aNewDomain.net — In this original column for aNewDomain, our Pulitzer-nominated political columnist says that, thanks to the NSA, we are all Soviets now. Post NSA PRISM whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about American electronic surveillance projects, Ted Rall asserts that U.S. journalists increasingly are pulling punches to avoid government retribution. It’s scary stuff.
Despite vague assertions to the contrary by defenders of the National Security Agency’s totalitarian approach to spying on American citizens via NSA PRISM, there is — as a federal judge noted earlier this week — no credible evidence that NSA surveillance projects have saved a single life or caught a single terrorist.
If the Orwellian police state isn’t protecting itself and its citizens from foreign enemies, what is its purpose? Any short list of possible answers has to include stifling internal dissent.
It’s a fact that the NSA’s ECHELON program has been eavesdropping on Americans’ phone calls, intercepting their faxes and bank wire transfers and recording their digital data since the 1980s — setting the stage for the expansion of government intrusion after 9/11 to the point that federal spooks are hanging out in our video games.
But before Edward Snowden, few Americans and precious few journalists, understood on a visceral level that “their” government was watching them.
They didn’t get that the U.S. was watching them personally.
And watching all the time.
This kind of thing has been standard issue in other regimes. Throughout the 20th century, totalitarian and authoritarian states tapped their citizens’ phones, steamed open their letters and tailed them down the street. Ostensibly, it was to keep their people safe from enemies foreign and domestic, as the phrase goes. But there never were very many, or very serious, external foes to justify that spying. And there isn’t any justification here in the U.S. in the 21st century, either.
Every government’s greatest interest is self-preservation. And the greatest threat to remaining in power is domestic political opposition. Spying serves two purposes: gathering police intelligence against activists and rebels — and intimidation.
You don’t have to arrest, torture or assassinate a dissident — not if you can terrorize him or her into shutting up.
The PEN American Center, which represents writers, is speaking out. Says PEN exec director Suzanne Nossel:
We have long known that aggressive surveillance regimes in places like the Soviet Bloc, China, Iran and elsewhere have cramped discourse and narrowed the flow of information and ideas … recently disclosed U.S. surveillance practices are having a tangible and chilling effect on writers here at home.”
A PEN survey of its members, titled “Chilling Effects,” found that 85 percent of writers stated they in fact are worried about government surveillance. 28 percent said they don’t use social media as much because of the revelations. (So it’s not all bad.) Nearly 25 percent said they avoid “certain topics in phone and email conversations,” and a shocking 16 percent of writers said they self-censor, choosing not to write about such issues as “military affairs, the Middle East, the North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages and criticism of the U.S. government” lest they attract the wrong kind of attention.
These are writers who supposedly inform Americans via journalism, essays, books and other works — and they are supposedly protected by the United States First Amendment right to free speech. But they’re afraid. What gives?
Yes, Virginia, there is a guy who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice. But he’s not bringing you any presents.
David Ulin, the thoughtful book critic for The Los Angeles Times, decries the self-censoring writers’ cowardice. He says:
What, in other words, is the matter with these writers? … Literature, after all, is supposed to be a risky business. It asks us to dig in, to think about what we really feel and have experienced, to explore the complexities, the nuances, the gray areas, what we long for, what we dread. The most important writers have often been the troublemakers: Walt Whitman, William S. Burroughs, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Swift. These authors were not curtailing their material out of fear of being targeted; they were saying what they had to say, political or otherwise, challenging the pieties, the kneejerk verities, by which we would otherwise still be defined.”
The wish, as Ulin and I might, for writers to have greater courage, is unrealistic.
Triggered by fear, more people flee than fight.
Were the world full of Salman Rushdies willing to express themselves freely even at the risk of death, ours would be a better planet. But it isn’t and it isn’t.
Writers have kids to worry about, rents to pay, careers to nurture and skins to save. Humans being human, the mere knowledge of the existence of the NSA-data-sweeping operations will prevent countless political exposés and radical manifestos from ever being written.
Investigative journalism, already woefully underfunded, will wither away as reporters increasingly consider it too risky. That’s a direct danger not just to them, but to the American public and other world citizens who depend on the free speech rights of American journalists.
As a politically-oriented artist and writer, I feel the chill. Rarely a week goes by without my mother or a well-meaning friend advising me to “tone it down” because it would enhance my career prospects.
It isn’t bad advice.
I look around at my not-so-talented, risk-averse peers, and find many of them drawing bigger paychecks from media outlets that wouldn’t so much as take my NSA-monitored phone call.
If Edward Snowden has done any harm, it may be that we were braver before we knew that Big Brother was listening in.
For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.
Editor’s note: For the record, this publication is not afraid. Our aNewDomain editorial policy embraces First Amendment free speech rights and takes seriously our duty to dig deeply and inform as journalists for the good of our readers. Check out our Editorial Mission Statement on the front page. We will continue to cover issues without cowardice, per our charter. GS.
Based in New York, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, most-recently published The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Ted’s upcoming book After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014.