Monday, July 1, 2013

An Older Boy Made Him Do It

Speaking in Tanzania today, President Barack Obama had this to say about spying:

I guarantee you that in European capitals, there are people who are interested in, if not what I had for breakfast, at least what my talking points might be should I end up meeting with their leaders. That is how intelligence services operate.
Well, yeah.
So while there’s outrage in Europe that the US bugged the US headquarters for the European Union as well as tapping into EU offices in Belgium, as reported by Der Spiegel today, I’m sure there’s an equal amount of embarrassed shuffling of feet by those very spies Obama says aren’t interested in his breakfast menu.
But does that make spying right? The other guy’s doing it, so we may as well?
More importantly, how inured are we to such stuff?
David Greenberg, writing in “Nixon’s Shadow,” speaks quite a bit about how the scandals of the Nixon era kind of led us to believe and accept that as far as government is concerned, skullduggery is afoot:
[T]he culture’s absorption of conspiracist thought would nourish in the years ahead a general, offhand indifference among Americans. Politics no longer seemed a realm in which we could expect to find anything authentic at all. (P. 125)
[W]hile the press might be running wild over third-rate Watergates, the public – inured by Nixonism and subsequent scandals – no longer expected consistency or even integrity from its leaders. (P. 211)
In other words, we expect our government to act like a bunch of prepubescent boys trying to stare at the sunbathing lady through the knothole in the fence. And while umbrage at this point might be great, it will fade – even that of the European Union. Because, first of all, they know what Obama said is right – they’re spying on us. And also, since the public expects this kind of nonsense and will continue to make cell phone calls, use the Internet and such without changing their habits one iota, the government surveillance will go on, unimpeded (except for via a few loud attempts from the fringes and from the more active legislators or members of the judiciary) until we all forget about it.
Is that right?

No. But that’s how it’ll play out.
The “other guys are doing it” argument is just as spurious to me as is the argument that states if we aren’t doing anything wrong, we have nothing to fear. (Just as dubious is the claim that surveillance under Obama is somehow more "domesticated" than under Bush. That may be. But surveillance is surveillance.)
Who defines wrong? And who can tell when that definition will shift to the point it includes something we’re doing on the wrong side of the question? And given government proclivities to abuse information it has for political purposes, it’s clear that doing nothing just leaves us on a potentially slippery slope to worse things than knowing we have nothing to fear from our government since they’re looking for the bad guys (see, there’s that expectation of the worst from our government, just as Greenberg says).
But will that be the lasting attitude?
Because it’s happened before. Back in 1975, the Senate Church Committee revealed a massive NSA spying effort in which the agency read telegrams sent by US citizens. Outrage ensued for a tiny bit, then we all went on our merry way.
I hear talk today of a rising generation of individuals who are pushing back against this freewheeling invasion of our privacy. But I don’t see it myself. The vast majority, I’m sure, are upset, but, in the end of all things, won’t do anything about their anger. Those making waves today are just like those making waves back then; there’s nothing generational about that. In what reading I’ve done, I know the political and social landscape in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were far more toxic than they are today, which is why we saw people like Daniel Ellsberg. Edward Snowden is following in his footsteps. I see no signs that Snowden’s generation is doing the same.

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