The Intended Banality of American Surveillance

I wrote this a few days before I read the very revealing article on Laura Poitras in the NYT. Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Michael Miranda, being detained for 9 hours at London’s Heathrow airport a few days ago is even more shocking. While this post is not a direct response to these recent articles and events, it does confirm the suspicions I’ve raised here.

The bargain was struck. Keep us safe at any cost. For the most part we can believe they have kept us safe. We hadn’t processed the cost. We were never asked to sacrifice for the country like generations passed. We were encouraged to live our free American lives with even more gusto. Only now has the cost become evident. We certainly had an inkling as to what the cost would be. Yet, we weren’t explicitly asked. No amendments to The Constitution were made. Yet they’ve gone ahead and taken our right to privacy as payment for security.

Aside from activist voices, the mainstream, while mildly worried, is not livid. Consider how unacceptable we consider authoritarian governments spying on their citizens to be. Think about stories from history involving the KGB, Gestapo and secret police. Why were they so bad? It’s still, hopefully, early stages, but NSA has the potential to be the next ignominiously evil acronym.

The US government has the most sophisticated propaganda machine in the world. Where contemporary authoritarian regimes like Turkey, China and Russia clumsily provoke their citizens to achieve their ends, America cleverly seeks to placate its “model” citizens—at any cost. The net affect of this citizen-first strategy is a widespread consensus of trust. The US government exploits this trust collateral to justify wars, drone strikes, torture and to obfuscate severe capitalist corruption.

The Snowden Crisis has come at a time when the US propaganda information strategy was not fully complete. While many have become comfortable with living publicly and sharing online it is still a new phenomenon. We were being groomed by both market and governmental forces to live without regard for our privacy. Snowden revealed a true conspiracy of corporations and the government colluding together in engineering citizen behaviour to feed their respective needs. The government hungers for information, corporations for brand engagement. The prospect of joint benefits to be reaped from cooperation between these two forces must have been irresistible. The free market, in cooperation with the government, creates the potential for extremely rapid, large scale innovation. Looking at the meteoric rise of big tech in such a short time, it’s no stretch to conclude this conspiracy has happened and continues.

The secret is out that NSA has been watching all along (or has the capability to watch). We citizens haven’t yet been sufficiently primed to live knowingly without privacy. Yet we must be pretty close as the general feeling towards NSA seems a lot closer to apathy than outrage.

It all comes back to the mainstream belief in the benevolence of our government. Many minority groups in America know the sting of government betrayal all to well. Yet America’s blank check still rests with its rank and file whom it encourages to be selfish, myopic and comfortable. I’m not too hopeful NSA will cease its operations in compromising our privacy. The outrage doesn’t seem to be there. Another brilliant American propaganda strategy is the trivialization of free speech in itself. We can talk of these things openly and casually. With so much opinion the truth becomes diffused, diluted and sanitized. We become confused. Only if NSA missteps by compromising the comfort of the mainstream will there be the will to dismantle this program.

I’m reminded of Martin Niemöller’s famous statement on the dangers of political apathy. He was referring to the inaction of German intellectuals after the Nazi’s rise to power. Nazi Germany is often the most extreme example to cite, but there are crucial lessons to be learned from history.

“First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.”

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