So which should we be more afraid of? The US Government and its scandalous–even tyrannous–intrusions on our finances and privacy? Or foreign enemies with their explosives, cyber-weapons, and nukes?
Is your answer “both,” I agree. But we will all have to get used to these threats, because neither are going anywhere. In 1961, John F. Kennedy described the Cold War as a “long twilight struggle,” and he was right. The Cold War was finally won, 30 years later, but at enormous cost. And as we all know, new enemies, domestic and foreign, have developed since.
Yes, the US government is scary. We now realize that seemingly every electronic communication service in the country has been tapped by Uncle Sam. When we learn that the National Security Agency (NSA) has a program called “Boundless Informant“–well, we’d better believe it.
But come on, admit: You already kind of knew this was happening, didn’t you? I mean, since the PATRIOT Act in 2001, since the revelation in 2005 that the Bush administration had been tapping our phones for the previous three years, it’s been understood–or it should have been understood–that everything we did, on the phone or online, was being monitored.
Still, those who had the most faith in Obama–a blind faith–are feeling a bit betrayed right now. On June 6, The Huffington Post headlined “George W. Obama,” atop a morphed-together photograph of the 43rd and 44th presidents. Huff Po will continue to support Obama, of course, but Arianna won’t be quite as much of a groupie. Meanwhile, other video-editing wiseguys have put together video compilations of Obama and Bush, showing them saying the exact same thing about the value of their surveillance programs.
The takeaway here is the enormous continuity between presidents, even of different parties. The imperatives of the job–and the realities of the world–have a way of forcing presidents to behave in similar, if not identical, ways.
Shrewd Beltway observers have always been hip to this continuity. Back on January 20, 2009, the day that Obama was first inaugurated, Washington Post reporter Bart Gellman–author of a biography of the secrecy-minded Dick Cheney–hinted that the new president would show Cheneyesque tendencies:
Information technology, and the executive’s control of its fruits, are widely cited in explaining presidential dominance over Congress. Every recent president has regarded himself as the primary judge of what information to share and what to withhold on grounds of executive privilege or national security.
Gellman’s 2009 reportorial analysis, we might conclude, has proven more reliable than Obama’s 2013 claim that his administration is “the most transparent in history.”
Oh, and by the way, speaking of Obama pledges gone awry, our war-ending, Nobel Peace Prize-winning president also seems to have declared cyber-war on other countries. Indeed, we might ask: Per Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution, did anyone in Congress vote on this new offensive? The answer, of course, is “no.”
However, it seems likely that top Members of Congress quietly approved of these cyber-attacks abroad, as well as the cyber-snoops here at home. Congress hasn’t formally declared war on anybody since 1941, and yet in the seven decades since, the US has fought overseas dozens of times. For the most part, Congress seems to have been perfectly happy not being asked to vote; it’s better, Capitol Hill denizens seem to think, to let the White House take the burden of responsibility for foreign military ventures. And so maybe now, too, for foreign cyber-ventures.
Similarly, top Members of Congress seem to have been apprised of domestic surveillance programs, and none of them seem to have objected. Speaking of lawmakers on Friday, Obama asserted that there’s been plenty of covert Congressional oversight on surveillance, adding, “These are the folks you all vote for as your representatives in Congress, and they are being fully briefed on these programs.”
Yes, a few lawmakers, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), have protested, but it’s not immediately obvious, shall we say, that he has any sort of Capitol Hill groundswell behind him. Moreover, it’s also not immediately obvious that the country as a whole is riled up. Yes, big segments of the population–to say nothing of the media–are outraged, but as for the nation as a whole, not so much.
The public might yet erupt if it turns out that, say, the IRS was making use of the NSA data somehow, but that hasn’t happened–at least not yet.
Why this seeming lack of national outrage?
One reason, as we have seen, is that people have long thought that the government has been spying on them.
A second reason is that the private sector has been spying on the public even more meticulously than Uncle Sam.
And Silicon Valley has been the spearhead of that spying. Back in 1999, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, famously dismissed privacy concerns: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
McNealy’s words caused an uproar, but he had a point: The Internet is a two-way street. If it’s easy for us to use the Net, it’s easy for the Net to use us.
How do you think Google gained a market capitalization of nearly $300 billion, when it gives away just about everything it creates? Google enjoys about two-thirds of the search market in the US; the value-proposition for Google is we, the people–and all our data.
Moreover, around the globe, its search engine boasts a billion unique visitors every month. So Google isn’t just “we the people”–it’s “we are the world.”
Meanwhile, 91 percent of Americans today have cell phones. We know, of course, that the government is tracking our phone calls; the only remaining question is whether or not they are also listening to those calls. A presidential denial, no matter how emphatic, ought not get in the way of our “paranoia.”
In addition, if you have a smartphone–and more than half of Americans do–then you probably also have a bunch of downloaded apps that are monitoring every move you make, maybe even every breath you take.
In the wake of all the latest revelations, we might ask: Has there been any mass renunciation of the digital world? How many people have actually given up their computers and smart phones and tablets?
We might note that Scott “Zero Privacy” McNealy sold Sun Microsystems to Oracle in 2009–and since then, he has become increasingly active in Republican politics, and of late has been advising the Republican National Committee on its digital strategy.
Meanwhile, speaking of Republicans, there’s a strain of libertarian thought maintaining that any and all snooping is okay, so long as it’s the free-market-based private sector doing it. That is, it’s okay for Google to know everything about you, because you, the consumer, operating in the market, freely consented to use Google. By contrast, libertarian thinking goes, governments operate by coercion, and so governmental snooping is therefore illegitimate. That’s not a bad theoretical distinction–free market vs. coercion–although in the real world, the distinction starts to collapse.
For instance, if the private sector knows all about you, the public sector can just come along and grab the private-sector data, making that private data all its own. This is more than a theoretical possibility; in fact, it’s exactly what has happened, as the government has tapped into Google and all the rest.
Okay, so that’s the dire situation on the homefront. Yes, our freedoms have been eroded in myriad ways–Rush Limbaugh has spoken of an Obama “coup” against American freedoms–but we don’t seem to object that much, especially if objecting would cost us our access to convenient and free stuff.
Meanwhile, of course, looking beyond the threat from within, we can’t forget the even greater threat from abroad. We have enemies. Al Qaeda has never given up trying to attack us, the North Koreans say they can nuke us, the Iranians are trying hard to gain that nuking capacity, and the Chinese really could do it.
Indeed, as Hamilton noted in the previous installment, if the Chinese have “pervasive access” to the 80 percent of the world’s communications–look on your computer or phone or PDA and see where it was made–then we all have a problem. It’s bad enough that the American government knows all about what we’re doing; it would be even worse if the Chinese government knew everything.
To sum up, yes, we have things to be afraid of here at home. Yet still, the even more fearful things are overseas.
So we might think of ourselves as being in a two-front war–a scary one at home, and a scarier one abroad. It’s a two-front forever war, we might say, because the US government isn’t going anywhere, and neither are the overseas threats.
What to do? How to react? We have four choices: 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 this new “long twilight struggle.”
On the other hand, it’s best to view the situation clearly, however grim it might be. In seeing the future with clarity, we can yet find liberation.
Next: The Grim Quartet for the Long Twilight Struggle of the 21st Century
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.