Monday, May 15, 2006

Poll Smokers

Billmon hit with quite the one-two combo this past weekend, and needless to say, he's absolutely right all the way around. This dickering about what useful information can be extrapolated from the so-called NSA wiretapping polls is bogus. Our rights are not up for negotiation or referendum, nor is it necessary to abrogate any of those rights, nor have these people proven themselves remotely trustworthy in such a regard. The question, no matter how delicately phrased, is just a complete loser all the way around.

Say we phrase the next stupid poll question thusly: Given how this administration has handled vital information pertaining to, and organized effective responses to, every major national crisis that has occurred in the U.S. over the past five years, do you seriously think that it's a good idea to let them spy upon and track an untold portions of Americans' private and personal transactions, with no oversight and no accountability whatsoever?

Now, of course we're not naive. Of course we know that even with such a question (which may be loaded, yet is not fundamentally dishonest in scope) there will still be a subset of people who will gladly hand over any and all rights, theirs and ours. Me, I figure it's better to die on our feet than live on our knees, and I don't recall ever ceding my inalienable rights to the whims and fears of some nervous nellie in Topeka who isn't on anyone's radar. (Of course, that's not necessarily true; it is entirely possible that a future terrorist attack might occur in a comparatively sparsely populated area just to send a message. Still, statistically rather improbable. They've already got us whipped into a state of frenzied paranoia; chances are that they find more glory in the numbers of a body count. So I reasonably speculate that I, in California, am in significantly more potential danger than someone in Kansas or Wyoming.)

But I digress. The real issue here is how so many of us got so willing to just hand over what, for all practical purposes, is really an unknown amount and degree of heretofore inalienable rights. It is more likely than not that what we know about the NSA's little data-mining operation is just the tip of it; we won't know about the full scope of the total ass-spelunking expedition until all the systems are already in place. And yet hundreds of people, presumably cognizant and possessed of sufficient short-term memory to see how these people do pretty much everything, just looked into the phone and said, "Yup, s'okay by me."

How did we get to such a point, where our backs are instinctively and constantly up over issues like religion and abortion and guns and gays, yet an authoritarian regime can torture with impunity, lie about the unnecessary war they started, throw yet more money at the one-percenters in a time of record deficits, decide which laws they feel like obeying, and eviscerate the Bill of Rights -- and there's nary a peep from the usual corners?

We know our phone calls and emails may be and often are monitored, that company net nannies will stop us from visiting certain web sites (and not just porn pages: I’ve been blocked out of labor union sites, progressive political sites – even that notorious left-wing web magazine, Slate.) We know that if we say the wrong thing to a company snitch it could be reported to our supervisors, that those reports could end up in our personnel files, and that really serious thought crimes could cost us our jobs. We know the security cameras may record when we walk in the door and when we leave. We know we can’t make certain jokes or raise certain topics because they might be construed as sexual harassment. We know how to smile and feign enthusiasm when the pointy-haired boss has a really dumb idea. We know what a cult of personality looks like, because it looks like our CEO.

Blue collar workers, of course, have always had their own authoritarian regimes to contend with -- tougher in some ways (I’ve worked under both) but easier in others. At least most shops don’t expect the rank and file to act like the smiling idiots in the latest corporate training film (not unless the Total Quality Management gurus have seized power.) But in cubicle world it’s Outer Party rules all the way – even if the cafeteria food and the Victory gin are both better.

It’s true that however bad it may be, the corporate workplace is only an 8-hour police state, one you can tunnel free of every night. But it is a training ground of sorts, a place where habits of thought and social roles are acquired and reinforced – patterns that are then reflected in the popular culture. The lesson learned is submission to authority, or at least the passive acceptance of hierarchical relationships. It teaches people to be good bureaucrats, and good bureaucrats understand that if the organization is tapping phones – or infecting test subjects with syphilis or dumping toxic waste in rivers or shipping undesirable people off to concentration camps – it must have a good reason.

Exactly right. Hell, even applying for a job -- even a shitty one -- requires going through the rather undignified ritual of pissing in a cup and handing it to an indifferent lab technician. People are inured to the notion of faceless authoritarian intrusion pretty early on in the employment cycle. There is always a tradeoff for this or that promotion or perk, as one advances past the initial cup-filling position. The point is that we have already been indoctrinated into the notion that privacy is a luxury, that even what a person does away from the job still is somehow the employer's business. Forget drugs; how many people have lost their jobs because they were blogging about their workplaces and co-workers, even anonymously?

So there is collective precedent for the blasé acceptance of official intrusion into one's private life. We can tell ourselves and each other that it's in the name of safer workplaces, or The Children, or whatever. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, etc., etc. You know the song by heart.

But consider the nature of the people running this thing. Consider what you know about what they've done, and just try to imagine what they're capable of. True, their reckless cronyism has made them largely incompetent, but the whole point of mechanization and computerization is to take away human inefficiencies. This is the largest database that has ever been assembled. We know that they have not been terribly shy using the personal lives of political opponents to leverage public policy matter. And we also now know that they are tracking reporters' calls in order to track confidential sources. Where does it stop? Where they say it needs to stop -- or rather, where they tell you it needs to stop; given this administration's loose relationship with facts and honesty, why would anyone take their word on something like this?

It's very simple -- a person who, thinking themselves principled and consistent, would support such a scheme regardless of which party controlled the levers of government, is just a fool, giving away their own rights and that of their neighbors for a false sense fo security. And a person who, on the off chance Diebold fails to do their job and Democrats return to power, decides that maybe all this spying is wrong after all, well, they're nothing but a goddamned hypocrite.

Rights are rights, not political currency to be bartered away by think-tank assholes and smug basement warriors lowjacked into talk-radio lunatics. Nor are they up for popular approval, the collective finger to the political wind. And technology has given the would-be authoritarian corporatists the upper hand here; most of what resistance we might eventually put up is likely to be retroactive. The TIA network really got under way the day after they swore that they were scrapping it. So perhaps we had best start getting serious about whether or not we wish to continue down this road, or if we should perhaps get up on our hind legs and be men.


RonB said...

Who authored the piece in the middle of your post?

It definitely addresses something I have thought about after perusing the opinions of people who are happy to list all the other ways the government intrudes into your privacy that are routinely accepted as part and parcel of daily life- why is this different from anything else, they say?

I guess its the "totality" of the NSA spying, its seemingly monolithic scope and the secrecy of its machinations, that has suddenly brought the bigger picture to me, at least.

Dan, you're obviously much more eleoquent and perceptive than I am. I feel I am waking up, but you seem to be on full alert that the fucking joint reeks of authoritarian stink. Have we reached that point where we have become too large and too complex for us to become not much more than a feudal state? Once people are free, does it inevitably follow that power still coalesces with the strong and devious?

Sometimes I wonder if the spirit of humility is simply not strong enough on its own to exercise our nastier demons.

This whole thing seems to get down to a philosophical level and I havent hit the guy/gal who can devise a way out of defanging our tendency to sublimate others short of some Clockwork Orange type engineering, which wouldn't be free in any sense of the word either.

It looks to me that "freedom" can be defined in two ways, eventually-freedom to ratrace each other to profit/power, or freedom from that ratrace. Shades in between abound, and maybe therein lies the solution...

As you can see, I have alot of homework to do, but I appreciate any conversation we can strike up about the fundamental questions that the new puissance of authoritarianism has caused me to ask about human nature in general. I'd like to believe that our Bill Of Rights is our unmarred sword and shield, but if so we have done a terrible job a)consulting it and b) updating it to fit modernity. Left alone as a 1787 contract, it can easily be ignored and parsed to uselessness.

Sorry if I'm all over the place. Help me pull my head out of my fourth point of contact.

Heywood J. said...

Thanks for the kind words, Ron, but I think you sell yourself short. You make several eloquent and perceptive points in your comment.

This is a subject which has long impassioned and perplexed me, so maybe I'm just well-practiced at exploring its contours. It's a difficult one to get a grip on, and usually we have to resort to handy tropes -- Americans are distracted, cynical, apathetic, stupid, etc., etc. All are true to some degree or other; none satisfactorily explain the problem, nor suggest a solution.

I think the simplest remedy is that we insist that people mean what they say. If they try to couch everything in what the vaunted Founding Fathers wanted, then they should be expected to adhere to the principles they expounded on, starting with the Federalist Papers. They were quite explicit about the encroachment of state power, as well as consolidating power in the hands of a unitary executive. The current situation, with wiretapping and the underhanded signing statements, would be unacceptable.

Also, they were men of the Enlightenment, specifically the Scottish Enlightenment. This means David Hume and Adam Smith. Smith's name is particularly abused by the acolytes of the free market; Smith had no patience with what he rightly recognized as purely predatory capitalists. Smith understood that rapacious Randian übercapitalism only benefits the few who are amoral enough to overrun the masses and then take their loot to their gated estates. Real capitalism benefits all by encouraging entrepreneurship, competition, and an interdependent ecosystem of sorts. That's how all boats get raised by the proverbial tide.

But the real key to our dilemma may be found in the other Scottish Enlightenment figure, Hume. Hume's famous paradox describes the situation well -- that force is always on the side of the governed, that rather than guns, the real weapon at the elite's disposal is controlling mass opinion. Thus you have corporate media which are either lazy or flat-out corrupt; you have complex issues boiled down to bite-size phrases that can be repeated by a seventh-grader; you get lies and memes which are repeated until people believe them as fact.

Like I say, this is an issue that both inflames me and perplexes me. I am a disaffected conservative, like yourself, though my disaffection has been a good fifteen years or so now. Suffice to say that the theocratic movementarians trod on my social libertarianism a bit much back in the day.

But I believe in the basic principles (not in the abusive "strict constructionist" sense, but in a common-sense meaning) that established the country. I think if the superpatriots just put down their symbols and stick to the substance, they'll start thinking about these things more seriously. Right now, they're just encouraged and conditioned to just think on the surface level about these things. And that's Hume's Paradox.

As far as freedom, it's an interesting dichotomy you present. Both options really revolve around the notion of financial freedom; either you have enough money to not have to worry about money, or you can get off the grid and not have to deal with those hamster-wheel issues the rest of the suckers have to live with. That sounds about right to me; I think the way elites consolidate their grip on the levers is by dangling various carrots and appealing to our hardwired sense of jonesmanship. This way you are co-opted; this way you are forced to deal with the system on some level. The people who get off the grid have marginalized themselves, so by definition they're out of the equation.

Interesting point you make about the spirit of humility. I would suggest that we are neck-deep in an era of profound cognitive dissonance. We are 5% of the planet's population, yet we consume more than 25% of the resources. This starkly belies the sense of true humility that our political leaders habitually evoke when they cynically appeal to our better angels. This has had the aggregate effect of convincing us not only that we can have it all, but that we should. Because God likes us better, or whatever.

Finally, to answer your first question, the excerpt is from the first Billmon post I linked. It's a very long post, well worth reading in its entirety, and the excerpt is from about two-thirds the way through.

Ron said...

What fucking cracks me up ad pisses me off is that these authoritarian fucks have gotten their way every inch down the goddamn line ad are still ready to boil George Bush in oil. Terr'ists ad beaners and fags, oh my! It's hard to believe that they can't seem to get enough intrusion,enough coercion, it's like some bizarre sickness. Like you said, this is the reaction of people who have been hit so many times theyre beginning to identify with the abuser. These people are the true useful idiots.They can explai any usurpation whatsoever and still use the other side of their mouth to talk about freedom.

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