Friday, June 14, 2013

Apocalyptic



When I clean the house on Fridays – my day for housecleaning – I sometimes listen to the radio or to music.  Today, it was NPR, and the topic was the NSA spying scandal-cum-leak scandal.  To NPR and its talking heads of the day on the Diane Rehm Show, it was a leak scandal, which lines up nicely with Democratic Congressional apologetics.  The scandal is that a private contractor had access to classified material, and the backdrop was American exceptionalism and, of course, routinized fear.




This whole story has become a Rorschach test, or a loyalty oath, depending on your standpoint.

The Obama administration sands back enough to keep the little speckles of shit off it, while the press (especially the Democrat-leaning press) and selected Congress-folk, Senators and Reps, do the dirty work of damage control.  In magic, it’s called misdirection.  It’s a two-step.

Step 1:  Look here!  Look at Snowden’s crime!  Look at our security breach!

Look, obviously he committed a crime.  Giving classified material to the press is against the law.

Step 2:  Look away!  Look away from what he has actually revealed!

Just as obviously, assisting slaves to Canada under the Fugitive Slave Act was also a crime.  Assisting slaves to escape was against the law.

It was "Constitutional," all that crap!  Legal to throw your butt in the hoosegow for helping slaves.

Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote that the main indication of modern moral bankruptcy is that we have lost the ability to differentiate between manipulative and non-manipulative speech and action.  His point is that this inability to differentiate manipulation from non-manipulation had suspended any discussion of what is right and what is wrong.

I know that’s a sticky issue – right and wrong – and it is to be evaded in polite conversation, which is why we don’t have discussions about it, even in politics… especially in politics!  One of the reasons we don’t want conversations about right and wrong is that this question exposes the deep contradictions we have with one another, and even with ourselves, about what provides the basis for determining what is right speech and action and what is wrong speech and action.  We’d rather substitute legal-illegal, effective-non-effective, supportive-non-supportive (of an agenda), and so forth.

One of the problems is there can be no Action Rule Book, because the rightness or wrongness of any speech or action is determined by context.  I can shout at a child to warn her of danger, or I can shout at a child to humiliate her.

In addition to right and wrong, another word that has gone out of style is “integrity.”  It relates to the character of an individual.  Does this person keep his promises?  Is that person motivated by her desire to help others?  Is this person out to protect his career?  Is she a liar?  Is he a coward?

Are this person’s actions consistent with her principles, and is she honest about it?

Edward Snowden has shown integrity.  Barack Obama has not shown it.  Diane Feinstein has not shown it.  Nancy Pelosi hasn’t shown it.  Al Franken hasn’t shown it.  So Snowden is on the lam; trying to find a place to stay.  And the rest of these people are secure in their careers.

Pew released a poll comparison this month, which showed approval or disapproval of NSA surveillance programs by Republicans, Democrats, and, Independents, first in 2006, then now in June 2013.  In January 2006, Democrats disapproved by a 61 percent majority; and now they approve by a 64 percent majority.  This suggests that party loyalty trumps principles, no?

So there's that - the integrity question, which, while still not the question about mass state surveillance, is at least not a question constructed manipulatively.  It's a real question, in other words, not a shadow-puppet.

Some while after I heard part of the NPR program (which forced me off the radio and back to my playlist - Leon Russell, Queen, Natacha Atlas, Sly and the Family Stone...), I finished up the house today, and logged onto facebook.

There, the question in one thread started by an FB friend, was about this balancing act between order and freedom.  Again, this is an honest question in my opinion, and in her case, I am absolutely sure it was motivated  by good will - that she has integrity when she asks it.  I might have said "alleged" balancing act between order and freedom, but I have raised children and I know that a certain amount of order is necessary - as is a degree of freedom - for human beings to flourish.  So I won't beg the question.

Instead, we can take that question as a point of departure for an inquiry into this whole NSA-scandal (however you want to define the scandalous character of it) and what it means.

Heretofore, I'll restrict my point of view to being a Christian.  That's my politics.  I'm interested in how we Christians ought to relate to this (and anyone who knows me knows that I am not a nationalistic Christian - that I have some very fundamental disagreements with nationalistic Christians that won't get solved here).

Two questions, and a couple of follow-ons:

(1) Are Christians consequentialists?

(2) Is the (implied) argument that mass surveillance is necessary for "order" a valid one?

Follow-on question: Is "order" synonymous with being risk-free?

Follow-on, follow-on question: Can there be such a thing as a risk-free society? (assuming this assumption about surveillance being necessary to prevent bad things from happening is valid... ?

...or not)?

Secrecy and surveillance presume enemies.  Not a surprise.  States are organized for warfare, and their thinking is based on war management models.

That means there is an "us," and there is a "them."

(1)  For myself, vis-a-vis the American state, I am inclined to believe that if I am not yet a "them," then I very easily could become one of "them." 

(2)  I know that I can not think of any "thems" I am ready to declare enemies. But my state might very well declare me an enemy.

(3)  That same state is force-feeding prisoners who are on hunger strikes, who have never been legally charged, and who have been in limbo for over a decade

They were called "enemies" - "enemy combatants" on a "global battlefield," which legally extends the suspension of civilian rule beyond declared war zones to the entire world.  Where you and I sit right now, we can be captured and punished according to the rules of a battlefield that prior to 2003 only applied in actual war zones.  Suspension of due process.

The same government that is collecting data on you can and does make people disappear.  That government has not earned a presumption of honesty.  Quite the contrary.

We can't make sense of this by pretending these two phenomena - Snowden's actions and Guantanamo Bay Prison Camp - are somehow separate. Each informs the other.  The latter demonstrates why what Snowden is revealing is so important.

And that is what this is - a revelation.  All the other characterizations - manipulative and non-manipulative - of Snowden's actions - cannot alter the character of what he did.  He revealed something to all of us that we wouldn't have otherwise known.

That is what apocalyptic means.  It's Greek for "revelation."

We are living in apocalyptic times, in revelatory times, and Snowden has contributed to what has been revealed - something that is part of the whole mysterium iniqutatis - the mystery of evil - that is now enveloping the world in a terrifying way.

Polar ice is melting.  War is big business.  The power of money upon which this country was constructed - at the expense of the many - is failing, and with each failure, that same state - which once concerned itself with guaranteeing raw materials and markets - now depends ever more directly and completely on thugs and spies and liars.

This is the world.  We are in it.  Are we of it?

6 comments:

  1. Clear and simple as the truth :-) nice piece, Stan.

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  2. Not a Christian but I used to be so I think I can put that hat back on and answer your last question from a Christian perspective. Are you in it? Absolutely. Are you of it? No, or at least you're not supposed to be... as you obviously know. Your god calls you to be answerable to something higher than an earthly king. Although he also tells you to be answerable to that king, at least so long as it is morally justified. For instance, theft or murder would still be a sin, regardless of whether it was sanctioned by the state, your employer, or your parents, all of whom you are still called to follow.

    As to your other questions, I think I can satisfy them, as well.
    1. Are Christians consequentialists? Yes. Jesus consistently broke laws, even laws given to prophets by is father, in order to satisfy the ethical good of whatever situation he was in. Working on the Sabbath being a prime example.

    2. Is the implied argument that surveillance necessary for order a valid one? Absolutely not. Order is never an absolute. There is always some degree of it. Even if you remove everything except the natural laws... you will find evidence of order. Gravity will always be directly proportional to a certain mass and there is nothing that you or any government can do about it. I don't care how rebellious or in control you happen to think you are. Therefore, we're merely talking about degrees of order that need to be achieved to attain a certain standard. Is surveillance necessary for the government to attain the standard of order it desires? Yes. However, that's not the standard of order that I nor most of America desire. Presently, they forget who they work for.

    (1) "For myself, vis-a-vis the American state, I am inclined to believe that if I am not yet a "them," then I very easily could become one of "them."

    I hate to break it to you, Mr. Goff, but you're already a "them." Being a "them" doesn't necessarily imply being an enemy but it does require that "they" see you as being different from "them." It also implies that they see you as a potential enemy, as you have already noted. And surveillance also implies that they view you with suspicion. They should fear us. They're supposed to work for us. See? Even there I used an "us vs. them." They need to fear us on this issue, as well.

    It is a sad state of affairs when governments learn that they can oppress their people in such blatantly obvious manners and refuse to fear the people. How many constitutional violations have been committed over the past two decades? Hell, they don't even bother trying to hide those, anymore. They'll curb the right to not be questioned without council, covered by the Sixth Amendment, say it's because of an executive policy, and then have it published in the Boston Globe without batting an eyelash. We are a complacent and compliant society and it's as much our fault as it is theirs.

    Risk free society? Nope. Impossible. It doesn't matter how much you try to control things. As a matter of fact, the more things are controlled the more chances there are that it will break and things will become decidedly uncontrolled. Besides, who would want a risk free society? No need to answer that.

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  3. Hi Necker,

    The existing choices in moral philosophy are not only between deontological and consequentialist; and the Gospels do not teach consequentialism, so you may need to broaden your ken. I strongly suggest Thomist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's "After Virtue" for introductory reading.

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  4. Will do. I'll put it on my list.

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