Why is it so unlikely that Americans will take action to stop the outrageous electronic surveillance programs of the National Security Agency? The answer, to a depressing extent, is that our basic freedoms are threatened today because our political system and our very culture make it nearly impossible for us to act.
Back in 2005, when the New York Times reported that the NSA was engaged in probably-illegal wiretapping, it ignited a nationwide firestorm. When my progressive friends thought about the subject, it all fit a pattern: These thuggish Republicans, with their stupid militarism, their disregard for the Constitution, their disgusting certainty that God was on their side, of course they were also tapping peoples’ phones! It all made sense given what we knew about the Bush Administration. “Warrantless wiretaps” were one of a string of outrages —the others being “Katrina incompetence” and “Scooter Libby justice”—that Senator Barack Obama used to denounce in his campaign speech as a sort of incantation when he was running for the presidency in 2008. And that’s why, for a certain sort of idealistic liberal, this man Obama was the most desirable presidential candidate imaginable, and why so many greeted his election as something like a deliverance from evil.
And today it is Obama himself who countenances something very similar to “warrantless wiretaps.” It is not enough today to say that the president has disappointed his core supporters, or to point out that he and his top advisers today seem to regard idealistic liberals as something of an annoyance. With the NSA spying programs that he has overseen—and with his “kill list,” and with his drone strikes, and with his war on journalists, and with his war on leakers—Obama has actually done far worse than that. He has flown in the face of what he seemed to stand for—of what he promised in fact: open government, a respect for privacy and for the rule of law.
Those who wonder why a politician would do such a thing must remember how statesmanship is practiced, American-style. To snub and even to wound your most zealous supporters, as Obama has done, is regarded as a mark of maturity in Washington. This is not because snubbing or wounding them is a brave thing to do, but exactly the opposite: Because the righteous attitude of the idealist is repugnant to the men of power, who know that idealists are, in fact, men of weakness, entitled to neither courtesy nor respect.
What makes them weak is the structure of the American political system. When the public’s choices are limited to one of two parties, idealists have, as the Washington saying puts it, “nowhere else to go.” Since they aren’t about to defect to the other party, their claims on a Democrat’s attention are negligible. Their role is to shut up and cheer.
I say a “Democrat’s attention” because this is preeminently a dynamic of the Democratic party. Oh, it happens in Republican-land as well, especially to the evangelical army that mobilizes so faithfully every election day. But among Democratic leaders it’s a rite of passage: Snubbing the base and accommodating themselves to the demands of the powerful is simply what Democratic leaders do. It’s in their charter. As the owners of the righteousness of the historical left, they feel they can spurn liberals however they damn well please. Our job, as believers in equality, or privacy, or whatever, is simply to get in line.
The usual victims of this ugly ritual are Americans at the margins—minorities and working people. But with Obama’s war on privacy, it’s gone far beyond that. It’s civil libertarians as well. It’s journalists. It’s average citizens. It’s anyone who writes an email and entrusts it to an American company for delivery, which is to say, it’s the whole world. Now all of you get to find out what it’s like to be a subject of the American two-party system, to be treated as a foolish idealist, offensive to the sensibilities of the Washington political cartel. Now it’s you who has nowhere else to go.
So that’s the first reason nothing will happen: because our system is built that way. There are others. For example, there’s the utter inability of Americans to conceive of computers as anything other than freedom machines. Recall, in this connection, the most famous depictions of the personal computer of all time: the „1984“ commercial in which the Apple Macintosh was likened to a sledgehammer smashing a great telescreen that Big Brother had used to enslave us all. Images of computers from the Fifties and Sixties had been pretty much the opposite: They were instruments of cold economic calculation; the devices that would reduce citizens to numbers and workers to cogs in the organization.
Big Brother is back these days, but in the meantime, the country has invested itself so deeply in its fantasy of cyber-liberation that no outrage will be sufficient to move it. The great seers of the free-market right have long told us that the power of the Internet will erase all forms of tyranny from the planet, just as it also demands we cut corporate tax rates and roll back bank regulation. The moderate Democrats believe the same thing: Spread “Internet freedom,” asserts the U.S. State Department, and other freedoms will automatically follow. The indignant left, for its part, thinks the smartphone is the tool that will promulgate universal enlightenment and fan the flames of discontent.
How each of these factions will deal with the NSA’s complete negation of their faith remains to be seen, but I am not hopeful. The rule in American life during my time on this planet has been that reality comes second to an attractively presented freedom-fantasy, whether it’s a fantasy of economic freedom, a fantasy of educational freedom, or a fantasy of freedom in Iraq.
Another reason Americans will almost certainly do nothing about this outrage is that it’s not an outrage to them at all. We are blasé about the whole thing. We believe, to an alarming degree, that there’s nothing strange about some bureaucrat reading our email or listening to our phone calls; that this sort of thing has been happening for a long time; that it is in fact the nature of government to spy on its citizens. Why do we think this? Because these are lessons each of us has absorbed from careful, lifelong study of Hollywood entertainment, which assures us that government is all-knowing and all-powerful. It suits Hollywood spokesmen, of course, to claim that they have no influence over — and hence bear no responsibility for — the screwed-up workings of the American mind, but the polls and the blogs and the cynicism of the public tell a different story.