Security/Insecurity: Our Departmental Theme, 2013-2014

Two weeks ago we announced that our department’s theme for the 2013-2014 school year would be Security/Insecurity. On this first day of school, we’d like to share some lengthier commentary on that theme from Dr. Randy Lewis.

We’ll continue sharing content related to security and insecurity over the course of the year, so stay tuned. (and, as many of you eagle-eyed readers might have noticed, we’ve changed the logo of AMS :: ATX to align with the theme).

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.

Voting: Own Risk

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.

Faculty Research: The Theology of Surveillance

Last week, American Studies faculty member Dr. Randy Lewis published a third column in Flow that both fascinates and frightens me. He writes on the theology of surveillance and the very odd presence of cameras in conservative Christian churches. What I find particularly interesting is the psychological response to knowing that one is being watched in a supposedly safe and sanctified space – not only by the eyes of a supreme being, but by security officials. How strange that these sanctuaries might be provoking fear and anxiety as they also claim to offer God’s loving embrace.

Here’s an excerpt, but you must read the whole thing – it’s beautifully written and, as I mentioned, fascinating:

I’m interested in my own feelings about CCTV as well, even surprised by them. Until recently I didn’t know I cared about cameras in sacred spaces at all. Yet I keep returning to religious angles that I’ve never pursued in the past. I wonder who would want surveillance cameras above the pews glaring down at the worshippers? What could be so alarming to a room full of gun-owning, God-fearing middle-aged white people in a small town run by other white people? In other words, who really needs sacred security, and what is so damn frightening that you’d replace the free-flowing calm and compassionate welcome of the idealized church with an ominous sense of lock-down? Apparently, it is not enough that some deacons areliterally carrying guns to Sunday services or that some pastors are literally clasping specially-designed bulletproof Bible holders at the altars. Something else is needed to assuage the fear.

Although I am only beginning to explore these questions, I can hazard this much: terrorism is not their demon of choice. Rather, it is the rank stranger outside the gate. It is the black cloud of evil that can settle anywhere, anytime, in their fretful vision of modern America. It is the vile nature of strangers, of difference, of heathens, but also the evil within: what the pastor might do to the organist, what the children might allege in the nursery—and if they don’t fear these things, the marketing of sacred security explicitly tells them that they should. Thank God—or Gideon Protect Services, or Watchman Security, or Savior Protection, Inc.—that video surveillance cameras, properly installed, will protect the innocent and ward off the wicked. Such is the sales pitch from the companies that I have been researching in this complex economy of fear.

What draws me to this topic is the sheer contrast between the ideal of hopeful refuge and shoulder-to-shoulder togetherness in a sacred space, and the insinuated, carefully marketed anxiety of the security business, forever amping up the threat of looming violence and the necessity of eternal vigilance. Must everything drip with fear?

(side note: as I began writing this, Hall and Oates’s “Private Eyes” came on my Pandora station – “watching you watching you watching you…” – a sign from above through yacht rock)