Nothing’s better than that feeling you got something right…right?
Nobody likes being duped. It’s embarrassing and humiliating, especially when it’s something you just know you should have seen coming at the time. For most of us, especially those of us involved in politics or at least those who follow it intently, it is an especially hard pill to swallow that we avoid most of the time almost without thinking about it. We like to believe we were right all along on every issue that comes up, and I know I’ve caught myself several times reading a story on one subject or another nodding my head and thinking how I saw that scandal coming a mile away.
But what if the entire country was wrong about something? Would we be able to accept that, or would we be more interested in the chance to pretend we were right all along?
This dynamic is exactly why the delayed reaction scandal over the NSA surveillance program is so important, and why it’s even more important to stop thinking of this as a ?scandal? and start thinking of it it as what it is: something we have an opportunity to change if we can just put our collective ego aside for a moment.
The reaction to the sudden revelations by a twenty-nine year old that the government is–still–spying on us is at this point nothing more than an argument over what kind of catharsis the public would rather have–whether we’re supposed to think we were always right that surveillance is a necessity or we’re supposed to think we were always right that surveillance is fundamentally wrong and anti-democratic.
At first glance this issue plays out just like any other security vs. civil liberties debate, with very strange bedfellows being made on each side of the issue as usual. Politicians and online weekend word warriors alike are jumping into the fray with various arguments on either side. On the security side Joe Klein defends the NSA program as legal and continues to publicly support the Patriot Act. David Brooks wrote a similar style of piece, the only key difference being that his defense of security came in the form of tearing apart the character of NSA leaker Mr. Snowden, pointing out the groups of American citizens Mr. Snowden betrayed one way or another. Al Franken, former comedian and Democratic Senator from Minnesota, joined others in Congress defending the program as well.
On the other side stands an equally unlikely cast of characters. Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and Beck were first to criticize the program and once again warn their shrinking cults of believers that black Hitler is still coming for their guns and listening to their racist phone calls, despite the fact that they threw their support behind the exact same measure when it was originally passed under the previous president. Slate wrote a passionate article that seemed to react in shock to the complacency, even docility, that some parts of the public were and are still showing in their reactions to this issue. Even the great George Takei commented on the subject, understandably and justifiably worried about state surveillance in the future. ?We have to be ever vigilant against overstepping of the fundamental ideals of our democracy,? Takei said.
And the thing of it is, our lack of vigilance earlier is exactly why this is a scandal now. There is nothing new about the surveillance program the NSA launched with the passage of the act establishing FISA at the end of the Bush administration. There is nothing new about the Patriot Act that was passed back in 2001 out of fear and anger in the wake of the terrorist attacks that year. This scandal involving the latest government surveillance initiative is an expression of public catharsis. Public opinion about these programs is finally changing. We can finally begin to talk about government surveillance without having to endure the Giuliani 9/11 argument. Eventually, this program will join other violations of our rights in the history books going back to surveillance of civil rights activists and anti-war crusaders in the 1960s, internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, and even the poll tax. We will condemn this along with rest as being wrong for democracy, as being black spots in American history. But what’s the point of condemning these actions if we continue to allow ourselves to be fooled into docility, seeing our liberties trampled on again and again and again?
George Takei was right. Let’s have our moment of public catharsis for now, jeering at the government and whatever politicians we don’t like in particular about how we were right and saw this coming all along. For a little while, because the public needs catharsis to heal, it’s okay to pretend we were the victims all along. But let’s not forget when it’s time to tell our children this story that we were in fact the perpetrators, manipulated out of fear to hand over our rights. Let’s tell them why that’s wrong. And let’s make sure future generations never forget what Mr. Takei said: that we must remain ever vigilant. We, after all, have only those rights which we actively defend.
Edited and published by CB