The Long Twilight Struggle of the 21st Century: We Can Give in, We Can Hide, We Can Fight, or We Can Leave
In the previous installment, we observed that Americans are going to find themselves in a “two-front war--a scary one at home, and a scarier one abroad.” That is, in an ongoing struggle against an intrusive and abusive government at home, and an equally ongoing struggle, covert and overt, against foreign foes, from Al Qaeda to Iran, from Cuba to China, from Russia to North Korea.
These are, indeed, “forever wars,” in the sense that we can never expect a final victory against domestic governments that inevitably seek to overreach, and against international powers, some of which inevitably wish to do us harm. Oh, and by the way, we also have to deal with the occasional nogoodnik in our own population; it’s possible that Edward Snowden, for example, started out as a naive self-appointed whistleblower, and yet it’s clear by now, as he travels to Russia or Venezuela or wherever, that he’s become someone’s espionage asset.
Okay, so that’s a daunting--to some, frightening--set of circumstances in which we live. Yet the reality that we are confronted by enemies is nothing new; at one time or another, the US has been at war with just about every other great power in the world, from Britain to Germany, from Russia to China--even Mexico and Canada.
Indeed, the recognition of the danger all around us is, in a way, both clarifying and stimulating. The world will always be a scary place, and if that’s daunting, well, it’s also inspiring, because oftentimes we are at our best when under pressure.
Yes, it’s unfortunate that our current President chooses to define U.S. national security in terms of global warming. And so we will take time away from thwarting foreign enemies to try to stop Barack Obama from outlawing the US productive economy in pursuit of some quixotic “green” ideal. So that’s yet another struggle we face: a “green” government that wants to close us down, even as China builds itself up.
Let’s step back for a moment and take stock of our overall situation in 2013.
In the larger sense, what should we do in the face of these threats to our liberty and well-being, foreign and domestic? How should we react? As a people, we have four basic choices over the next century: We can give in, we can hide, we can fight, or we can leave.
That’s a grim quartet, one might say, putting added darkness into the long twilight struggle. Yet some of those possibilities are less grim than others--and one of them, if we can hang on long enough, is downright liberating.
So let’s review our options:
First, give in.
Let’s face it: Most people already have given in. They’ve known for years that all this is happening, in terms of snooping and surveillance, and they have, for the most part, appreciated its benefits. If you ever wondered how Google or Amazon or Expedia or Facebook could be so helpful to you--well, you didn’t wonder, because you already knew. And now that most data is up in the cloud, it’s even easier for the snoopers to snoop; there’s little need for them to go rummaging through the computer on your desk at home, because they can go skywalking through your data by remote control.
Even diehard Second Amendment advocates--NRA Life Member, the whole schmeer--might ask themselves if the government really needs gun registration to know the whereabouts of people’s guns. If Silicon Valley knows all your purchases, and knows what you have put on display on a web page, and knows the contents of your e-mail and phone calls, and knows where you travel and when--then the government knows all that, too.
Indeed, when we learn that the chief security officer of Facebook, one Max Kelly, left Facebook to take a job with the NSA, we know that the osmosis between the tech community and intel community is, shall we say, instant. In other words, even if no new gun-control or registration bill is enacted in Washington, the feds already know about most of our guns.
We have entered into the era of totalitarian surveillance--not totalitarian control, at least not yet-- but totalitarian surveillance.
Still, we get unpleasant surprises, as to just how comprehensive the new surveillance is turning out to be. For example, Richard Satran, writing for US News, reported in a pair of stories back in April that the IRS was making full use of social media tools to monitor taxpayers--that is, making real-time, ongoing, never-ending audits. IRS agents, of course, have full access to your Social Security number and Taxpayer Identification Number; so those data, joined with your entire social-media “graph,” or profile, make it possible for the IRS to know just about everything about you.
Satran’s stories were based on work by a left-leaning libertarian group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, going back several years. EFF had filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the IRS and had therefore succeeded in unearthing a trove of documents revealing the IRS social-media monitoring efforts, which it then posted on March 16. The documents show in copious detail how the IRS was training its agents to make them better “at locating taxpayers and determining their online business activity.” And the Justice Department has a similar online surveillance program, which outlines ways in which G-Men (that’s old slang for government enforcers, although if the same shorthand works for Google, just as well) can “friend” people for the purpose of scrutinizing them.
We might note that all these revelations came out before news of the rogue IRS operation in Cincinnati. And while it’s possible to wonder if higher-ups knew about what Lois Lerner & Co. were doing in Ohio, it’s not possible to wonder about these social-media surveillance techniques--these were definitely official policy.
One might be tempted to ask, “Who needs the National Security Agency, if you have Facebook and Google?” That is, we have wondered now, for a while, if the NSA intercepts were leaking outside of the national security sphere, to the rest of the government. But now we know that other government intercepts--by the IRS and the Justice Department--were, in fact, beginning outside of the national security sphere. And who knows where they went after that?
Meanwhile, the private sector seeks to keep up on the surveillance front. Probably not too many subscribers to the Bloomberg Professional Service--the financial wizards who have been paying $15,000 or more a year for a Bloomberg terminal--ever thought that Bloomberg, through its news division, was itself was spying on them, watching their every keystroke and search result. The New York Times recently quoted one Bloomberg News veteran: “Reporters, we’re snoopy guys. We read everyone’s stuff. If you had access to something you weren’t supposed to have, the first thing we’d do was go into that.”
In other words, we have the full public-private panopticon: Big Brother, and his little brothers and little sisters.
People have speculated that technology could run amok and pose a threat to life and liberty ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein back in 1818.
And 180 years later, in 1998 Google launched its search engine, declaring, as its mission, “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
In the years since, we have seen not only Google search, but also Gmail, YouTube, Google glasses, Google driverless cars, and now, most recently, most recently, Google Now, Google’s new “virtual assistant.” As one digital observer puts it, “Google Now nearly represents the phone coming to life, acting on its own and without your direction.” Is that all good? How does that sort of capacity sound in the wake of all these surveillance revelations?
Now, in the words of the Center for Digital Democracy’s Jeffrey Chester, “We’ve crossed a digital Rubicon here; there’s no going back. Big data is ruling our lives, and the big question is whether there will be any kind of limits here, protecting our consumer information and our democratic right to privacy.”
So do we simply accept it all? Do we bow down to our new digital overlords? No, even hell no.
Giving in to tyranny is not the American Way.
It’s been reported that use of the anonymous search engine Duckduckgo is surging. That is, people want to get away from Google. And for personal transactions of all kinds, we have many options for encryption, including new kinds of underground currency, such as Bitcoin.
Of course, the rich and powerful have ideas that go beyond mere personal secretiveness.
We have all read about the offshore bank accounts both of top Republicans and top Democrats, but even they should beware--a new wave of financial scrutiny and enforcement is coming. The G-8 countries, including the US, eager to maximize their revenues, are now taking a tougher look at tax havens around the world. It will be a long struggle for states to gain mastery of offshore accounts, but bureaucrats are nothing if not stubborn in their persistence, especially when it comes to gaining revenues and building empires.
Meanwhile, if you simply want personal privacy, you’ll have to pay more. If, for example, you want to eliminate, or at least obscure, your trail on Google, you can hire online “scrubbers” on your behalf. And yet because every online tool that you might use is also an online tool to be used against you, it’s really difficult to fully erase your digital footprint.
So unless you are willing to go completely off the grid, they are going to know where you are.
A Rasmussen poll, released in June, found that 56 percent of Americans think that the federal government is a threat to their individual rights--that’s up by 10 points since December.
That much-justified sentiment is animating action across the political spectrum. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), for one, is eager to lead the fight on the right. He famously filibustered a domestic drone program, and now he intends to file a class-action lawsuit against the phone companies.
The left, for its part, has been more complacent about the new spying news, because, after all, it’s their man in the White House. Still, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has been a forceful champion of civil liberties, and the lefty grassroots--more precisely, Netroots--are plenty angry at the Democratic establishment.
Will the right and the left coalesce in a pro-freedom effort? Will Republicans be willing to antagonize private-sector snoops? Will Democrats be willing to antagonize Obama administration snoops? We shall see.
Meanwhile, the European Union has long been stricter about privacy; France, in particular, is getting tough. Yet as we have seen, privacy is only as strong as its weakest link. That is, your personal data can be safeguarded in Europe, but those safeguards are worthless if someone in Washington DC, or Silicon Valley, can tap right in.
So it’s going to be a fierce political fight, every step of the way, over all these Big Data projects and programs. Will the law, anywhere, be able to keep up with the latest advances in predictive analytics? Or the Internet of Things?
Oh, and another thing: As we seek to beat back surveillance of all kinds, we need to make sure that the big winners are not the terrorists. It would be a shame, indeed, if we passed laws that protected the privacy and freedom of action of some suitcase-nuke bomber. If we ever did make a mistake and allow such an attack, man, would there be a backlash--and a crackdown!
To sum up so far, when confronted with manifold threats, we have the options of giving in, trying to hide, and fighting back. Of those, giving in is obviously unacceptable to any red-blooded Breitbart News reader. Hiding is a little better, but not likely to work. Fighting back is a good and necessary option--it’s what we’re doing now. But as we have seen, that fight will go on forever, and it will never be won.
So that leaves the fourth option--leaving. Let’s not forget: The Pilgrims came here because they didn’t want to stay in Europe. Indeed, the vast majority of Americans can trace their ancestry to some country in which the mostly young and restless didn’t wish to remain. Even within the US, pioneers went west; some, such as the 49ers; sought gold, some, such as the Mormons, sought religious freedom; some, such as Daniel Boone, simply sought solitude.
So where will freedom-loving, adventurous--or just greedy--Americans go next?
One idea that’s, er, floating around is “seasteading,” as a play on homesteading. The idea is to create a new country out on the ocean, with its own rules and taxes--if any. Well, put me down as skeptical. It’s possible to imagine a Russian expat billionaire putting out to sea on a giant yacht--some models are now more than 500 feet long--for the rest of his life, and if he plays his cards right, he won’t get mutinied, hijacked, or sunk for the fun of it.
But create a whole new country? Declare independence from the world? That’s not going to happen. Yes, seven miles off the coast of England, there’s already the independent “country” of Sealand, built on a 6000-square-foot World War Two-era platform built for anti-aircraft guns. But no other country has recognized Sealand, and so nobody would stop the UK government from simply reasserting its sovereignty any time it wished. Right now, Sealand exists as a sort of novelty item; it sells coins and trinkets and even invented titles of nobility. But were Sealand ever to start challenging national or international law, it would come to a swift end. As a category, the countries of the world aren’t unaware of their own interest in collecting taxes and enforcing laws--mostly, of course, collecting taxes.
In a world of spy satellites and drones--not to mention navies--there’s no place to hide.
So what to do? Are we stuck? And the answer is, essentially, “yes”--unless we can get off the earth. When a place gets crowded, it gets less free, and the earth is getting more crowded. More people equals more needs, more wants, more laws, more bureaucrats--more enforcers of all kinds.
In the long run, we need to remember the basic lesson of America and the New World: It really helps if you get to start afresh on virgin soil.
And that’s the ultimate logic behind all exploration. Unfortunately, as we have seen, the earth is thickly populated, and so if we really want to chart a new course for freedom, we will have to do it somewhere else--on the moon or elsewhere.
The US Government had the big vision of going to space in the 60s and into the 70s, but that was mostly a Cold War thing. Then, as the Cold War ratcheted down, and needs-here-at-home liberalism ratcheted up, the expansionist space ambition faded. The last American walked on the moon back in 1972.
Today, as various countries think about colonizing the moon--and changing the solar system power equation, to their advantage, for the next millennium--the 44th President here worries more about the mirage of “climate change.” (Earth to Obama: The Chinese and Indians don’t care! You can make a deal with Denmark, and that’s about it!)
Yet the House Republicans, to their credit, recently voted to proceed with a US colony on the moon, at an estimated cost of $250 to $500 billion--although, of course, nobody knows what it would really cost. On the pessimistic side, we know that the government has a way of lowballing costs and then suffering overruns; on the optimistic side, it’s possible that a serious commitment to space, boosted by new thinking from the private sector, could lead to the colony costing a lot less.
Of course, the House Republicans, by themselves, can’t make anything happen in 2013; it takes the Senate, the President, and a couple of decades.
Still, it’s nice to see at least a flicker of American interest And even that small circle of light offers hope that Americans will get off this planet--and that the moon will become something other than a Chinese prison camp.
Even libertarians, in fact, should cheer the idea of NASA--or, more likely, some public-private hybrid NASA--going back to the moon.
Why? Because as soon as Americans get to the moon, a new cycle of relations between the mother country and the daughter colony will begin. The first English settlers arrived on America shores in 1585, although the first settlement to survive wasn’t until 1607; it was a hard and perilous business, coming to the New Land. And yet within two centuries, as we all know, the 13 colonies had thrown off their masters, and a new nation was born.
The science fiction novelist Robert Heinlein had all this in mind when he published his 1966 novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. In his tale, earthlings on the moon are called “Loonies,” after “Luna”; they declare their independence from earth on July 4, 2076. After a bloody struggle, the Loonies successfully emancipate themselves from the mother planet. Happy ending.
Heinlein’s libertarian novel has been cheering liberty-lovers and revolutionaries ever since, but while we are down here, still on earth, we still have to think about how to get up there.
Over the long run, the best guarantee for a free America, anywhere, is an America 2 up in space. Still, at best, it’s going to be a long slog, and for the time being, we can’t lose the American we have. So welcome, again, to the long twilight struggle.
Meanwhile, as we break down all the challenges facing us, there’s still the issue of keeping America strong and safe.
Next: Fighting wars smarter--and better.
The debate between Hamiltonian federalists and Jacksonian decentralization has raged throughout American history. Their philosophical debate -- a debate weighing the necessity of government action versus the prevention of government abuses -- continues today in these pages. You can read the Hamiltonian perspective here, and the Jacksonian perspective here.