Saturday, June 15, 2013

Confused about the NSA collecting our phone records? This might help...

The NSA phone records whistle-blower issue is an intellectual buffet of ideas that we haven't seen in a long time.  The reason this one issue is so different than everything else we get bombarded with is it doesn't allow us to follow our normal pattern of opinion forming, which is to land on the side of people that we've already decided we trust.  For example, if you trust Obama then you are for healthcare reform; if you don't trust him, then you're against it--pretty simple.  We all function this way, no matter how actively engaged in current debate issues we are.  I trust the journalists Matt Taibbi and Chris Hayes, and when they present an opinion on an issue that I don't know anything about, it is easy for me to adopt their views on the issue.  I don't blindly go about this, and I'm not afraid to disagree with them, but they are two people with whom I have developed a deep sense of trust in how they approach complicated issues.

So here we have this issue that nobody really knows how to feel about.  I've seen very few opinions from my conservative friends and relatively few from my liberal friends--most of which are just along the lines of "Snowden did a good thing." This says nothing about the deeper issue at hand, but even more fascinating is where the political superstars are falling on this issue.

Snowden is a criminal and should be punished, and this spying program is what we need.
President Obama
Lindsey Graham
Al Franken
Peter King

Snowden is a hero and should be celebrated, and this spying program goes against who we are
Al Gore
Rand Paul
Glen Beck
Michael Moore

When will we ever see these guys agree on anything again? There is no other issue that will divide these players into these group, and that is just one of the things that makes this so fascinating.   On social and environmental issues I'm very liberal, so I do have varying degrees of trust in both Obama and Al Gore.  But I can easily place Lindsey Graham and Glen Beck in the "I do not trust at all" category.  So I, and most all of us, are in brand new, uncharted territory of having no guiding lights with this issue, and we haven't even gotten into the particulars of the main issue at hand.  I love this!  This is the intellectual equivalent of our own version of "Survivorman:" being thrust into the wilderness and having to make every decision with only a modicum of information.  If you like intellectual adventure, this is it.

Edward Snowden
One thing I do know is that this is not about Edward Snowden, in the same way that the WikiLeaks case is not--and should never be--about Bradley Manning.  Fox news and other so called news outlets go straight for the dirt and try to drudge up these guys' personal lives and cast them as fractured and deceptive beasts.  If you see this in the news don't fall for it.  It is the laziest and ugliest form of journalism and embarrasses the entire industry. Manning and Snowden knowingly and willingly broke their employer agreements, believing the consequences were worth the risk, and they will face those consequences.  But demonizing whistle-blowers and allowing the bigger issues to take a back-page into the nebulous unresolved ether is not how we should deal with these situations. 

The lens that this issue should be viewed through is how we want our government to function in today's information age, and there is no easy black and white answers here.  Most Americans don't want the NSA compiling all of their personal information in a huge database, but then most Americans are ok with the NSA using phone records to track terrorists.  So it isn't an easy issue, and I have a hunch that this is only the beginning of revalations about secret NSA tactics.

The NSA headquaters even looks ominous.
But I think I can give you a few specks of light for your lens.  It may seem like this is a brand new information age issue, but it really isn't, and we do have some historical perspective to help us.  Our massive intelligence-gathering industry was developed during the Cold War, for good reasons.  We were in a nuclear standoff with Russia, and there was really other no option to protect ourselves.  But after the Cold War wound down, we were stuck with this massive bored but aggressive gorilla in the room, and this is what we have to be cautious of.  What started as a positive thing for our country quickly turned onto our own citizens--most importantly the leaders of the civil rights movement.  This is the most perfect example of how something that can be seen as useful and positive one second can be turned against us the next.  As the civil rights movement heated up, our government and CIA turned the huge angry gorilla of intelligence industry onto the leaders of this movement, and we saw how quickly things can turn sour when the powers that be are challenged.  So we don't have to look far to find our government and intelligence industry being on the wrong side of history.
King leaving the FBI after questioning.
Partisan rhetoric and Tea Party notwithstanding, you might be surprised that most everyone in the upper levels of politics does trust Obama on this matter.  Remember that Lindsey Graham and Peter King are on his side.  This is not about our current administration abusing these powers; what we are all afraid of is if we somehow get stuck with a truly bad administration that will use these powers for nefarious purposes.  We have to decide these issues not just on what is best for us now, but what is best for us in the future under less than ideal leaders.
Joseph McCarthy
The other side of this issue that I believe has created a numb confusion on this issue is the knowledge that all of our information is always being collected by the Googles and Facebooks of the world.  We are aware of this and are mostly comfortable with it, since we still use Gmail and Facebook; so hearing that our phone records were collected by the government didn't create the immediate visceral outrage that it would have a decade ago.  We've already given up so much of our sense of privacy, so why should we care if the NSA is using our phone records to track the evil people that want to kill innocents?  The simple answer is that Google and Facebook don't have the power to arrest you, ruin your life, and break families apart on erroneous and scattered information.   None of this matters when you are Lindsey Graham, a rich white southern man, who will never be profiled.   But we aren't all rich white southern men, are we?  In fact, I met an Iranian man the other night at Foothills Brewery who was amazingly fascinating and intelligent and is someone that I want to stay in touch with.  He lives in England and comes to NC often for his work.  If he and I stay in touch will that put me on a watch list?  Other than the red-neck banjo player watch list, of course.  You can see how easy these issues that at first seem non-tangible to us can digress into something very real.

These are the real issues here.  It is not about the whistle-blowers: it is about the type of society we want to live in, and the powers we want to grant our government to keep us safe.  So for once we can't just fall in line with whatever side the conservatives and democrats decide to fall on.  We have to think about this for ourselves, and I am glad that we have this opportunity.  If we had more of these opportunities maybe we wouldn't blindly side with whatever talking points are rammed down our throats by the powers that be, which have been rammed down their throats by the real powers that be: the corporations.  Americans having to think for ourselves--I'm all for it. 

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