Dear Sugar Man,
I am in an abusive relationship with my government, but I just can’t bring myself to break it off. Well, actually, my government won’t let me break it off, but maybe I’m not trying hard enough? My government has all sorts of rules about what I can and can’t do. Wear a seatbelt. Don’t smoke marijuana. Don’t drink raw milk. Give me half your money. Don’t compete with the taxi cartel. I’m not a child! Why doesn’t my government treat me with a little more respect?
The latest indignity my government is trying to foist upon me is telling me what I can and can’t wear on the job. Oh, yeah… Did I mention that my government is also my employer? I know, I know—office romances. Anyway, apparently when I go to work from now on, I’m no longer going to be allowed to wear a large cross around my neck, or a hijab around my head, or a turban on my head, or a niqab over my face, or a yarmulke on my head. In the name of “religious neutrality,” I am going to be forbidden from wearing such “conspicuous” religious symbols on the job. I will still be allowed to wear a small cross on a chain, and some discreet rings and earrings, but that’s about it. And all of this is to be enshrined in a “Charter of Values” handed down from on high.
Sugar Man, if anyone can help me figure out what to do, I know it’s you. I mean, your words and music travelled from the mean streets of Detroit to the even meaner streets of Johannesburg and inspired a whole generation. You helped young South African men and women have the courage to challenge what they had been told and rise up against one of the most abusive governments around at the time. In contrast, my government isn’t really so bad. I’m probably asking too much. I should probably just be grateful that things aren’t worse. But I can’t help wondering where my government gets off telling me what values I can express. I had no desire to wear a turban on my head before, but damn it, now that someone has told me I can’t, I suddenly want to wear one! Is that childish?
Help me, Sugar Man, figure out how much abuse I should accept from my government.
* * *
I am so sorry that your relationship with your government is an abusive one. Sadly, so many are. Ending an abusive relationship is never easy, especially when it’s with a government, so you have my full sympathy, sweet pea.
I can hear the ambivalence in your letter, the doubt in your voice. You are divided against yourself. You want your freedom, but you love your government, you think you need your government, you think you could not possibly survive on your own without your government. You are not the only one. Many, many people in similar circumstances feel the way you do. So let me start by being as blunt as possible: You should not accept any abuse from your government, you’re not childish, and you’re not asking too much.
Now what to do, practically speaking, about abuse on the part of your government is a very difficult, very complex problem. I suggest first of all that you stop comparing your suffering with the suffering of one of the most oppressed groups of people on the planet. Of course you should be grateful that things are not worse than they are. Feeling and expressing gratitude for what you do have will enhance your life. But you should not just be grateful. You should also be pissed off that things are not better than they are. Because they could be better, darling. They could be much better.
I wonder if you’ve ever thought about just how many times you’ve been had, just how many times you’ve been taken in by your government’s promises. I also wonder how many plans have either gone bad or never even gotten off the ground in the first place thanks to your government abusing its power. I wonder other things, too. I wonder whether the soldier that dies for your government halfway around the world is really making you any safer. And I especially wonder, in specific reference to your government’s “latest indignity,” if this hatred of the other will ever end, this hatred of people who look different and smell different and dress different and have different beliefs about the universe. Because although there are surely other motives involved, that is one of the motives behind this emphasis on “religious neutrality,” which you so rightly surrounded with scare quotes.
I have a confession to make, A-C. I was once in a similar position to the one you are in now. I wondered about all of these things, but I did not see an alternative to government. I thought we needed government. I thought we needed it to keep the peace, to build roads, to educate us and care for our health. I thought we had to accept government bullying in order to get these good things.
Well, we do need peace, and roads, and education, and health care. But some very smart people who have given it a lot of thought have come to the conclusion that we don’t need governments to provide these good things. And if we don’t need governments to provide these good things, then we really don’t need to put up with all the other bullshit that governments do, either.
I know it’s hard to imagine how we can have all of these good things without government. I couldn’t see it for the longest time. I needed help to picture how it might all work. It will be even harder for you because your government is also your employer, but I urge you to reach out and get the help you need to begin the process of ending your abusive relationship. You deserve better. You may not believe it now. You may feel crappy about yourself, in part because you have put up with this garbage for so long. But you deserve better. Flawed human being that you are, you deserve to be free from abuse and free to make your own decisions and your own mistakes, and to reap what you sow.
Because you know what? Those bastards who think they have the right to tell you what to do? They’re flawed too. In fact, they’re even more flawed than you are, because they want to tell you what to do, and you just want to live your life as best you can. I know you do from the tone of your letter. And if no one has ever told you, A-C, let me be the first: It’s your life. Yours. Not theirs.
It took courage for you to write to me, to lay bare your soul the way you did. It will take even more to end this abusive relationship, but I know you can do it. I know we can do it. Because flawed though we human beings are, we are also glorious and creative and kind and intelligent. We have done some amazing things. This is just one more.
* * *
With apologies to, and great respect for, two wonderful works of art: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, written by Cheryl Strayed; and Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul and featuring songs by Rodriguez.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.