Edward Snowden and Turnkey Tyranny

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Edward Snowden

W.J. Astore

Edward Snowden recently talked to Joe Rogan for nearly three hours.  Snowden has a book out (“Permanent Record“) about his life and his decision to become a whistleblower who exposed lies and crimes by the U.S. national security state.  As I watched Snowden’s interview, I jotted down notes and thoughts I had.  (The interview itself has more than seven million views on YouTube and rising, which is great to see.)  The term in my title, “turnkey tyranny,” is taken from the interview.

My intent here is not to summarize Snowden’s entire interview.  I want to focus on some points he made that I found especially revealing, pertinent, and insightful.

Without further ado, here are 12 points I took from this interview:

1.  People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse.  Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way.  This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing.  (I saw the same in my 20 years in the U.S. military.)

2.  The American people are no longer partners of government.  We are subjects.  Our rights are routinely violated even as we become accustomed (or largely oblivious) to a form of turnkey tyranny.

3.  Intelligence agencies in the U.S. used 9/11 to enlarge their power.  They argued that 9/11 happened because there were “too many restrictions” on them.  This led to the PATRIOT Act and unconstitutional global mass surveillance, disguised as the price of being kept “safe” from terrorism.  Simultaneously, America’s 17 intelligence agencies wanted most of all not to be blamed for 9/11.  They wanted to ensure the buck stopped nowhere.  This was a goal they achieved.

4.  Every persuasive lie has a kernel of truth.  Terrorism does exist — that’s the kernel of truth.  Illegal mass surveillance, facilitated by nearly unlimited government power, in the cause of “keeping us safe” is the persuasive lie.

5.  The government uses classification (“Top Secret” and so on) primarily to hide things from the American people, who have no “need to know” in the view of government officials.  Secrecy becomes a cloak for illegality.  Government becomes unaccountable; the people don’t know, therefore we are powerless to rein in government excesses or to prosecute for abuses of power.

6.  Fear is the mind-killer (my expression here, quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune).  Snowden spoke much about the use of fear by the government, using expressions like “they’ll be blood on your hands” and “think of the children.”  Fear is the way to cloud people’s minds.  As Snowden put it, you lose the ability to act because you are afraid.

7.  What is true patriotism?  For Snowden, it’s about a constant effort to do good for the people.  It’s not loyalty to government.  Loyalty, Snowden notes, is only good in the service of something good.

8.  National security and public safety are not synonymous.  In fact, in the name of national security, our rights are being violated.  We are “sweeping up the broken glass of our lost rights” in today’s world of global mass surveillance, Snowden noted.

9.    We live naked before power.  Companies like Facebook and Google, together with the U.S. government, know everything about us; we know little about them.  It’s supposed to be the reverse (at least in a democracy).

10.  “The system is built on lies.”  James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lies under oath before Congress.  And there are no consequences.  He goes unpunished.

11.  We own less and less of our own data.  Data increasingly belongs to corporations and the government.  It’s become a commodity.  Which means we are the commodity.  We are being exploited and manipulated, we are being sold, and it’s all legal, because the powerful make the policies and the laws, and they are unaccountable to the people.

12.  Don’t wait for a hero to save you.  What matters is heroic decisions.  You are never more than one decision away from making the world a better place.

In 2013, Edward Snowden made a heroic decision to reveal illegal mass surveillance by the U.S. government, among other governmental crimes.  He has made the world a better place, but as he himself knows, the fight has only just begun against turnkey tyranny.

American Fascism: No Longer Misleading

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Pastors pray with Trump in Nevada, October 2016 (Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP)

W.J. Astore

Five years ago, I wrote an article to suggest “American fascism” was a misleading concept.  Here’s some of what I wrote:

Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.

But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.

It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism: 

“A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.

Here we are, in 2018, and the idea of American fascism no longer seems as misleading as it did to me in 2013.  For his followers, Donald Trump is a messiah-like dictator.  There’s even a movie making the rounds (“The Trump Prophecy“) about how Trump’s election in 2016 was an act of God.  Meanwhile, the American justice system is increasingly partisan, increasingly captive to the political right, even as it remains favorably predisposed to the powerful.  Our votes are increasingly suppressed: polling stations are closed in minority neighborhoods; onerous voter ID laws work to restrict voting by the “wrong” kind of people; early voting is being curtailed; voting rolls are being purged; and gerrymandering is widespread.  All of these steps are designed to protect one party in particular: the Republican.

To return to Paxton’s definition in the light of 2018:  Trump ran on a platform of American decline.  He sees himself and his followers as victims; nationalist militarism is growing in popularity; democratic liberties are being eroded (whoever thought children would be separated from parents at the border and put into what are effectively concentration camps?).

Ethical and legal restraints still exist on the worst of this behavior, but for how long?

Fascism, Norman Mailer wrote, is “a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”  Nowadays we call these lies “fake news” or “alternative facts.”  Whatever you call them, they feed what Mailer called “an insidious, insipid sickness” in society that “demands a violent far-reaching purgative.”

That’s where all of Trump’s lies may be leading us: to violent purges internally and violent surges externally.  It’s a grim vision, one that no longer seems as far-fetched to me as it did in 2013.

Donald Trump and His Global War on Truth

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Too many lies

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump is waging a global war on truth.  He is the anti-truth president.  From Trump steaks to his “university” to his support of the “birther” movement against Barack Obama, he’s perpetually selling lies.  Now he’s selling lies on a global stage.  By making everything potentially a lie, e.g. climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” Trump is doing his best to demolish facts, paving the way to do whatever he pleases.

Trump believes he can have his own facts and tweet them too.  We can blame Trump for being the vain, venal, and vile man that he is, but America elected him (yes, not all Americans, but enough to carry the Electoral College).  He’s a con man, a crafty one, and the media can’t look away, nor can the rest of us.

How did we end up with Trump and his assault on truth?  I’d like to focus on two reasons.  The first was noted by Bernie Sanders back in September of 1998.  Then a congressman, Sanders noted how the Democratic Party under the Clinton regime, with its corporate-friendly pursuit of “free” trade and feel-good globalization, was screwing the working classes.  Sanders then issued the following warning (in an editorial in The Nation entitled, “Globalization’s the Issue”):

Right-wing populists like Pat Buchanan are lining up to ride to power on public fear and anger about globalization.  If corporate globalism continues to result in deteriorating conditions of life for ordinary Americans, we’re likely to see a rise of scapegoating demagogy and virulent right-wing economic nationalism.

Scapegoating demagogy?  Trump and Mexicans, Trump and Muslims, Trump and immigrants in general.  Right-wing economic nationalism?  Trump and “making America great again” through massive military spending and weapons exports combined with tax cuts that are sold as helping the poor even as they reward the rich.

By betraying the working classes and becoming yet another business party, the Clinton Democrats helped pave the way for right-wing populists and unprincipled opportunists like Trump.  Indeed, by running the corporate-friendly Hillary Clinton against Trump in 2016, the Democratic Party turned its back on their own populist, Bernie Sanders, who genuinely was (and is) concerned with helping the working classes.

The second reason for Trump’s assault on truth has been all around us for decades, but it was exacerbated by the 9/11 attacks.  Think back to the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate.  If there’s one thing we learned from these debacles, it’s how much our government lies to us.  Now fast-forward to 9/11.  In the aftermath of those attacks, the Bush/Cheney administration did its level best to deflect all responsibility, and especially their responsibility, for the attack.  Al Qaeda inflicted a major defeat on the U.S., yet no one took the blame.  The buck stopped nowhere.  Instead, Bush/Cheney drove a climate of fear and revenge, attacking Afghanistan followed by a disastrous war in Iraq.

By turning so quickly to war on a massive scale, Bush/Cheney knew that most Americans would rally around the flag.  They further cynically used the moment to pass the PATRIOT Act to extend their power and that of the government.  Choosing not to rally Americans, they instead made them fearful, obedient, and passive (Go to Disney!  Go shopping!).

The leaders and the government that so badly let us down on 9/11 worked to convince us that only those same leaders and government could keep us safe after 9/11.  Bush/Cheney and Crew, in essence, told a Big Lie that led, I think directly, to a Big Liar being elected as president in 2016.  But I don’t just blame Bush/Cheney.  The Obama administration refused to call these men to account, e.g. no prosecution for torture and other war crimes.  Furthermore, Obama expanded the legacy of illegal surveillance, excessive secrecy, and incessant warfare that has characterized the manic opportunism of a government that refuses accountability, whether for the defeat of 9/11 or for the ongoing disasters of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, et al.

Long in the making, Trump’s victory march of 2016 quickened its pace in the aftermath of 9/11 and all the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-anything-I-don’t-like, hysteria stirred up by Bush/Cheney and Crew.  But its impetus goes back further: to the lies and deceptions revealed by the Pentagon Papers, to the sordid lies and cover-ups of Watergate, and to the abandonment of the working classes by Democrats, the latter of which provided fertile soil for right-wing populist demagogy to take root and grow.

Whether led by democrats or republicans, our government has been telling us so many lies for so long that it’s not surprising we now have a president whose chief skill is as a con man and a liar.  His global war on truth is the culmination of too much governmental lying and too little attention paid to the real needs of ordinary Americans.