Friday, 28 June 2013

Demonising Edward Snowden

Make no mistake: the US administration is very badly rattled by the revelations that they spy, at a massive scale, on all its citizens and many non-US citizens.  One common response I see repeatedly in the blog/news sphere is the comment "We already knew this was happening; Snowden has done little to advance our knowledge".  No.  We might reasonably have suspected it.  We might even have had evidence of some aspects of it.  But it is a far cry from that to the now absolute certainty that it is happening and on such a vast scale.  What Snowden did was heroic, informative, and very dangerous for him.

Another common response from the administration apologists is to declare that innocent people have nothing to hide.  Many people have said, but it is worth repeating, that this is unbelievably naive.  We have all got something to hide.  We all need privacy.  I do not want my government to use my private secrets against me if ever I do need to defend myself against an accusation.  I do not want to use my toilet in a glass-walled room.  I do not want the opinions I had thirty years ago to be used against me.  Isn't that absolutely obvious?  And isn't it absolutely obvious that I have a right to that protection?

I would love the consequence of the NSA's activities coming to light to be a rueful admission by the US administration that they have gone way too far in ignoring the rights of their people.  Obviously that would in turn also be unbelievably naive.  So what do I expect to actually happen?

Well,  I don't think they will try to seize Snowden and "render" him back to the US.  I believe they will be much more subtle and wage a campaign in the media to gradually discredit him.  Already we see that officialdom's main response is to ignore the actual content of the leaks and concentrate on his breaking of US law.  That is going to continue to be the issue that they hammer home.  Unfortunately they have a huge advantage in a war of opinion.  They have thousands of opinion-moulders and free access to every major news outlet.  Snowden and his supporters cannot match that propaganda machine.

To begin with, many US journalists who might well have known or suspected what was going on and turned an expedient (or cowardly) blind eye have clearly felt some irritation at missing out on the scoop of the decade.  Where in the US Press do we see the staunch defenders of their constitution?  Where is the outrage at what has been done to their society?  Instead we see nuanced discussions about how or whether Snowden has broken the law.  Where is the recognition that it is clearly impossible for Snowden to get a fair hearing from the US authorities?

Furthermore the US administration can channel opinion pieces in droves to the media.  Overwhelmingly we shall therefore see articles attacking Snowden personally and down-playing the surveillance issues.  Oh - you didn't think that some US officials might not tow the administration line, did you?  Why should they when they haven't done hitherto?

Only time will tell whether the administration can successfully distract the public attention from the real issue.  If that sounds pessimistic let me close with one optimistic comment.  I have read many article in the US Press about Snowden and, although most of them ignore or downplay the enormity of the NSA's trampling over civil rights, the comments of readers are much more supportive.  What I hope will happen is that this evidently large supportive constituency of folk, who understand that the true issue is civil liberties not breach of employment contract, will eventually have an effect on those powerful vested interests who wish to sweep the real issue under the carpet.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A limerick for the NSA

Their actions are dirty and base
But now they've been put in their place
They cannot have known
When the whistle was blown
How much egg they would find on their face

Friday, 14 June 2013

American lies

The US is claiming that the Syrian government has used poison gas against their rebel opponents, and they are using this as a reason to engage in the conflict on the rebel side.  Should we believe or discount their claim?  I have no idea but the fact that the claim was made adds nothing to whether I think it might be true.  The problem is that, in providing excuses for war, the US has absolutely no credibility.  I think about the Iraq war and the lies they told then about weapons of mass destruction.

The FBI is claiming that Edward Snowden's revelations have jeopardized American lives.  Should we believe or discount this claim?  Again, I have no idea.  Again the claim adds nothing to whether I think it might be true.  This time I think about the Bradley Manning leaks about the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where the claims that they jeopardized American lives have not been confirmed (and you would certainly expect the State Department to be trumpeting them abroad if there was confirmation).

The problem about lies is that they destroy credibility.  In the case of individual liars we don't have to be all that worldly-wise to withhold our judgement or immediately discount their statements.  Which of us, when Bill Clinton proclaimed "I did not have sex with that woman", immediately accepted the statement?  Or which of us, when former US Senator Todd Akin made the claim that victims of  "legitimate rape" cannot become pregnant immediately accepted the statement?  We are free to accept or reject the personal statements of individual politicians usually without any significant harm done.  If Clinton or Akin tried to sell me a second-hand car I wouldn't buy it, nor do I given any credence to any other personal protestations they might make.

But when a state lies, especially one as powerful as the US, we all have a problem.  Of course, states have always lied but nowadays the stakes are higher.  

To begin with, if we live in a democracy, we are part of a social contract.  We pay our taxes and we observe the laws of our country.  In return we are entitled to be honestly governed by the people we have chosen in a plebiscite where we have weighed the pros and cons of competing candidates.  If governments violate their side of this bargain they endanger this social contract.  If they betray our trust they lose our cooperation and our goodwill.  This is a downside for a government who, presumably, wish to be re-elected.  The problem is that damage is being done to the political fabric in the longer term.  When politicians see that the only downside is to be kicked out in favour of the next lot they may, when their personal economic advantage is at stake, simply accept this downside.  Worse still is that the lying precedent that has been set can all the more easily followed by the next lot.  In this way, the social contract continues to be degraded.

In my opinion much has gone wrong with American governance over the last generation and especially since the 9/11 attacks.  The implosion of the former USSR removed a check on the behaviour of the US - and their greater power led to greater corruption.  Then, in the wake of 9/11, when (understandably) many Americans looked for very strong leadership, that leadership abused its power in the most shocking ways.  Internationally, they went to war for the flimsiest of reasons.  Domestically, they instigated a regime of surveillance and harassment against their internal enemies in which many innocent citizens became victims.  All of this is possible only because liars are not held to account.  They can lie with impunity and now a climate of scepticism shrouds all governmental announcements.  Unfortunately this is bound to lead to a rise in those who believe in conspiracy theories.  How ironic that the lies over the Benghazi attack might encourage people to believe that the US government brought down the Twin Towers.

So what should we as individuals do?  Obviously, it is a rare person who can make a great difference.  But we shouldn't just leave it to others and we mustn't be cowed.  At every opportunity we must denounce the lies - and not care that this will lead to much repetition.  Remember: governments should fear the people, not people fear the government.

Don't be afraid to say: Clinton was a liar over Monica Lewinsky, Bush was a liar over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction,  Obama lied when he said that Mitt Romney planned to raise taxes by $2000 on middle-income tax-payers.

I am not saying disbelieve anything the government says.  No, let's not encourage conspiracy-mongering.  But I am saying don't believe anything until you have some corroborative evidence.  Politicians need to win back their credibility - it's in all our interests.