The End As We Know It
by Justine Nicholas Valinotti
by Justine Nicholas Valinotti
For months, pundits of all political and economic persuasions have been predicting The End of the World as We Know It (TEWWKI). To be sure, I've seen the signs of the economic collapse, from storefronts that have emptied along the main retail strip of my neighborhood to people of my acquaintance — including students of mine — who've lost jobs. Still, I've chosen not to buy into the hysteria the media, as they are wont to do, are spreading. After all, all one can do is to take care of one's self and loved ones. Perhaps that sounds trite, but that's all most people can do most of the time under normal circumstances. Empires and other institutions rise and fall heedless of our individual or familial health and welfare.
Now, what I know about economics, finance and banking can fill my pillbox. (OK, I'm a modern girl; I don't have a pillbox!) So I probably have no business making forecasts about such things. However, yesterday morning I learned of an event that gave me pause. It may well spell TEWWKI.
So what earth-shattering event happened yesterday? UBS, that erstwhile pillar of the banking system that's been the erstwhile pillar of world banking, is releasing the records of 19,000 numbered accounts to the US Government. Federal officials allege that UBS knowingly helped wealthy American clients to defraud their government.
Now, I still harbor enough residual leftism not to feel a lot of sympathy for people who have more money than the combined accumulated assets of every acquaintance I've ever had in my life — and me, of course. However, I am outraged when anybody's privacy is breached by any sort of governmental authority. And, even though I never have had, and may never have, one of those numbered accounts, I am as worried as any of those account-holders probably are.
Even those of us who've never had an offshore account could feel a sense of security knowing that there was some place in the world that, through wars and other catastrophes, remained neutral and respectful of people's rights to their persons and property. Since the Middle Ages (when the Swiss banking system developed), Switzerland has been seen as the world's "safe haven." That Switzerland has managed to maintain its national integrity, if you will, and the security of its banking system while set amidst implacable enemies may well be one of the most respectable feats any nation has managed.
So if I sell my novel and someone turns it into a blockbuster screenplay, I'll have one less option for the windfall that would follow. Life will go on. However, the quality of my life — and that of everyone else — will be diminished by the more outrageous part of this story.
Although I am not a historian, I don't think I'd be overstating my case when I say that throughout my lifetime, our civil liberties have been steadily eroded. I think every President during my time in this world (I was born about midway through Eisenhower's second term.) has at least held a chisel as our rights to privacy have been chipped away. I also don't think I'd be exaggerating if I said that, in regards to privacy and free speech issues, every President we've had has been worse than the one who preceded him.
However, I don't recall any action of theirs that strikes as low a blow to liberty as the US Government's demand that UBS submit its records. It's bad enough when a nation's agencies of power nose into the affairs of citizens who live and work in that nation. I can't think of anything worse than those same agents extending their reach across oceans and international boundaries to pry into the business of citizens who are doing business in other countries.
Then again, I guess I shouldn't be surprised by such actions. After all, every single Administration during my lifetime has exhibited the most profound kinds of disrespect for the sanctity and sovereignty of other people and nations in this world. Sometimes that disrespect is expressed through legalistic proceedings like the demand the government made on UBS; other times it manifested militarily. The end-result of either is the same: a diminishment in the rights of other people — and us — to life and liberty, let alone the pursuit of happiness.
Past crises and changes have not spelled TEWWKI. UBS's acquiescence to the US government may not, either. But I think that we are certainly less secure in our persons and with our property than we were a few months ago. If anything, that will only exacerbate the collapse of the world's economies and diminish whatever chances we have of making true progress, much less prosperity, possible.
February 20, 2009
Justine Nicholas Valinotti [send her mail] is recovering from the year she spent as an academic administrator.
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