[UPDATED] Rogue's Front Page Editor and Director of Competitive Intelligence has filled my in-box with some of the best stories about the extent of our national security state. We learn about the private companies that profit from analyzing your personal data. Our outsourced spy force is enormous. Not only that, but the National Security Agency, building a huge secret data farm in Utah, is recruiting a new generation of Stasi geeks. The administration's constitutional amnesia. How members of Congress are not outraged about the invasion of your privacy, but instead are turning on leaker Edward Snowden. How what was intended as a "transformational presidency" has turned into a soiled presidency instead: George W. Obama. Pro Publica offers the five things we still don't know about NSA snooping. One of the most on-point comments came from Tom Ricks, the former military correspondent for the Washington Post:
As for the assurances of intelligence officials that we should not worry because they will be careful: I don't buy them. The intelligence community has not come clean about the torture of captives, so why should it have credibility on this? At any rate, the health of our Bill of Rights should not be dependent upon the constitutional interpretations and tender mercies of secret policemen and their staff lawyers.
And yet, I have heard people say variations of words spoken in 1930s Germany and the Soviet Union: "I don't mind this if it keeps us safer. I haven't done anything wrong, so I don't have anything to fear." According to a poll from the highly respected Pew Research Center, 56 percent of those surveyed say the government spying is acceptable. So-called conservatives unfurl their protest banners over slight attempts to limit assault weapons or raise adequate revenue for the commons. Most are silent in this very real reach into tyranny. Liberals are so marginalized as to be out of the public square, not least with President Obama.
If one is trained in history, a key lesson is to be cautious about saying something is new, about calling inflection points. American exceptionalism is full of dark chapters as well as shining moments. But we are on the cusp of something novel for this country. Whatever else Americans have been, most were not willing to trade their liberty for temporary security. Now, most appear to be. It is difficult, for example, to imagine my parents' generation in its prime obligingly waiting in long airport lines to be "screened" by petty "Homeland Security" officials. Now we do so routinely. We will make the tradeoff of liberty for security, and, as Benjamin Franklin warned, we shall get neither.
American society at its best was graced by many mediating and countervailing institutions. Big business and big labor. A paranoid right and a militant left. A national economy and a robust local economy in a thousand towns and cities. Plutocrats held in check by taxes and a growing middle class. Separation of powers. An independent judiciary. The rule of law. Public schools that produced an educated citizenry. People, especially men, who read. Government that functioned and often operated for the public good. The press, rather than "the media." Don't forget: We know about the depth and lawlessness of this government over-reach because of a courageous newspaper, The Guardian. A consensus, however flawed or slow-moving, about justice, fair play and what Snowden says, “The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong,” Just so: A sense of right or wrong.
Most of this has been swept away, gutted or bought off. In its place is a corporate oligarchy that controls the government. In its place is a growing police state — and I use the words carefully — cemented by the hysteria after 9/11, especially the baleful Patriot Act. (The Senate, intended by the framers as a bullwark against executive tyranny, almost completely rolled over in authorizing this dangerous legislation). The elites successfully exploit divisions to keep themselves in power. Corruption is not an anomaly or local hijinks that define a city such as Chicago. Instead, it is deeply embedded in every area of our society, especially in the financial system. The public revels in its ignorance, even as wealth is redistributed upwards, we do nothing about climate change and the distraction of the day keeps us from seeing what's really going on. Bridges fall down. We move on, living on the legacy of another America like the characters in the movie Idiocracy. Another day, another mass shooting. Move along, nothing to see here. You get cheap clothes from Bangladesh — so what if a thousand people die in a factory collapse, and hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their jobs in the garment industry.
Technology merely acts as an accelerant for all these disturbing trends.
Yet another thing missing from the debate, if we're even having one, is the way America exacerbates potential threats by its foreign policy. Drone strikes that kill innocent civilians, long occupations, our unquestioning backing of Israel no matter its human-rights record and backing dictatorships to ensure cheaper oil for the long drive to Wal-Mart — and all this falls on Muslims. Is it any wonder in a world with so many unemployed young men that some of them see us as the villain? As the Front Page Editor commented: "Stop doing evil shit and you won't have to worry as much." Alas, there's much profit in empire, for now.
Is any of this sustainable, to use the punch-line word of our age? When the Romans gave away their once jealously guarded liberties, the Roman Empire lasted nearly five centuries in the west and more than fourteen in the east. The Roman Empire didn't face climate change. So it is too soon to tell about us. But this is not the America I grew up in. Our difficult days are only beginning. Collective action, a la 1968, would be bracing. Militarized law enforcement will make that difficult, unless some units could be turned to the opposition. The bigger problem is that most Americans are in their television-WalMart-driving-gadget trance. We haven't done anything wrong. What is there to fear?
[UPDATE 2] Finally, a very interesting take from Naomi Wolf on Snowden.