Security/Insecurity

The 2013-2014 theme of the American Studies department is SECURITY/INSECURITY. See Dr. Randy Lewis’s exploration of that theme below for more information about the conversations that we’ll be engaging with over the course of the year:

Security Circus

Everyone craves security in some form: emotional security in our relationships, job security at work, food security for our communities, or national security in the “war on terror.” Yet many Americans are still bedeviled by deep-seated feelings of insecurity–and understandably so. When we turn on the television, we often find politicians shouting about “securing the border,” reality shows celebrating backstabbing insincerity, and advertisements prodding us to feel hopelessly inadequate. Even in the placid imaginary world of Peanuts, Linus needs his security blanket.

Providing security in every sense of the word has become a massive business in this so-called “culture of fear”. Feeling a little freaked out? Build a panic room that would make Jodie Foster proud! Sign up for that new undergraduate major in “crisis management”! Or hunker down at night in a gated community designed to ward off “stranger danger”… Still feeling uneasy about the crisis du jour in “fortress America”? Why not stock up on anxiety meds and meditation apps for your iPhone? Have you considered “building a secure faith” in a megachurch equipped with armed guards? How about buying a 13,000 pound armored vehicle to drive around town? You can never be too careful—especially if you’re a member of group that is “profiled,” followed, and harassed for simply wearing a hoodie on the way home from a convenience store.

More than a decade into the “war on terror,” the issue of security seems to haunt every aspect of our lives, yet we rarely have a chance to explore its deeper impact on our psyche and culture. One exception is in the work of artists such as the playwright Eve Ensler, who has described the underlying paradox of security in these terms: the more we pursue security, the more we feel insecure. Sociologists have illustrated this paradox in relation to surveillance cameras: we install them to make us feel secure and protected, but their unnerving presence makes many people feel anxious and exposed. Does the camera suggest “this is a secure place where I can relax” or “this is an insecure place where bad things happen”? We could ask the same question about the NSA reading our email or the Department of Homeland Security sending drones overhead: does it make us feel protected or violated? Liberated or oppressed? Secure or insecure? These questions have particular poignancy in the case of individuals whose basic legal rights are insecure: undocumented workers who are afraid to report unsafe working conditions, indigenous people whose treaty rights are often violated, convicted felons who cannot serve on juries or possess a firearm, or transgendered individuals simply trying to use a public restroom.

Security and insecurity have so many different meanings that can be explored through the interdisciplinary prism of American Studies. We hope you’ll join us in a conversation this year as we weave this important theme into our teaching, research, and special events. It is one of the many ways that the American Studies department is trying to connect its faculty and students to the wider world beyond the Forty Acres.

Randolph Lewis teaches in the American Studies Department. He is writing a book on surveillance in the contemporary US as well as teaching a seminar on the subject this fall.

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