The big brouhaha over former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing revelation that his bosses are tuning in to every last thing We The People are doing has resulted in exactly the effect that an authoritarian government would most want to achieve: leaving us all quaking in fear and paranoia.
For my part, I’m neither ready to declare Snowden a hero nor to disparage him as a traitor. And I’m certainly not ready to join Naomi Wolf in dismissing Snowden as a fake. But I do see Wolf’s point that Snowden’s revelations can have a chilling effect on activism:
Again I hate to cast any skepticism on what seems to be a great story of a brave spy coming in from the cold in the service of American freedom. And I would never raise such questions in public if I had not been told by a very senior official in the intelligence world that indeed, there are some news stories that they create and drive — even in America (where propagandizing Americans is now legal). But do consider that in Eastern Germany, for instance, it was the fear of a machine of surveillance that people believed watched them at all times — rather than the machine itself — that drove compliance and passivity. From the standpoint of the police state and its interests — why have a giant Big Brother apparatus spying on us at all times — unless we know about it?
North to the future
One of the best TV shows ever committed to film — Northern Exposure, set in the quirky town of Cicely, Alaska — has a scene in the Season Three episode titled “Dateline: Cicely” that originally aired in 1992 — over twenty years ago! — that takes on just such spying with as much detail as we could rip from today’s headlines. Take this snappy exchange between former NASA astronaut Maurice Minnifield and Adam (played by Alan Arkin’s son Adam). Adam is the remote town’s resident five star chef/ex-military bush wildman (alternatively considered a pathological liar and a prescient genius). To pump up circulation, Maurice asks Adam to write for his paper, the Cicely News and World Telegram.
As Adam pokes through Maurice’s house looking for bugs, Maurice listens incredulously to Adam’s accusations against the U.S. government:
Adam: Do you think this is a game? Has this place been swept recently?
Maurice: I have a girl come in every Thursday.
Adam: I’m talking about bugs. You don’t have a clue, do you? Microchips. Fiber optics. It’s a whole new ball game, Minnifield. I have seen transmitters disguised as nasal hairs!
Adam: They have listening devices now that can pick up a caterpillar sneezing two miles away. They know what you had for breakfast two days ago. They know what car you’re gonna be buying three years from now. Every square inch of your existence is being recorded, analyzed, monitored and stored in a facility underground right outside of Omaha.
Maurice: I think you’re carrying this a little far, aren’t you?
Adam: Oh really?
In other words, is there a one of us who considers any of this really that new?
If Snowden is revealing anything that our NSA employees are doing to undermine average citizens, of course he’s a hero. And anyone who thinks that these secrets are necessary in order to “ensure our freedom” we have to ask at that point, what freedoms?
Few of us will recognize today’s America as resembling any aspect of America that we would hold dear. Adbusters Media Foundation founder and publisher Kalle Lasn coined the phrase “Have a nice day fascism” to describe the pale remnants of freedom left to Americans, that of being world-class consumers. As I wrote in my article From Tahrir Square to Times Square in March of 2011,
Our actual and mythical freedoms exert a powerful countervailing force to assuage discontent. If we are able to live wherever we can afford, take any job that will have us and practice our religious faith or lack thereof without hindrance, then we are less concerned that we don’t have any real voice in how we are governed.
But the weird thing is that now it’s the GOP, longtime supporters of bringing Uncle Sam into our very beds to protect us from consensual sex, and longtime supporters of the spooks-and-covert-wars paradigm, all of the sudden also sees Snowden as a hero. That’s quite a turnabout from their view on Assange and nothing like their sacrifice of privacy under George W. Bush.
And that should give us pause, making us wonder if Snowden is, if not a traitor, then a tool. In order for the GOP to all of the sudden take on the posture of being the great defenders of freedom, casting the Obama administration as the new great quasi-dictatorship, using and abusing their power for all kinds of nefarious ills. Conspiracy theorists would say here that Snowden is in deep, four or five layers deep, a double-agent to the nth degree. Things are not as they appear!
That said, I’m not a big conspiracy theorist myself. And I also recognize that when things are out of my hands — ie. the NSA tuning into my community garden planning over Gmail, my afternoon delights with my hubby, and my dissident rabble-rousing online — then there’s little I’ll be able to do to stop the process.
I mean, what are we going to do, charge the giant NSA Utah Data Center en masse, armed to the teeth with one of our remaining rights, the right to bear arms? And that would last about how long? We appear to have the rights, but not to use them for what they were intended — to keep an overreaching and corrupted government in check.
All of this brings me to my main point about guaranteeing fear.
Climate change terrorists
One of the issues that has surfaced in the wake of the NSA boogedy-woogedy is that climate activists are, in particular, being targeted for the listening machine. If true, this stands in contrast to the espoused claims that the NSA just wants to get ‘em some foreigners, especially of the Muslim kind.
No less than The Guardian and Grist have reported that one of the express goals of the NSA’s Prism project is to track climate and environmental activists to, I dunno, be ready to swoop in in riot gear and haul off the little dreadlock sporting do-gooders into some Guantanamo-like place where they can no longer thwart plans for the tar sands utopia of Big Energy. Surely this place will be powered by coal and serve only Monsanto-sanctioned GMOs, petri-dish spawned salmon, and dwarf hybridized wheat with super-plus extra gluten.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I either like the idea of NSA spying, or a secretive US government acting always in “our best interests,” particularly when that government is at this juncture so wholly untethered to real US issues such as a fraud economy, energy decline, and climate chaos. Plutocracy, which much of this NSA situation points to, is troubling to a serio0us degree.
But at the same time, simply circulating a concern that those of us who take on energy and climate are naturally being targeted for some future come-down feeds fear. It’s the kind of suggestive fear that can make folks decide that activism on our world’s most serious issues just isn’t worth it because it’ll probably lead to a dark, cold cell.
The big chill
The threat alone is Soviet-style intimidation and no one in the government actually has to do anything to make it so.
The NSA could spy on us or not spy on us. But as long as we think they may be spying on us and that there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, then we’ll also be deterred from everyday American activities that our guaranteed freedoms are supposed to ensure — freedom of speech, the press, assembly.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously advised that, “The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror…”
These are crazy times, for so many reasons. Some of the craziness exists because of the Internet itself, this networked machinery in which we feel the twin pulls of true connection and its odd-bedfellow, wholesale alienation. We’re in information overload, and yet never have we felt it so difficult to ascertain any truth or know anything like a shared moral or ethical orientation to our society.
That said, however much insecurity, uncertainty, and change we’re subject to, and however much it may appear that Big Brother has finally prevailed and has gotten himself all the “nasal hair microphones” he’ll ever need, Roosevelt’s prescriptive remains true.
So maybe it’s time we all gave the NSA an earful, all day, every day, no fear. Because America is going in the wrong direction on everything, from Monsanto patents on life to the tar sands, from climate deniers to our grain-heavy food pyramid, from Citizens United to the people being reduced to mere consumers, from money in politics to rewarding the criminals on Wall Street and after all, to what has become an irrefutably plutocratic government.
Only fear will stop person after person after person from saying these things out loud. Let’s all talk loud enough so that the NSA can hear us loud and clear.