1984 Will Not Arrive.
That was the title of a talk I once attended by legendary science fiction author Ray Bradbury, who laid out a solid case that the government will never be able to, nor even attempt to, keep tabs on its entire citizenry in an Orwellian fashion. Selected individuals, sure — some individuals present good cause to be monitored — but not the populace as a whole. No matter how sophisticated the technology, he observed, and no matter how much data is collected, sifting through the data in a meaningful manner requires human effort; and monitoring an entire population would be so time-consuming, so labor-intensive, and so expensive as to be profoundly prohibitive.
That fact, however, seems to be lost on most of the American public, as well as the media, particularly in light of recent revelations about the National Security Agency. All because of one man, quasi-professional geek turned folk hero Edward Snowden, who just 4 short years ago declared that leakers like him “should be shot in the balls”. But that was then, and this is now.
And now the media have erupted in a Libertarian orgy of paranoid paroxysms and dystopian delusions about how Big Brother has arrived in grand fashion. Here’s your impossible challenge for today, boys and girls: find a media story about this “scandal” that doesn’t call it a “scandal”, and/or doesn’t use the word “spying”. Reports that the NSA has sometimes inadvertently gathered superfluous information or otherwise erred are routinely packaged under the headline NSA Broke the Law Thousands of Times; and there seems to be scarcely a journalist anywhere who is capable of distinguishing between spying and data collection, or between a scandal and a fucking mess. The big bad guvmint, the official spin goes, has been listening to and taking notes on our phone conversations; and about two-thirds of Americans buy into this crock. But the odds against such a thing are astronomical.
Let’s do some simple and rough, but significant math, shall we? No no, don’t worry — it won’t hurt, I promise. Okay, then. There are an estimated 2.4 billion phone calls made in the U.S. every day. Let’s conservatively suppose that each one lasts only one minute. (The latest estimates I’ve seen are closer to two minutes.) About 200,000 people work for the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. Only a relatively small number of them are actively engaged in intelligence gathering, but let’s pretend they all are. That means that if the government-haters are correct, each of these employees must listen to, at the very least, 200 hours of chatter every day. This is in addition to their other duties — poking through your emails, posts, and page views online, for instance. It’s always amusing to see how allegations that the government performs such superhuman feats are made by the same individuals who habitually denounce the government as being hopelessly incompetent.
What’s that you say? Police are sometimes guilty of snooping as well? Well okay. So let’s suppose that’s all that any of them ever do, and that they join forces with the feds in doing so. That would mean that each agent of evil must only listen to as few as 40 hours of talk every day. Maybe you’d better start worrying after all.
With such a staggering (not to mention time-warping) workload, intelligence bodies are necessarily going to be highly selective in whom they target. In other words, they’re not going to bother spying on anyone unless they have (at least what they consider) a good reason. But this kind of basic numeracy has been distorted, spun and distilled into the simplistic bromide “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” — which the spinmeisters then ridicule because there’s always a chance you might have something to fear. There’s also a chance that you might be struck by lightning.
The mindset that “they’re watching me” is usually paranoia, but it’s also quite often egotism, founded on the conviction that “I’m so damn important the government must be monitoring me, because how dare they not.” Granted, abuses do occur, but they’re far from routine. This is not to say that you should play ostrich; but Chicken Little is an equally absurd bird. Vigilance is fine, but you don’t have to sacrifice sanity for it.
Apparently, actual spying on citizens occurs rarely , despite frequent rumors and accusations to the contrary. And many people are taking the bait. Suddenly, people are shocked, shocked, that the government has been collecting metadata (rather like a copy of the phone bill) of citizens’ phone calls. Gosh, Americans really hate to have their privacy compromised, don’t they?
Well actually, no. Phone companies have been selling the private dope on their customers for some time, with no uproar. Furthermore, the amount of personal data the public willingly and eagerly divulges on a daily basis (think Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, etc. etc. etc.) dwarfs the amount of private information the government collects on the vast majority of them. People eagerly reveal to the whole world juicy tidbits about whom they’re sleeping with, what movies they watch, where they go and when, whom they vote for, where they work, what their children’s names are, how much they love Jesus and what they had for breakfast; but they’re outraged over Uncle Sam collecting a database of the phone numbers they’ve called.
Ah, but it’s one thing for consumers to willingly divulge intimate facts to commercial organizations, their friends and relatives, and perfect strangers in Bahrain; but it’s quite another for Washington to compile data on us without our consent. So that must explain all the ruckus, eh?
Well, now that you mention it, no. It doesn’t. Because don’t look now, but the U.S. government has always “spied” on its citizens — and in some instances actually spied without quotation marks. The FBI relentlessly bugged, shadowed and harassed Martin Luther King, Jr. for instance. In fact, on J. Edgar Hoover’s watch, that agency was more frighteningly abusive than anything the NSA appears even to have dreamed about thus far.
Speaking of which, NSA “spying”, if you insist on calling it that (and in some cases that word indeed would be justified) has been happening for years. And it hasn’t been a big secret, either; it’s been reported in the mainstream media many times, including several stories in The New York Times. Why hasn’t there been a massive outcry before Edward Snowden presumably delivered a lead slug to his own scrotum? Hmmm… could it be that it makes a difference when the president is behind it all? Yes, surely that must explain it.
Well, no, it doesn’t at all, for two reasons. First, the president isn’t really “behind it all”. Certainly, his is the desk at which the buck stops. But the NSA has been doing its business all along with the knowledge and approval of Congress and the courts. So it’s hardly been occurring in a vacuum or a deep dark dungeon. Or the Oval Office.
Second, Obama hasn’t exactly been the first chief executive to preside during such a massive data harvest. It was under his predecessor that the Patriot Act was passed, authorizing this kind of “spying” on the citizenry. Yet If you mention the Bush connection to your right-wing friends, you’re almost certain to receive a response like this: “There you go again, trying to defend Obama by saying Bush did the same thing. That doesn’t make it right for Obama to do it.” Which of course misses the point by a country mile.
Gaming the Blame Game
The point isn’t that “Bush did it too”, but that Bush did this. It isn’t about “defending Obama” (I’m not convinced there’s anything substantial to defend him from). It’s about trying to lend some perspective to the public’s reaction (and reactionism) and to highlight the glaring double standard of the media and the hypocrisy of the wingers. That’s certainly not an insignificant line of inquiry, especially since many of the wingers are denouncing Obama’s presumed hypocrisy and/ or flip-flopping since his expressed stance on the matter as a senator and a presidential candidate. (While his position has evolved since his days in the Senate, his actions as president are entirely consistent with his position on the campaign trail.)
By no means is everyone who defends the NSA also defending Obama. Take Dick Cheney. Please. He called Snowden a “traitor” and possibly a Chinese spy (which indeed would do a great deal to account for Snowden’s behavior) and also commented that:
I think it’s one of the worst occasions in my memory of somebody with access to classified information doing enormous damage to the national security interests of the United States.
If you think Mr. Cheney ever, in a billion years, even under the threat of Gitmo, would do anything that in any way whatsoever might be conceived as defending Obama, you really don’t know Dick. Practically since the day he left office, he’s been engaged in an unheard-of campaign to smear the new administration. Even while defending the NSA, he’s been very careful to make a point of proclaiming that the president has “no credibility”. (Yes, really — this is the same Dick Cheney who said that Iraq was amassing WMDs and that “we will be greeted as liberators” and “we are in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency” and that the occupation of Iraq would last “weeks rather than months”. Among many many other things. And now he has the gall to pose as an authority on credibility. One thing you have to admire about the guy is his extraordinary capacity to keep a straight face.) And just for good measure, he chimed in with the cuckoo chorus proclaiming that Obama is involved in a “cover-up” of Benghazi. Yet for all his distancing of himself from the current administration, he is a proud backer of whatever the NSA is up to.
Ditto for many of his dittohead compatriots in Washington. They’ve been foaming at the mouth for at least 5 years in quest of some titanic regime-toppling “scandal”. They failed to find it in Fast and Furious. They failed to find it in Solyndra. They failed to find it in the IRS non-scandal. They failed to find it in Benghazi. They failed to find it in the deranged ranting about a forged birth certificate, despite some very creative attempts. So many of them were hoping that the NSA “spying” “scandal” would be, at long last his downfall. But like the other “scandals”, this one starts dissolving when you shine more light on it.
And the truth is, it’s a delicate tap-dancing act for Washington wingers to call for the president’s head on a platter over this, when so many of them… um, …support the NSA surveillance. In fact, many Republicans who have denounced the president as a totalitarian gun-grabber are all for NSA “spying”. Yep, they consider firearm registration to be a dangerous, unconstitutional intrusion on civil liberties. But collection of citizens’ metadata? Not so much.
One of the most fascinating things about this whole NSA flap is how it has united people across ideological boundaries, resulting in some very peculiar bedmates indeed. Michael Moore joins forces with the Ron and Rand Revue in denouncing the “spying” as an outrage and an assault on the Constitution and civil liberties; while very “liberal” Sen. Al Franken and very “conservative” Speaker of the House John Boehner join forces to maintain that the activities do not constitute spying, but an essential tool in the fight against terrorism.
One faction that has been pretty much unanimous in its stance is members of the right-wing punditocracy. These commentators basically fall into three categories: (1) those who ignore, deny or gloss over the fact that it was Bush (or some responsible adult in that administration) who got the ball rolling, and just blame Obama (e.g., Rush Limbaugh); (2) those who praised NSA intelligence under Bush but brand it as evil under Obama (e.g., Sean Hannity); (3) those who acknowledge that Bush started it, and that it was not a good thing but, what the heck, blame Obama anyway (e.g., George Will). What it all comes down to is that they subscribe to the maxim “Blame Obama First, Foremost and Forever”, no matter what. And their hatred of the president is being spread by millions of citizens who are convinced that because they hate Obama’s guts so much, then by god he must be doing something really bad. It sounds like a sort of reverse New Age weltanschauung: hate someone long enough and intensely enough, and they’ll eventually deserve it.
The Prime Factor
Which brings us to the real explanation for all the hyperventilation over the NSA “spying”. It isn’t a love of privacy. It isn’t a general hatred of the government. It isn’t even a concern about overreaching by a president in general. It’s the Obama Factor, which dictates that anything — absolutely anything and everything — the current president does is ten times as bad as anything anyone else would do.
You’ve seen the Obama Factor at work many, many times already, in a number of mega-silly narratives generated by the Obama Haters. Such as the president’s use of a teleprompter like any other speaker on television or in at public events. Or his attempts to reduce gun violence. Or, heaven forbid, his taking vacations — a manufactured outrage so contrived that sustaining it requires labeling even official trips as “vacations”. The extremist vendetta against this president has reached such Swiftian proportions that it has even the former chair of the RNC shaking his head in disbelief.
I’m not here to defend President Obama. Nor am I here either to condemn or condone anything the NSA or any other government agency does — so you can spare me the lectures about how “you can let the government have your phone records if you want to, but I’m going to fight for my constitutional rights”. I am, I assure you, as private a person as you’ll ever find; if I had political or religious affiliations, there’s no way I’d promote them on Facebook. And I’m no big fan of government incursion; I’ve long spoken out against official efforts to restrict the sexual, reproductive and marital choices of citizens, which I find far more intrusive than the collection of metadata — and infinitely more intrusive than gun regulation. Yet I also see merit in the argument that the president and the NSA should be thanked.
But here’s the deal. No matter whether we like it or not, the NSA program is being carried out either in accordance with or at least under the umbrella of the law of the land. It may not be good law. It may not even be on sound constitutional footing. But it is the law nonetheless. And in a sane and civil society, when people don’t like the law, they work to change it, and to close the loopholes.
In Twenty-first Century America, however, when people don’t like the law, their first impulse is to crucify the president for following it. (Or presume to know clairvoyantly that he is violating the law.) At least if the president happens to be a Democrat with initials BHO. And I’m just suggesting that it might be an instructive exercise to ponder why this is the case.
(See prior post, The Great American Scandal Scam, Part 1: The IRS Obsession.)