. “Do what you are told!”

“No,” I said. “I’m a student, not a street cleaner. I’m not going to sweep. What can you do to me?”

The secretary looked apoplectic. The other students started shooshing me down.

“It’s OK, we’ll go, we are going right now!” they piped up in mousy little voices.

“You will go because you want to volunteer,” the secretary said. “It’s the right thing to do. The alley needs sweeping. You will go now.”

Everybody went to sweep including the professor. I strolled around them in a fedora hat, delivering a lecture on freedom and human dignity. Then I got bored and went home while they stayed to get vaccinated keep sweeping.

I thought they were like that because they had been beaten down by a totalitarian regime. After several more events of this kind, I decided that I couldn’t wait for them to get over their totalitarian upbringing and that I needed to move to a place where people understood the importance of freedom and dignity. That’s how I ended up in North America.

Last year I shared this story with students.

“It looks like you can’t escape from totalitarianism, professor,” one student said. “It comes wherever you go.”

15 thoughts on “Freedom and Dignity

  1. I guess it was much worse in Ukraine then in Poland. I remember planting forrests as a ‘volunteer’ in the late 80s, but as soon as the system changed, the secretaries, the shop assistants, and all the other servants to the apparatus that made life unbearable were put in their place. They were still rude but I don’t think anyone would get up and did what they say, especially a professor.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I left in 1998, seven years after the end of the USSR, and it was still like that. Nothing was changing. I left a very comfortable lifestyle where I was earning a boatload of money because I couldn’t take seeing these obedient sheep any more. If someone told me that the sheep were as sheepish where I was going, I would have laughed in their face.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have struggled mightily in recent days as I am forced to wear a mask at work. Everyone is wearing the mask, even thought its obvious no one thinks they should be wearing one. Worse, most of these people are vaccinated. But since St. Louis County government told them they have to wear a mask indoors, we are all walking around like sheep. People are constantly apologizing to me for having their mask down on their chin. Meanwhile, I’m still wearing the ridiculous, sheer, red mask I made last year. Worse, the elite leaders of the firm (all millionaires) are having all day meetings this week, and since they don’t like wearing masks, they forced all the underlings to set up tents outside so they can be “mask free.” I keep shaking my head and trying to talk to people about how stupid this is. But they all shush me like we’re going to get in trouble. We are handing them our freedom on a silver platter.

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    1. I kept waiting to see people adopt, as a protest gesture, the Victorian Vintage Veil look:

      Or just start wearing fancy harem veils:

      The lack of creative workarounds has been terribly disappointing. That second one is what I imagine when you say ridiculous sheer red mask…

      Liked by 1 person

              1. Yes, my sheer red mask is very similar to a harem mask. Except when I sewed it out of an old blouse, the darts in the side made big bulges that — when tucked over my ears — are reminiscent of vulcan ears. I have been wearing this in public for a year and a half and no one has ever said a word about it.

                Liked by 1 person

              2. “…the darts in the side made big bulges that — when tucked over my ears — are reminiscent of vulcan ears. I have been wearing this in public for a year and a half and no one has ever said a word about it.”

                Talking to a person with a mask like that seems risky imo. No one mentioning it isn’t very surprising.

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  3. A long time ago, I worked in an industry that allowed me to watch large groups of people for long periods of time, to see how they behaved. At the time, I was also studying a lot of, I suppose, psychology of a social kind.

    In my observation, that was corroborated later in various articles that I don’t recall right now, in any society, about 1 in 20 people lead (or prompt) the other 19 out of 20 people.

    About half of those 1 in 20 are, I suppose, “the good guys”, and half “the bad guys”. Everything that happens depends on the competition or conflict between those few people.

    Because of this feature in human societies, it means that any large group of people can be, I suppose, “hacked” by building systems that suppress one of the two sides, followed by entraining the soft headed impressionable ones in the 19 of 20 group, to create a big, nasty, hellish hierarchy, the worst example of which on this planet at the moment is probably in North Korea.

    It would have been interesting had you stayed in Ukraine and begun a society or movement that trained and empowered people, rather than moved away.

    Then again since you’re in the USA, you might have greater effect there, as you are on this blog. Who knows.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Superficially, selflessness vs selfishness, empathy vs indifference/malevolence, greed vs contentment, security vs insecurity.

        The bad guys run their crew almost like a mafia, not caring much if lower ranked members (the ugly guy, the fat girl) have an awful time due to callousness/indifference. They sometimes even enjoy watching crew members fail and suffer, which imo is malevolent. They are more often greedy for sexual partners, attention, social prestige. They’re more often jealous, and more often make jokes at people’s expense. When their leaders fall into conflict with a crew member, instead of changing themselves, they change (or replace) the crew member. The bad guys tend to be more insecure, more often feigning confidence.

        The good guys run their crews more like caretakers. They deliberately involve lower ranked members to make sure that they have a nice time. They tend not to seek sexual partners in a particularly single minded way. Since they’re busier looking after everything there is less jealousy, or the jealousy isn’t as obvious. Their jokes or stories are different and better humoured. When conflict happens between leaders and crew, they figure things out reasonably fairly. The good guys tend to be more secure and have real confidence.

        The above is simplified, though I’m sure that if you read it out to any bouncer, performer, bar owner etc they will start agreeing before you finish reading.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. In the US military such a thing is referred to as being “voluntold” rather than having volunteered.

    The implication is usually that by the time the thing goes up the command chain and back down again, it will have such eldritch horrors attached to it that you’d have been better off volunteering.

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