Edward Snowden and Turnkey Tyranny

snowden
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.

Trump, the Anti-Obama, Ends in Tyranny

khan1
Khan in “Star Trek.”  A strong leader if you don’t mind tyranny

W.J. Astore

My wife, who knows how to cut to the chase, pointed out a big aspect of Trump’s appeal to me this morning: “Trump is the anti-Obama.”

Think about it.  When it comes to their personal qualities, it would be hard to envision two men who are such polar opposites.  Consider Obama.  He’s cool.  Rational.  Analytical.  A thinker.  He’s also polite, cautious, and considerate.  He’s a skilled writer and a poised, often inspirational, speaker.  He’s at pains to broadcast a message of inclusiveness.  He’s all about diversity and tolerance and embracing those who are different.  He’s also by all accounts a loyal family man, a loving husband and father, with a strong marriage.

Consider Trump.  Everything I just said about Obama is the opposite for Trump.  Trump is emotional.  Flamboyant.  Given to knee-jerk responses.  A man of action.  He appears to be impolite, impetuous, and inconsiderate.  Near as I can tell, Trump’s books are ghost-written, and his speaking style is bombastic and inflammatory rather than poised and inspirational. Promoting divisiveness rather than inclusiveness, his message of “making America great again” is read by some of his supporters as making America white-male-dominated again. Hardly a loyal family man, he’s on his third marriage, the previous two ending acrimoniously, and if you credit his boasts caught on tape he was trying to cheat on his current wife while they were still newlyweds.

Now, which one of these men is more desirable as a role model?  The loyal husband and family man, the one who embraces diversity and brings people together?  Or the disloyal husband, the one who boasts of sexual encounters, who objectifies women, the one who rejects tolerance for rhetoric that drives intolerance?

It’s sobering to see self-styled conservative or evangelical Christians, who claim they are all about family values and the sanctity of marriage, twisting their professed beliefs to embrace Trump and reject Obama.  Certainly, in some cases racism is involved here, a sense that Obama is “not one of us,” whereas Trump, with all his glaring flaws of character and behavior, is accepted as the imperfect guy who’s “just like me” (or perhaps just like a black sheep of the family).

Here’s another way of looking at it if you’re a “Star Trek” fan: Trump is Captain Kirk to Obama’s Mr. Spock.  In his coolly logical manner, Obama has often been compared to Mr. Spock.  And Trump as Captain Kirk: it seems to work, since Kirk was a man of action, often emotional, a womanizer, sometimes intemperate.

But this is to insult Captain Kirk.  More than anything, Kirk was a leader: a man who brought a diverse crew together and made them better.  Yes, he could be intemperate, but he had a capacity for personal growth.  Smart, tough, and experienced, Kirk was a ladies’ man, but he wasn’t married and never forced himself on women (with the notable exception of “The Enemy Within” episode, in which Kirk is split in two, his hyper-aggressive twin given to attacking women for his own pleasure).

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In “The Enemy Within,” a hyper-aggressive Kirk “twin” sees nothing wrong with sexual assault

In Trump you’re not getting Captain Kirk, America.  You’re getting a one-dimensional “evil” Kirk, or perhaps a Khan Noonien Singh, another “Star Trek” character (played memorably by Ricardo Montalbán), a tyrant and ruthless dictator, a man who believes it’s the right of the strong to take or do whatever they want.  (So-called Alpha Male behavior, according to one of Trump’s sons, though I prefer a different A-term: Asshole Male.)

Some of Trump’s success, at least initially, came from the fact he was a powerful contrast to Obama, the anti-Obama, if you will.  And the “anti-” was more than symbolic, considering how Trump drove the birther movement and its false narrative of how Obama was illegitimate as president.  And I can understand after eight years the desire among many for a “Captain Kirk” after two terms of “Mr. Spock.”

But Trump is much more Khan than Kirk.  He’d embrace Khan’s motto that “Such [superior] men [like me] dare take what they want.”  But a man who believes in his own inherent superiority — that his might will make right — is not a leader.  He’s a tyrant. And tyranny is the very opposite of democracy.

What Is So Awful about Donald Trump?

Evolution of Trump
Flip-flopping is not the biggest concern…

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump’s faults are legion.  But which ones are truly awful?

A crass womanizer who brags about his penis.  But wait a minute.  Lyndon B. Johnson was vulgar and crude and crass and a womanizer – and LBJ was easily eclipsed as a womanizer by John F. Kennedy.

A bigot who attacks Mexican immigrants and Muslims among other “undesirables.” But wait a minute. Richard Nixon railed against the Blacks and the Jews, among other “enemies” of Nixon’s righteous “silent majority” of Americans.

An ignoramus who knows little of foreign policy.  But wait a minute.  Many presidential candidates have lacked foreign policy experience (Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, to cite two recent examples).

A posturing tough-guy who supports torture for America’s enemies and the murder of terrorists’ families.  But wait a minute.  The Bush/Cheney administration freely used torture (they just called it “enhanced interrogation techniques”), and the Obama administration freely uses drones to “take out” terrorists and whoever may be with them (including innocent family members).

A serial liar who can’t be taken at his word.  But wait a minute.  Name any president, other than Jimmy Carter, who prioritized truth-telling.

A bully who bludgeons his opponents into submission.  But wait a minute.  Just think of LBJ, Nixon, and Dick Cheney (yes, he was a Vice President, but still).  These men were all bullies.

A shameless showman who exploits the media while professing to hate it.  But wait a minute.  Nixon despised the media; the media colluded with Kennedy to hide his negative qualities; and Obama has cozied up to the corporate media even as he’s actively prosecuted whistleblowers.

Focusing on Trump’s many “awfuls” is not the best way to defeat him, since America’s presidents have hardly been choir boys.  Put simply, Trump’s prejudicial attitudes toward women, minorities, and other groups or peoples he doesn’t like don’t mark him as exceptional, nor does his record of flip-flops on issues, as the American people have come to expect that politicians are basically liars.

Where Trump is vulnerable, I believe, is his tyrannical qualities.  Trump’s past behavior suggests he sees himself as above the law.  Put differently, he sees himself as a law unto himself.  And if he wins the presidency I simply don’t believe he’ll honor his oath of office to the U.S. Constitution.

Remember during the Frost Interviews when Nixon said, If the president does it, that means it’s legal?  That’s Trump in a nutshell.  Recall during the Republican presidential debates when Trump said the U.S. military would obey his orders regardless of their legality under the U.S. Constitution.  Yes, he later recanted that dictatorial position, but his initial answer revealed his essential nature: I’m in charge, I’ll do what I want, everyone else has to obey me.

Here “Star Trek” fans may recall an episode from the original series called “Space Seed,” featuring Ricardo Montalban as Khan.  A tyrant from Earth’s past, Khan speaks of unifying humanity under a strong leader.  Spock’s reply is telling: “Unify, sir?  Like a team of animals under one whip?”

Khan then waxes about the wonders of one-man rule, eventually blurting out, “We offered the world order!”  The Donald, today’s version of Khan, offers to make America great again.

Trump has the makings of a tyrant.  His approach to the presidency is fundamentally undemocratic.  His statements and behavior suggest if he becomes president he’ll do what he wants and expect others to fall into line, even the U.S. military, which swears its oath to the U.S. Constitution and not to any one leader.  At a time when Congress has abdicated its responsibility to declare war or to check executive warmaking prerogatives, a tyrant like Trump is an especially dangerous prospect as president.

Because of this, Trump is truly an awful choice for president.

Why We Celebrate July 4th

Long may it wave as a symbol of freedom.  Photo in Maine, 2006, by the author
Long may it wave as a symbol of freedom. Photo in Maine, 2006, by the author

We celebrate July 4th with a lot of hoopla.  Flag-waving parades.  Backyard barbecues with beer and laughter.  Fireworks.  Good times.

We celebrate the creation of a new country, a new ideal, in 1776.  It was a country that rejected hereditary aristocracies, that called for equal rights for (most) men, that endeavored to create a new and better order for the ages.

Naturally, in an effort this ambitious, involving so many men with differing ideas and ideals, the end result was flawed.  Native Americans were ruthlessly killed or shunted aside.  Slavery remained the original sin of the young republic, a stain partially erased by the Civil War but one whose legacy still dims the brightness of America’s lamp of liberty.

Today the USA remains decidedly imperfect.  That is why we must continue to strive to form a more perfect union, one which protects the rights of the weak against the depredations of the strong.  In this sense the revolution is never over.

As we reflect on the meaning of July 4th, our day of independence, we should recognize that independence is not a day simply to be celebrated.  Rather, it is a legacy that others have fought and died for, one we must continue to earn — and one we must continue to cherish and protect.

Just as the founders of this country fought against the tyrants of the 18th century, we must be on guard against the tyrants of the 21st century.  They may not be kings named George sending their mercenaries to quarter among and fight against us.  Today’s tyrants–today’s power-seekers and liberty-limiters–may even claim to be super-patriots who are protecting us from harm, even as they work to limit our rights while feasting on the plenty that still defines America.

But we know better.  We know what is best about America.  And on July 4th, we celebrate it.

America’s thirst for freedom — may it never be quenched.  May it always endure.

W.J. Astore