Philosophy Weekend: If You Care About Privacy, Be A Pacifist

Big news leaked this week about a USA National Security Agency government program that collects massive telephone call and Internet activity data for purposes of homeland security.

It’d be nice to report that intelligent public debate about privacy and governmental overreach followed, but it really didn’t. Instead, various existing opinion groups immediately began spinning the news to support their various agendas. For the conservative media, the existence of NSA/PRISM is simply evidence of President Barack Obama’s personal lust for power and totalitarian control. (This is despite the fact that PRISM was initiated before Obama became President, and only represents the widely accepted mandate of the NSA to gather intelligence against potential threats.)

To opinion groups closer to my own heart, represented by voices from various anarchist or Occupy movements, there has at least been a willingness to condemn the entire federal/corporate/military power structure for the NSA’s latest offense against our constitutional right to privacy. But these voices also often seem to miss the larger and more important point: if you care about your personal privacy, and if you don’t like the government snooping into your phone records and Internet activities, you ought to be a pacifist. Our culture of aggressive militarism will never be consistent with a culture of privacy.

How could it ever be? As long as there are highly active, well-funded, enthusiastically staffed military and political organizations battling us around the world, our intelligence agencies will be required to proactively defend against their potential threats. The same people who complain about Obama’s invasion of privacy today would try to impeach him tomorrow if it turned out he had ordered a reduction in intelligence-gathering that led to a terrorist attack. Until we find a way to be at peace on this planet, we will not have a decent level of individual privacy.

Context: just yesterday, as the outrage over the NSA and PRISM was playing out in the press, a US drone quietly killed seven people in Pakistan with an anonymous shot from the sky. Talk about a loss of privacy.

A militarized society — that is, our current society, as supported by most USA voters in every election — must endure a state of permanent paranoia. No past, current or future US President would put the principles of individual privacy above the requirements for national security in a time of war. Neither would any past, current or future Congress or Supreme Court. As long as we are in an explicit or implicit state of war against viable and active enemies, all threats of terror attacks, enemy infiltration and foreign military conspiracy must be taken seriously, because the threats are indeed real.

Therefore, individual privacy is incompatible with war. I find it strange that so many people don’t see this, and I find it really offensive that so many people speak out for privacy today, yet won’t speak out for pacifism, that great forgotten cause, the most important cause for our safety, our privacy, our environment, our economy and our sanity.

This weird impasse reminds me — I’ll mention it once again — of the Vietnam War (which I’ve been on a furious tear reading about it for the past several weeks). The reason we went to war in Vietnam in 1965 is that the voting public loudly demanded it. President Lyndon Johnson did not want to commit ground forces in Vietnam. He and his cabinet searched hard for possible other options, but the fierce public outcry for a strong military policy against international Communism could not be ignored by these pragmatic politicians. As a representative of the citizenry who had voted for him, President Johnson was forced to escalate the Vietnam War.

Today, as in 1965, the government listens to the people, and does what the voters ask. Yesterday Barack Obama said in a press conference that he “welcomes the debate” over privacy, and over NSA activities. I believe he is sincere about this, because I don’t think the war he is fighting as Commander in Chief is his war. It’s our war. We gave it to him, and we vote for it over and over every election day. When are we going to smarten up?

We like to blame our leaders for our flaws because it’s easier than blaming ourselves. By citing Barack Obama (or, for that matter, George W. Bush) as the problem, we avoid the uncomfortable fact that we the people are to blame.

If we can’t speak with a loud, proud and clear voice about the deeper cause of the global disease of deeply-ingrained militarism, we may as well shut up about the symptoms of the disease. Privacy, in wartime? Forget about it. It will never exist. If you want privacy, get on the small but growing bandwagon and declare that you are a pacifist. Then you’ll have some ground to stand on. If you talk about privacy but you still believe in the culture of war, you’re just making noise.

* * * * *

NOTE: the image at the top of the page is not a painting by Willem De Kooning, though it might have been a pretty good one. It’s a screenshot from Google Maps of the NSA Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah, though, strangely, the satellite image only shows some aggressively paved fields of sand and dust. Looks like the NSA Data Center is interested in protecting its privacy, but here’s the full view as Google shows it today:

7 Responses

  1. That I find myself going over
    That I find myself going over your argument for a way to resist it tells me it has merit. Must civil liberties be incompatible with our warlike culture? I guess I have ingrained some of these concepts as the price of democracy. Human nature being what it is, our civil liberties allow for the occasional, inevitable terrorist act. I still want those liberties though. The second price is the obvious military argument, its necessity for protecting our country and thus our civil liberties. My opinion is the US would be safe with a lot less military, but it would need some.

    I mean, I say warlike culture above, but science shows it rises from genetics. Thus sadly the human is a military animal. We can teach behavior, but our instincts are real mofos and they will activate and override behavior modification in given situations. And what about the military wo/man? There are millions and millions of them on this planet – conservative brain type, type A’s, or followers, who experience stress as worry and fear, who are athletic, and on their own journey of the hero — what are we going to do with these millions, transition them to flag footbal? Jesus we’re in a pickle.

  2. —“… science shows it
    —“… science shows it rises from genetics. Thus sadly the human is a military animal.”

    it does?

    we are? says who?

  3. ” As long as we are in an
    ” As long as we are in an explicit or implicit state of war against viable and active enemies”… Levi, do you think the state of war depends only on US foreign policy? Do you think if US government played “the Pacifist”, magically all the “viable and active enemies” would cease to pose any risk to national security? I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure anyone would ever cease to plot against the most important and powerful nation in the world, regardless its foreign policy.

    Regarding the link between privacy and militarism… I would not define Italy as a very “militarist” state, and there is much less focus on “national safety”, but we have very similar privacy problems. “National security” can be just one of the many excuses (like fight against tax evasion) to increase the control of State (or lobbies) over the citizens.

  4. mnaz,
    Genes, Mind and Culture by Lumsden and Wilson
    Culture and the Evolutionary Process by Boyd and Richerson

  5. Great responses — and I have
    Great responses — and I have a few in return.

    DS, I think many people think that humans are predisposed (on a genetic basis or otherwise) to be violent and vicious. But, then, how do you explain the fact that cities and towns and neighborhoods are generally peaceful? Look at the way human beings get along on the streets of a city, or at an office, or in a restaurant or a bar or at a sporting event. Even when there is plenty of reason for conflict — people disturbing each other on the street, or competing for a promotion within an office, or two guys competing for a woman’s attention in a bar — it is extremely rare for people to begin killing each other. Humans may be innately violent, but we are also innately susceptible to civilization.

    It’s only when civilization itself fails us that humans resort to violence. Two average people on the street can get along, but two average nations sharing a border or an oil field or an ethnic history shoot and bomb and terrorize each other. It’s not a failure of human nature — it’s a failure of leadership, and a failure of common sense. In other words, it’s totally curable. The fact that we haven’t cured it yet is an obscene travesty.

  6. Great points, Subject Sigma.
    Great points, Subject Sigma. To your first question, I have to say that no, the USA cannot discover peace alone. Furthermore, the USA is no more or less guilty of creating or continuing our global culture of war than any other country (certainly not more guilty than the nations of Europe). The entire planet must discover peace. This is precisely why I don’t blame Barack Obama for the problems he inherited. When we discover peace, it will be the concerted actions of many nations together. This was of course the original idea of the United Nations, and before it the League of Nations. These institutions clearly failed to have the impact they were designed to have, but that doesn’t mean the idea is wrong. It means that discovering peace is not easy, and will take much trial and error.

    About Italy’s invasions of its citizen’s privacy — well, that’s very interesting, and certainly relevant, and I’m glad you brought it up. Perhaps you are right that there will be governmental invasions of privacy even when there is not a militarist state (as Italy is not, I don’t think, currently a militarist state). I assume given Italy’s economic crises that the reason for this invasion of privacy is to find taxable revenue? I’m not going to pretend to have an answer that addresses your good question. I hadn’t thought of it that way, and I’m glad you brought it up. Perhaps even if the USA were to discover peace, our government would still invade privacy in order to extract tax revenue. I don’t think that invalidates my argument that there can be no expectation of high standards of individual privacy during wartime, though. The fact that peace is a necessary condition of individual privacy doesn’t mean it must be a sufficient condition. The fact that it is a necessary condition is the point I’m stressing here.

  7. The USA could lead the way.
    The USA could lead the way. The last time someone was saying America can do better, it was RFK and he got shot.

    I keep saying on my FB page that I am waiting for democracy to come to the USA. When ever bomb fragments are found that have “Made in the USA” on them, it only makes more enemies.

    I just read Neil Gordon’s The Company You Keep and the book sounds much different than the movie which would have to work real hard to keep up with the hackneyed plot twists towards the end but I have never read any novel that went into any depth on the ’60s-’70s group Students for a Democratic Society and its off shoot the Weathermen with its factions. After reading the book, I feel that the schisms wrought by the Viet-Nam War are still in the USA and, then, the right brainwashed–via Ronald Reagan et al–working stiffs into identifying with billionaires rather than their next door neighbor who dies an early death from cancer or the other whose kid joins the American armed forces rather than attending college at the Ivy League.

    The world is being polluted for the public good so it is said and the former globalization was for the same but in the USA, are all boats getting lifted by the latest economic upward surge?

    The terrorists thunder could be stolen in less than 5 years with less than the operating costs of half the American Navy. The good will could multiply.

    The NSA et al only creates a complex that is on the way to turnkey totalitarianism.

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