After reading news accounts and opinion pieces from all over, I remain pretty much unchanged in my reaction to the NSA (et al) electronic snooping story: It’s bad, it’s wrong, but what did we expect? What could we have expected?
In any hierarchical system — corporate, national, social — those on top monitor what’s going on below: dissent, money, plots, votes. It’s a critical element of staying on top.
A few years ago a silly book came out in which the author claimed to find extensive Roman Catholic material tucked secretly into Shakespeare’s plays. Wife of a British diplomat, she was tipped to her truth in Moscow when she attended plays in out-of-the-way venues, and saw anti-government material worked into the scripts. She assumed a few members of the audience had to be government officials, and they seemed unaware of what was happening on stage. The satire, the barbs, were going over their heads, although those in the know, did catch the “secret messages.”
Wow, she thought. The Kremlin doesn’t know what’s going on here. From there it was only a hop and a skip to her analysis of Shakespeare, and finding “secret messages” there as well, propaganda which Elizabethan officials did not recognize.
The government did not recognize? Really.
Apparatchiks in the cheap seats may not have picked up on details, but the guys back at the Kremlin knew exactly what was going on. And they let it, because it was small-time and small-audience. (Note that Pussy Riot got into trouble not so much for what they said as for winning a big audience.) Play small, and those at the top will treat you as a safety valve: let a few nonentities blow off steam in the back alleys; they’ll be happy and won’t take their troubles to the main streets.
Face it. Governments know a great deal about us… including how (they assume) we’ll respond to various stimuli. In response to which, I repeat two of my favorite lines from Wendell Berry:
- Denounce the government and embrace
- As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,