Time to Put 2013 on a Shelf

Yes, the people who railed against a spy in our midst as evil and corrupt introduced a puppet, one who quietly recorded information about children in the privacy of their homes and reported it to a central division where that intel was documented for later use.

original2013 was a year of epic news stories. From the bombing at the Boston Marathon and New York’s Weiner/Spitzer political candidacy circus to Bradley Manning’s harsh sentencing and gender changeover to Chelsea, we were all glued to our televisions, smart phones, and Twitter newsfeeds. But the game changer, the story that broke and laid broken perceptions in its wake, were the revelations by Edward Snowden reported by then-Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald. My Facebook newsfeed was overtaken with articles opining about Snowden, statuses offering two-cents on Greenwald’s reporting, until the collective attention span was overridden with the next shiny object: Christmas.

The reactions to Snowden were as varied as the people reacting. Some christened him a hero while others dedicated their Facebook statuses to calling for his head. Some were blindsided by the insidious implications of the NSA spying program, so much broader than any of us dared to imagine, while some of us were nonplussed, having already figured that all that was private was ripe for plundering in the name of national security, and stating plainly that if you have nothing to hide, you had nothing to fear.

The reactions spanned the ideological fault lines. Liberals who had voiced loud opposition to the Patriot Act were largely silent as its expansion occurred on their beloved President’s watch and couldn’t be placed squarely on the shoulders of a one George W. Bush. California senator Dianne Feinstein was staunch in her anti-Snowden stance, calling for no clemency. And none other than Glen Beck tweeted, “I think I have just read about the man for which I have waited. Earmarks of a real hero.” I think he meant for whom he has waited.  (I’m resolving to be less snarky about grammatical errors in 2014, but since it’s still ’13: for whom, for whom, for whom, Beck.)  The Republican Party, not usually constrained by pesky civil liberties, is torn between defending a spy program that promises the utmost in national security and pretend outrage because they don’t want to miss a chance at jumping on a perceived blunder by the president. There was little room for both views of Snowden under the same blanket of “patriotism.”

This argument about whether he was a whistle-blower or a spy was shifted aside by the friends who show up on the newsfeed of my social media info-blasts. The merging of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah into Thanksgivakkah interrupted the outrage and philosophical discussion. What came on its heels was a fairly recent tradition. An elf.

Upon a shelf.

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Apparently, the day after Thanksgiving an elf appears in many (Christmas-celebrating) homes across America. Its job is to keep watch over the children and report any misdeeds to Santa, who would come down on them with swift punishment of the coal-bringing variety. The idea is that the children would adjust their behavior so that it would never get to that point. They would live in fear the five or so weeks before Christmas, well-behaved and docile, and then reap their rewards, American-style (bought on sale over the trampled bodies of the weak at Walmart.)

The pictures of the elf, moved nightly to show that he had flown to the North Pole and back after having a brief tete-a-tete with the Big Guy, became the staple of my Facebook newsfeed. He was often a trouble-maker, making messes all over the house, dutifully recorded by creative parents. Here he was in the bathroom, having squirted out all of the toothpaste. There’s a photo of the little guy TP-ing the Christmas tree! Now he’s in the kitchen where it looks like he’s shitting Hershey kisses onto thumbprint cookies.

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A welcome break from Snowden indeed.

Yes, the people who railed against a spy in our midst as evil and corrupt introduced a puppet, one who quietly recorded information about children in the privacy of their homes and reported it to a central division where that intel was documented for later use. Those who voiced support for Snowden as a heroic figure instrumental in bringing to task an overreaching NSA program whose methods defied the very Constitution it seeks to protect brought in an elf to listen in on private conversations. If our children don’t flinch at the building of a monstrous compound full of every phone call/email/ and social media comment ever uttered in their lives, might it be because they’ve been conditioned?

Instead of making idiotic arguments of a fictional Santa Claus’ racial integrity, why don’t we look into the political implications of the elf. Or we could just tell the kids that if they have nothing to hide, they’ve got nothing to fear.

But that elf looks pretty damn creepy to me.
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The 4th Amendment, the 4th Estate, and the Slope upon which we Slip

If we’re to welcome truth and transparency as we say we do, why the urge to persecute a truth teller?

In our earliest Politics and Government courses, we learn about how the United States set up a system of checks and balances to keep one particular part of government from becoming too powerful and thus, tyrannical. And so the branches were separated into executive, legislative, and judicial – each with distinct responsibilities and powers that could reel in the other two. We decentralized power from the federal to the state to give more power to the people and then imposed voting restrictions to make sure the people didn’t amass too much direct power themselves.

 

Unwritten into the three branches of government, but included in the Bill of Rights, is a fourth that, when used in the manner in which it was conceived, provides a check to an out of balance government that has merged the three branches into an monster of our own creation. At least, that’s what Edward Snowden is counting on the Fourth Estate to provide. His life, and much more, depends on it.

 

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of fear, especially when we have the first hand experience of terrorism in our recent memory. Many of us in New York and Washington witnessed the assaults on 9/11 firsthand. I did. In the wake of fear, we forfeited certain rights in the name of safety. And that’s what this debate that the president keeps saying he’s open to having is really all about: how much of our civil liberties are we willing to sacrifice in the name of safety? The Patriot Act was born of a time where we, as a nation, felt vulnerable to violence. We allowed our legislators to loosen its grip on our search and seizure laws to intercept information from terrorists. It was for our safety, and because the image of three thousand corpses lay fresh in our minds, we gave a half-hearted protest. Because we weren’t really protesting it. Because it felt safe.

 

And yet.

 

The great James Madison, in his discussion of what we should include in this radical experiment of a country, considered the checks on government to be tantamount to its lasting success. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

 

And yet, in giving the powers that be the go ahead to mine personal data, to torture, to assassinate, to use drones, to hold prisoners indefinitely and to persecute those who risk all to tell us about it is exactly a government who has failed to control itself. The checks aren’t working. The balance has tipped. And the last ditch effort of a true government of, by, and for the people is to bring the truth to the people through the press and hope they haven’t become so insulated by streams of information that they can discern what is at stake. And act.

 

The Fourth Estate cuts both ways: it can exonerate, and it can convict in the court of public opinion which wields incredible power. And the smear campaign predictably begins, with journalists combing through Snowden’s teenage web presence to his girlfriend’s salacious job. Much has been made about his GED, which speaks more to elitism than Snowden’s capability.  It’s lazy, it misses the point, and it tarnishes the bad name that some liberals have already earned. It has prompted respected columnists like Rick Unger, political contributor to Forbes Magazine, to fabricate a quote and deride Snowden’s reputation and respectability based on it.

 

“Snowden declared, during a live chat with the Guardian on Monday, that he believes that “all spying is wrong.” And because it is Snowden’s personal judgment that all spying is wrong, he also believes it appropriate that he reveal our covert activities to affected foreign governments without a shed of concern for what the rest of his fellow Americans might think about this.”

 

Except nowhere in the transcript of Snowden’s live chatdid he voice that sentiment. It was a deliberate misquote and an example of shoddy journalism by a respected writer in a respectable publication. Why? The revelations that Snowden disclosed secrets about our spy programs to China and at the G20 summit in 2009 provide a welcome relief to those who only want to vilify. Yet if we’re to welcome truth and transparency as we say we do, why the urge to persecute a truth teller? Might it be because we want no part of the truth that’s coming to light, because it opens up a can of worms which, at its bottom, reveals that our president is not the liberal wet dream we hoped he would be? That even without Republican obstructionism lies a man whose political philosophy is more complex than the Aaron Sorkin screenplay we’ve written for him in our imaginations?

 

If we paint Snowden as a bad guy, does that make Obama good? Is this the dichotomy that we have to choose between? Yeah, I kind of think it is. Are we to vilify Snowden for making an awkward situation for the president at this year’s G8 summit? Or do we celebrate that a citizen is making our president take responsibility? That is the job of the populace, who cannot do so if they are not informed. That is the job of the Fourth Estate. It’s how we keep the powers that be in check.

 

Yet, the media has largely kept up with the hero/traitor narrative, with most concluding the latter. Much has been made of his self-extradition to Hong Kong (and now Russia) as traitorous and cowardly, when it’s really another form of information – it brings to attention the lengths this administration has gone to persecute whistle-blowers. They are not safe in America anymore, as they were when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. There have even been assertions that Glen Greenwald, Snowden’s (in)famous interviewer (parentheses are depending on the audience reading this), should face persecution himself for the act of journalism.

 

These signify a dramatic change in this country, not only in legislation, but in the mindset of the governed. We have moved from a representative democracy that rests on inalienable rights to secret courts, private subcontractors of the NSA compiling files of our personal digital correspondence and the “people” of the US calling for the head of the person who brought it to light. The big picture here is the loss of the American value system. It’s easy to promote freedom of the press and freedom of speech, due process, and search and seizure protections when you aren’t afraid and there is no direct threat, but it’s much harder when you are. But I think it’s the cornerstone of who we are supposed to be and if we lose that, we lose the identity that people died for, fought for, wrote, argued, and marched for. It’s the last shred of justified exceptionalism.

 

We can question why Snowden’s revelations have prompted outrage because he’s making us confront a truth we’d rather not consider: we like spying. We are okay with unwarranted phone tappings and the blurred lines of the 4th Amendment. Because it  gives us the illusion that we are safer from the bad guys. That illusion is worth its weight in gold – or blood.

Or conscience.