The U.S. and the N.S.A. Scandal: Freedom: The Big American Lie
Von Thomas Frank
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.
Spread “Internet freedom,” and other freedoms will automatically follow
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.
That's what we learned from Hollywood
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.
Anyway, it’s all forgotten already. We’re on to a different fantasy. Here and there an old-school journalist may yet gnash his teeth about our threatened privacy, but the rest of us have apparently decided to regard the whole thing as an exciting chase scene, with the leaker Edward Snowden dashing about the globe, staying one step ahead of the bumbling Feds, just like in the movies. It’s America’s world; the rest of you are just scenery.
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