Does the Right to Privacy Now Apply Only to the US Government?


Whatever our opinion of Edward Snowden, if we’re fair we see it being formed from a neutral perspective. This is because he was, until recently, a complete unknown. Snowden’s antagonist, the United States Government (USG), occupies the established part of this relationship in our minds.

How do we come to form our opinions? Largely from assessing new information against the background of existing information, in this case, what we know, or, what we believe we know. It’s clear that whatever our opinion of Snowden is is every bit as much a statement about our opinion of the USG.

The USG is not a blank background against which to measure the pros and cons of Snowden’s actions. My contention is simply this: In order to have achieved a position on Snowden close to neutral supposes a worldview in which the US is a neutral reactor to world events and is bent on opposing evil in the interest of creating a more secure world. This is not the history of states, particularly ours.

Even with only an appreciation of very recent American history, we are brought face to face with incessant bombing, crippling sanctions that harm a country’s “little people”, white phosphorus, napalm, depleted uranium, civilian humiliation, indefinite “Devil’s Island style” detention, targeted assassination, robotized and sanitized drone warfare, killing as revealed in Collateral Murder video, and officially sanctioned torture.

No, not a blank background. And now we know, as we should have known, that the vaunted “right to privacy” extends only to, and stops at, the USG. We are to put ourselves in the position of the child whose “parent” knows what is best for us and insists on our trust.

The word “insists” is very important. It has to be backed by something. In the case of the USG it is backed by force, all the force at its disposal. Imagine the reciprocal. The people insist that their government trust them! The absence of force at this level explains the current citizen/state relationship.

There’s a recent, seemingly benign, revelation regarding the United States Postal Service (USPS). Seems like they’ve been photographing the outside of every envelope, package, and postcard passing through its hands. Chalk up 160 billion eavesdropping bits for the USPS last year.

What’s troubling is the legal rationale provided for the intrusion. Loosely stated it’s that the postman has from time immemorial had visual access to the outside of envelopes, so that this was never a privacy concern! And we’re supposed to swallow this whole. The dog-fearing mailman, nosybody that he is, feels free to cop a peek. And, naturally, since he is an agent of the government this “freedom to peek” obtains to the USG as well, because it is unthinkable that an agent should possess powers that do not extend to that for which he is performing his lawful function.

Now that we’ve placed the mailman on a par with the state, and made no distinction between his mild transgression (actually closer to overhearing than snooping), why not extend this to the “Big Brother” image? Could the legal rationale for that be that since we are eminently observable by people in our everyday lives then there is no privacy concern when a certain, larger group of people decide to observe us?

Since the USPS goes lacking for funds, and since it performs a “national security” function, a working idea might be to place the USPS under the Department of Defense, to which money flows freely. That way we could keep the post offices open and possibly slow the escalation of its prices in the bargain.

Snowden has come under criticism because he fled the country. Some believe he should face US justice, what I would characterize as the “martyr solution”, because that is what it would amount to. He fled because this country is no longer safe for whistleblowers. Daniel Ellsberg said as much.

Some believe he should have come in through the front door and taken his case directly to Congress instead of Hong Kong. Go to Congress? To push an approach like this would be to completely ignore the working agenda of a capitalist, militarist, imperialist state and the role its politicians play in it.

To expect the politicians that are complicit with the state in the furtherance of its agenda to play an adversarial role against the very institutions, the financial and corporate elite that sustains them, and upon which they are dependent for their current and future livelihoods is to expect the sun to obey the earth. Whatever bias the public might show toward the USG is magnified times over by those in Congress, with few admirable exceptions.

The term “full spectrum dominance” signifies the ambitious national military project to control all of land, sea, air, space, biological, and cyber fighting capabilities. The term does not originate with avid leftists but is used by them, in quotes, because it is the Pentagon’s preferred description, an open confession of sorts. So, no, Snowden is really only waking the people who have been sleeping.

According to Der Spiegel (whose bias is distinctly anti-left) Jimmy Carter remarked, in defense of Edward Snowden, that “America does not have a functioning democracy at the present time”. He’s been known to have walked away from previous statements, and this remark seems to have been made to a private audience (making it no less true), but the remark itself is totally unsurprising. One can doubt the need for the ending qualifier, “at the present time”. Whether viewed domestically or from abroad, American behavior reveals itself for what it is.

When you see something that looks like a duck, walks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and in constantly seen in the company of other ducks, you can assume that it’s a duck. That’s funny, but even better it’s funny and speaks to something more. It’s a valuable heuristic.

Take the case of the USG. When you see a country that seeks out right wing dictatorships in foreign countries, aids the right-wingers, deals with the right-wingers, fights with the right-wingers, and is never but never seen in the company of left-wingers, you can assume you have a right-winger.

The slide into fascism is smooth and the momentum is particularly strong at the bottom. In many respects we are already there.

James Rothenberg can be reached at:  jrothenberg@taconic.net 


James Rothenberg can be reached at:  jrothenberg@taconic.net

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