The Orwellian concept of doublethink, and its synonyms ‘doublespeak’ and ‘doubletalk’, are relatively recent euphemisms for political deceit, but they have a classical analogue in the Roman Empire. Janus was the Roman god of transitions, principally between war and peace. As such, he hovered in spirit over doors and passageways and gates, was celebrated during harvests and weddings and births. As depicted on Roman coinage, he boasted two heads, which allowed him to look forward and backward. Hence, the term “Janus-faced”, which is now almost universally synonymous with hypocrisy, even though the god was not initially a symbol of mendacity. Perhaps Janus’ primary claim to fame—aside from being a phenomenally apt metaphor for every American politician—is that he is a uniquely Roman creation. The Greeks had no corollary. If you’ve read any Gibbon, you’ll instantly see why the Romans required a two-faced personage to preside over their society. Augustus, to pluck one name from the imperial genealogy, cleverly bought off the Senate, ostensibly restoring them but subtly disempowering them, assuming for himself all the essential authorities of state. His behavior naturally belied his rhetoric.
Some things never change. Last Sunday Glenn Greenwald, the tireless Guardian journalist and defender of civil liberties, got word his boyfriend David Miranda was detained, harassed, and needlessly interrogated for nine hours at Heathrow Airport in London. On Wednesday, Miranda “won” a British court decision that claimed his seized assets could not be used in criminal investigation, but only to track terrorist connections. While discrediting the criminal investigation of Miranda launched by London’s Metropolitan police, the judgment does little to prevent harassment of journalists or those around them.
Similarly to David Miranda, in July Bolivian President Evo Morales was blocked by France, Portugal, and Italy from passing through their sacred “airspace” for fears he was smuggling Edward Snowden to asylum in South America. (One conjures visions of symbologist Tom Hanks and Jesus’ lineal descendent, Audrey Tautou, being secretly squired to Rome on their manic “grail quest” in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code). In a related and equally contemptible incident, the British police ransacked offices of The Guardian, destroying hardware containing Snowden’s leaked files. Surely these events happened at the behest of the American government, which is the implicated party in the files and which has targeted the fugitive contractor since his revelations. Now the United States is extending its scope to include intimidation not simply of journalists, but also of those who assist them (much like double-tap drone strikes target suspects and those who try to rescue them).
Both of these international fiascos also happened in transit, the rightful territory of our twin-faced Roman deity. Miranda was even held by the British under the Terrorism Act 2000 act, which applies only in areas of transit: borders, ports, and airports. Snowden himself spent a month huddled in the “transit zone” of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. This is all apposite since these behaviors not only occurred in transitory spaces, but also because they indicate a regressive program of intimidation, sponsored by the White House, but that curiously is nowhere to be found in its progressive posturing about liberty.
Janus’ unmistakable modern approximation is Barack Obama, who has made sickeningly disingenuous statements in the wake of the Spygate eruption, namely that “we don’t have a domestic spying program” (that The Atlantic called, “Obama’s Bill Clinton moment”). But Obama also said that he wants to set up a “national conversation” about NSA spying and that it’s “right to ask questions about surveillance.” As if, without the Snowden leak, he would’ve hosted a town hall meeting on CNN—moderated by the venerable Candy Crowley—to discuss the overblown global surveillance networks entrenched in our digital infrastructure. Perhaps asking a question about surveillance is all right, but one must then accept, with all the obtuse credulity of a born patriot, whatever sophomoric answers the spy state offers. That’s not a conversation; it’s a prefabricated Q&A. It’s Jay Leno pretending to be a journalist and Charlie Rose fashioning a rhetorical landing strip for the Dissembler in Chief. Tilt your head back and swallow the blue pill offered by our serene Morpheus.
How he pacifies us with his calmly imparted but utterly casuistic prescriptions. We’ll add an independent voice to the FISA court review—a privacy ombudsman representing…god only knows what. The interests of the populace? Wasn’t the FISA court supposed to do that? This is beginning to resemble a regression argument in which each justification requires its own justification. But who will supervise the ombudsman after he is bought off by Northrop Grumman or intimidated by Homeland Security or converted to the Tea Party? Beside, as Obama silkily explained to Rose, he is already looking after our interests (while scrupulously balancing them with our desire for freedom). In an almost surreal disclosure Wednesday, the administration is developing (via outsourcing, naturally) a Federal Cloud Credential Exchange (FCCX) that will allow citizens to safely access federal websites and services using a single password. The cloud-based authentication network will secure sensitive personal data from everyone except—the government! It’s all part of the President’s now-comically named “National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace” (NSTIC).
But this is just one of the many ways in which the administration will soothe our civil anxieties. As Obama tells it, we won’t simply appoint a feckless scarecrow to watch as the crows (and hawks) ravage our privacy. We’ll hold closed-door meetings with lapdog Fortune 500 companies, industry lobbyists in cash-lined suits, and privacy activists (one small step removed from ‘domestic extremists’). We’ll reform Section 215 of the Patriot Act to create a new lexical puzzle for the DOJ to swiftly solve (like a six-year old savant with a Rubik’s Cube). And, the piece de resistance, we’ll launch a brand new website disclosing intelligence activities to the nation, easily accessed with your new FCCX password, courtesy of NSTIC. All of this stands in disfigured contrast to the needless harrowing of Morales and Miranda, and the easily forgotten fact that all of these programs—from PRISM to XKEYSCORE—are all active and haven’t been restrained in the least.
The world is splitting down sharp ideological lines over the surveillance revelations. The line runs between the smoldering resentment of Latin American leaders, who were disgusted both by the Morales grounding and the NSA spying on South American governments, and the obsequious European governments who surely prostrated themselves before requests from Washington to interdict Morales. One region looks forward to a future of expanded rights and participatory governments. The other looks back to the cloistered fascisms of history, where the dictums of state were sacrosanct, and meant to be thoughtlessly ingested by a scorned and marginalized body politic.
In Roman antiquity, the gates to Janus’ numerous sanctuaries were traditionally left open in times of war so that he might intervene when appropriate. They were closed during peacetime. They now look to remain open for a long time to come. Our surveillance apparatus is premised on the fear of the other, the terrifying enemy who lurks in the shadows and silhouettes of our own backyards, but so rarely shows himself. The purveyors of 9/11 are dead, but their namesakes are metastasizing in distant lands thanks to our own clever efforts to produce—largely via signature strikes, sanctions, and shock-and-awe—an enemy worthy of our totalitarian dreams. Our imperial president seems intent on masking the master plan, but the destination is clear. As George Orwell slyly warned, a society transitions to totalitarianism when its ruling class retains power by dint of either “Force or Fraud,” which in our case is both: a fist for the foreigner and a façade for the free. We live in a land of in-betweens, but we are tipping forward into fascism, and away from anything resembling republicanism. Not to worry, though. Like Janus, we can always look the other way.
Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.