Ted Rall: Why Americans are Soviets Now

With writers too chicken about U.S. government retribution to cover NSA PRISM and ECHELON revelations, Americans are Soviets now, says our Ted Rall. Exclusive.

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 Timesdecries 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 WhitmanWilliam S. BurroughsMargaret AtwoodJonathan 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.


  • Bravo. But don’t forget this is the world you’ve wanted. You want Soviet-style economics and somehow thought you could keep American rights and liberties – free minds with unfree markets. It’s all or nothing. Stop complaining about the government giving you the paternal permission state you’ve always wanted now that you see the cost.

    • How about some examples? Just one example of any person in the U.S. promoting Soviet style economics? Or are you simply using ignorant hyperbole to attack policy positions such as a safety net. Or tax increases directed towards the very wealthy instead putting the entire burden of our debt on the middle class and poor. A debt that was created because of irresponsible tax cuts during a time of war mind you. Maybe you are referring to the position that government should be effective and able to work for its citizens, instead of being so small and ineffective that a minority can drown it in their ideological bathtub if they don’t like the direction the country is taking it in. Or is it the position that organized capital should not be able to run roughshod over the entire population in their pursuit of more and more profits. Regulation is necessary and has been proven to be time and time again. The free market fairy will not keep big banks and corporations from taking advantage of their consumers every chance that they get. The belief that it can has almost become a religion among some. Unfettered capitalism is great for two things, concentrating wealth and power into the hands of organized capital and creating vast amounts of inequality. It also slowly worms its way into government that is meant to be of, by, and for the people eventually resulting in fascism. A mixed economy with checks on organized capital is not “soviet-style economics” and if you think that it is then you know nothing of Soviet style economics. More than likely you are the typical Ayn Rand libertarian/teabagger who thinks the words liberal, Marxists, socialists are not only synonymous but are some form of insult.

      • Micheal, read a newspaper and start thinking. Read the constitution while you’re at it. The evidence is all there once you stop carrying water for Obama and the progressives. I’d be wasting my time providing any links because you would call me a racist and blame the republicans no matter how you had to twist reality.

      • Bottom line, either you think that the individual exists to be consumed by society or that society exists as the result of voluntary actions of individuals.

  • I don’t see Ted’s piece as a complaint. He points out that journallists are afraid of a government that’s gone STASI what with all the spying. That should scare everyone. No one — even the free thinkers, ultra libs and ultra libertarians — ever thought we should stab the First Amendment in the back. I wonder what Ted will say … Ted? You out there?

    • It all fits together. As soon as you start saying “Well, we’ll bend this amendment, overlook this clause and maybe stretch this article to squeeze in something” the rest falls apart. The Soviet Union had very broad free speech protections in all of it’s constitutions – ask Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn how well they worked.

      Believe me, this is tough love. I don’t often agree with Ted, but I’m unashamed to say I’m a fan of his. I really hope this wakes him up to what liberal progressives are all about.

      • Again what amendment is being bent, what article is being stretched beyond what is talked about in the article? If Ted has advocated things such as socialism, I myself am a libertarian-socialist by the way, you do understand that has nothing to do with the Soviet Union, correct? The Soviet Union has been used as a bogey man in the U.S. for decades. What the Soviet Union did wasn’t exactly communism as it was envisioned. The idea of communism does not, in any way, embody any aspect of tyranny or erosion of rights. The final goal of communism is actually the abolition of the state and the ultimate freedom of the individual. You may want to actually learn something about it before you rail against it. After reading some of your other comments, comments like “progressives are all waiting for handouts”, I have come to the conclusion that you aren’t worth debating. You don’t understand what is needed in a society and you view the idea of a social contract and a social safety net as “people waiting for handouts”. You have ill-conceived and ignorant preconceived notions about liberals and progressives. You are obviously a victim of extensive propaganda and unable to think for yourself. maybe Fox News or the laughable misnomer that is Reason Magazine? This country has a long history of progressivism that began at it’s founding. Again you may want to learn what it actually is. Maybe start with Teddy Roosevelt and the progressive era.

  • I found it ironic that the judge used the phrase “almost Orwellian.” Orwell couldn’t imagine what the NSA is capable of capturing in nanoseconds anywhere on the globe.

    • It should be scary. Maybe “complaining” was a poor choice of words, though. It just seems like an odd objection coming from someone who advocates nationalizing industry, mandating how much everyone gets paid and approving what medical treatment people get.

      • Again how about some citations. There aren’t many people advocating nationalizing industry in the U.S. or mandating pay beyond a minimum livable wage. And absolutely nobody or any policy is advocating that the government decide what medical treatment people get. If you are referring to the ACA then you know very little about it. The ACA was a massive handout to PRIVATE insurance companies, unfortunately, and the government has little to do with it beyond providing the exchange and preventing insurance companies from jacking up out of pocket costs, instituting lifetime caps, dropping people when they get sick, etc. Even countries that have actual universal health coverage are not told by the government what medical treatment they get. You are apparently extremely misinformed about the health care industry in the U.S. and the rest of the world. We are far behind the rest of the world, at least every other industrialized nation, because we have the highest health care costs in the world and we are the only country that doesn’t ensure that each and ever one of its citizens has access to health care.

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