You've got to marvel at the industry of Cold Warriors and their offspring constantly reminding us of the state security measures-- real or imagined-- suffered by the inhabitants of the former Eastern European socialist countries. Books, movies, television and anecdotes have deeply embedded in the minds of people in the US the notion that life in Eastern Europe was under oppressive monitoring with spies lurking everywhere. Countless reports of visits to socialist countries told of the suspicions or hunches or impressions of being followed, watched, or overheard. I was always disappointed, in my admittedly infrequent visits to Eastern Europe or Cuba, that I never shared these experiences. I was either incredibly myopic or deemed not nearly as worthy of attention as were others.
Outside of the minority of US citizens who systematically question every “truth” endorsed and proclaimed by official circles, most people feel secure in believing that “we” don't do what “they” do or did. In fact, the certitude of our superiority in respecting privacy, speech, and beliefs serves as a pillar of the mythology of the land of the free.
Of course many of us on the left know better. We know first hand that the US security services operate without restraint or oversight. We know that every significant anti-war movement, every committee in solidarity with the victims of US imperialism, every party to the left of the Democrats, and even every renegade celebrity earns the attention of the US secret police agencies. We know that the tens of thousands of operatives employed and the huge budgets granted are not there for occasional or aberrant spying, but for systematic surveillance and monitoring of anyone perceived as challenging the ruling class consensus. We know that, whenever the need is felt, laws are passed that violate or stretch the intent of the Constitution. And extra-legal means-- easily concealed from the public-- are also common.
But you don't have to be among that select group to know what security services do. You don't have to be an anti-war activist to know that FBI files do not magically appear, but are created through surveillance and informants. The sordid history of the FBI, especially during the Hoover era, is available for all to see. Congressional committees have exposed enough of the chicanery, illegal activity, and violence of the security agencies to give everyone but the willfully blind an idea of just how fragile our privacy and personal integrity are under this self-styled democracy.
Yet liberals-- occupying a political category brazenly drawing its name from “liberty”-- have woefully fallen short in confronting the rise and expansion of the intrusive, Orwellian surveillance state, a process that only accelerated since the Second World War. The fears of the Cold War provided a handy excuse for government intrusion into the lives of hundreds of thousands of US citizens, driving such august institutions as the American Civil Liberties Union into backsliding and equivocation.
We saw it again in the uprisings of the 1960s, when even more presumably innocent citizens became the object of surveillance by a myriad of federal, state, and municipal spy agencies. Once again, the response was loud and clamorous on the part of the liberal establishment, but to little effect. Only Nixon's outrageous near-coup and the persistence of a few members of the normally somnolent media saved us from even further devolving toward a repressive, intrusive state in the early 1970s.
A further step towards a police state arrived with the so-called “War on Terror.” Few in the liberal establishment defied the hysterical surrender of the rights to privacy, speech, or association that ensued. In fact, most joined conservatives in a race to empower the security agencies with money, manpower, and legislation.
Oddly, those who find it so easy to identify snooping in foreign lands are conveniently blind to that malignancy in their own neighborhoods.
And now comes the Snowden affair.
The Nation magazine pens a headline, “A Modern Day Stasi State,” really a gratuitous slap at the former German Democratic Republic, to characterize the Snowden revelations of massive and comprehensive surveillance by the NSA. The truth is that nothing that the GDR security services could have possibly envisioned parallels the collection of every electronic communication by every US citizen. Perhaps the liberals at The Nation draw some perverse satisfaction from the false belief that other countries have gone to the same lengths to monitor their unsuspecting and innocent citizens.
And in an editorial commentary (“Snoop Scoops”) by Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker magazine attempts to simultaneously maintain three pathetically weak excuses for the Administration's secretive spying programs: first, the Snowden revelations expose nothing new-- we already knew about the NSA programs; second, the NSA collects the content, but doesn't examine it; and third, there is nothing illegal about the NSA surveillance.
The best that can be said for the Hertzberg apology is that maybe his boss, the old Cold Warrior David Remnick, forced him to write this nonsense. The fact that one could follow threads and leaks to learn of NSA programs hardly excuses the absence of the topic in most mainstream media and popular discussion. Hertzberg glaringly fails to point to any effort on the part of his magazine to discuss the NSA surveillance. Moreover, if everyone knew about the programs, how do we account for the hysterical response of the Administration, its cronies (Senator Feinstein called Snowden a “traitor”), and apologists? How do we account for the criminal charges against Edward Snowden? For revealing something everybody knew?
Clearly this is a sleazy sidestepping of the profound dangers raised by the government's license to snoop.
Only the terminally gullible would believe that the content of collected data lies untouched in NSA electronic files. With nearly one and a half million government employees and contractors enjoying top secret clearance, surely a few would be tempted to check the e-mails or phone calls of their neighbors, ex-lovers, or rivals. Hertzberg takes literally the assurances of the same people who have been trying desperately to keep NSA activity from public scrutiny.
I suppose one could equally say that “nothing illegal” occurred in Nazi Germany, given that laws were passed enacting or enabling nearly all of the carnage inflicted by the fascist regime. In truth, the vast powers granted by the Patriot Act and the secret kangaroo courts legitimizing NSA acts guarantee that legality washes over anything and everything that government agencies do or could do, as they equally would sanction the SS or Gestapo in the Third Reich.
Indeed, our moment is not so remote from those moments preceding the consolidation of fascist rule in Italy or Germany. Like those times, liberals and social democrats are temporizing, excusing, and denying the assault on privacy, personal security, association, and dissent.
The true history of those times-- not the convenient history that blames the staunchest opponents of fascism, the Communists-- points to the treason and capitulation of bourgeois politicians who sought to compromise, outsmart, or neutralize the tide of fascism. Similarly, our liberal politicians populating the Democratic Party (with a few notable, courageous exceptions) rush to establish their security bona fides by endorsing the expansion of the police state. They show the same misplaced confidence in their ability to restrain or control the uncontrollable.
Amplifying the hesitation of liberals is the embarrassing role of the Obama Administration in the construction of the NSA police state. After giving their undivided, unqualified support to the candidacy of hope, change, and the restoration of liberal values, the liberal establishment finds itself in the uncomfortable position of defending the trappings of a police state or, conversely, righteously attacking their designated standard bearer. This dilemma has driven liberals to such outrageous statements as Hertzberg's: “The critics [of the NSA] have been hard put to point to any tangible harm that has been done to any particular citizen,” a statement worthy of a self-satisfied burgher in Munich in 1934.
Particularly bruised by the Snowden revelations are those pseudo-radicals who have unceasingly called for a love fest with the Democratic Party as a response to the “fascist danger.” How does one enlist those who we now know have crafted and implemented fascist-like policies as partners in stopping fascism? Surely embracing them as anti-fascist allies borders on insanity.
Perhaps it is only fitting that those seduced by the pied piper of hope and change have arrived at this juncture. However, we have lost far too much ground to this political silliness. There is too much at stake. We deserve better.