The Amnesiatic Society And Institutions Of Permanent Memory

L’Affaire Snowden is pretty much a Rorschach test. Except with consequences.

We haven’t weighed in almost at all so far. Frankly, most of the froth — from allegedly scandalized American sans cullottes to the security Nomenklatura — have been acting according to pre-determined, pre-ordained scripts. It’s been a bore. And doesn’t change the status quo.

Former NSA Director Michael Hayden conceded after Snowden’s debut that the Verizon order and the PRISM slides contained almost nothing not already in the public domain. NSA’s major concern? The release tidied everything up in one morsel for grokking by a Twitter-debauched, nanosecond mentality. Snowden’s initial leaks were that most dangerous of things: meme friendly.

If there’s one thing America in the Age of Obama can do well, it’s consuming memes. Still, why would a society obsessed with forgetting yesterday in return for a transient dopamine fix today take a stand on privacy now? Some of it’s politics to be sure. A white God Emperor King presiding over socialist authoritarianism from 2001-2008 is an all too different kettle of fish to someone, er, half white. So the Movement’s reaction is pre-cooked. Then there’s the motley crew (note the e and w) of long time privacy activists, Mac Book Air anarchists, Twitter self promoters, Net Roots types and everyone else who long since sold their souls to Google, Amazon and Facebook. Who here thinks this assortment can create durable politics when the memes grow stale? To take on and prevail against Nomneklatura planning on global, decades-long scales? These are institutions of permanent memory.


In 2008 we explained in detail why those hoping a Democratic Congress could take on the Intelligence Community and prevail were then tilting at windmills. Those blithely calling for new committees today to do this or that have not read that history. It’s not the committees per se that ultimately matter, but the Congress. And nothing in this diminished Congress resembles the independent branch of the 1970s and early 80s. One way to vet commentary you see or hear? If someone calls for a new congressional committee without understanding the above. GIGO.

We wrote that piece above in 2008. Congress has only become more feeble, and the oversight committees even more captured. There’s a systemic breakdown as some have noted. Snowden and leaks are occurring in large part because Congress failed to provide an oversight platform for dissent or the concept of dissent. In this, the Community’s seeming castration of Congress is their own undoing. The 1980 Oversight Act’s mechanism can still function if Congress has the will. A Congress that could rekindle meaningful, adversarial if necessary, oversight is the best means of conferring legitimacy to the Community. Dianne Feinstein’s sad pirouettes defending her endorsements of the Community with laughably inaccurate talking points a case study in the captured mentality.

Prospects for meaningful reform apres Snowden we believe likely were gutted from the beginning, given how this conversation started and by whom. It didn’t help much that self promoters soon glommed on to the meme explosion to advance their own visibility. Some have the audacity to read famous contractors’ public websites and pass it off as knowledge hard won, as if they had just exfiltrated it from Moscow circa 1948. Or list contractors for the Community as ferreted information, as if they are not well known, don’t have trade associations, etc. When personal branding, self promotion and circulation of public knowledge as arcane secrets are the forefront of any conversation, how can it not be tawdry? And deservedly ineffective?

Whether one thinks Snowden a hero or something other, there’s no denying he is now providing information that has nothing to do with his alleged concerns of ‘Americans’ 4th Amendement rights’. For some, perhaps, that’s ok. Advising Beijing which leading technical and research centers America is targeting and how has nothing to do with your privacy or ours. Same with him advising which companies in Hong Kong America targets, etc. (GCHQ we give a pass to only because again the intertwined, corrupt nature of NSA/GCHQ has been public for decades). Perhaps you think the entire Community structure needs to be torn down? If so, then your interest is not reform but a more fundamental social objective.

Can one really expect meaningful selective privacy anyway? If, after Snowden, you still allow Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft and others to monitor your every move and purchase, isn’t it a bit late or selective to complain? After all, the IRS will be working with these companies to monitor you online to compare against your tax returns to look for audits. How is that really different than what the NSA does now? Isn’t it maybe worse?

We are optimists despite America’s meme addled attention span and latest leak’s provenance. Do you think this time it’s different? That a critical mass has been reached? As always the question quickly becomes one of politics. It’s always been about who and whom. Do you have an idea how the new politics work? That would be a start. And given the addictive nature of meme-besotted amnesia, can Americans focus long enough to be in it to win it? If they forget, how will they even know?

For those determined to embark upon the long fight for Community reform, let me tell you a long bedtime story . . .