Imagine that you are a wealthy member of one of the two parties that control the richest nation in the history of the world, or you run one of the corporations that made it rich, or you’re one of the people who work for those corporations or political parties to feed your family. America is doing great, but everyone also seems to agree that it is doing worse lately and is possibly about to stop doing great forever. Meanwhile, religious hillbillies on the other side of Earth have vowed to come here and randomly explode, plus an unknown but growing number of Americans have less incentive to support the status quo because present conditions benefit you much more than them. You are winning this game, but the game is almost over. If you were such a person, you might understandably organize your politics and your worldview around one central question: how can I keep anything from changing? What you need is security—order-maintaining, threat-identifying, future-avoiding security. Today is Friday, and anything different is necessarily bad for us. Won’t you arrest the progress of history with me?
First, the good news: the NSA is tracking the locations of 5 billion cell phones around the world, including many belonging to domestic Americans. They’re only doing that to protect you, though, and to protect you they need to know who all your friends are. Two elements of the Snowden-sourced Washington Post article are breathtakingly surreal. First, the analytic tool that the NSA uses to determine “unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect” is called CO-TRAVELER, a phrase that doesn’t bring up any creepy Red Scare associations at all. Second—and here I quote the Post directly:
The NSA does not target Americans’ location data by design, but the agency acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellphones “incidentally,” a legal term that connotes a foreseeable but not deliberate result.
If it’s a foreseeable result of what you’re doing, and you do what you do systematically through 5 billion iterations a day, you’re doing it deliberately. At this point, the NSA claiming location surveillance of American cell phones is “incidental” is like showing up at your ex-girlfriend’s office Christmas party and saying you just wanted cookies.
Of course, you only need to worry about blanket NSA surveillance if you’re doing something illegal, or if you’re doing something embarrassing and also express support of an unpopular ideology. Still more documents leaked by Edward Snowden indicate that the NSA identified at least two radical Muslims as vulnerable to accusations of “online promiscuity” based on their internet use. Director of Public Affairs for National Intelligence Shawn Turner said it “should not be surprising that the US government uses all of the lawful tools at our disposal to impede the efforts of valid terrorist targets,” but the targets in question didn’t commit terrorist acts. Documents describe them only as “prominent, globally resonating foreign radicalizers”—meaning not actual, bus-exploding terrorists but rather the people who inspire those people. I have little doubt that they are total scumbags, but I am not crazy about my tax dollars funding blackmail to punish ideologies.
In a broad sense, neither are several people within the US government. This editorial calling for an end to the NSA dragnet seems like the usual New York Times jeremiad, until you realize it’s written by three members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Maybe they’re only grandstanding. Or maybe they’ve taken their case to the general public because the NSA is not as responsive to the apparatus of democratic control as it should be. At the risk of screeching, the NSA conducts secret domestic surveillance whether your elected representatives like it or not. Are you sure the agency is doing that for your benefit?
I don’t know what I think anymore, possibly because so much of what I’m trying to think about is secret. It’s times like this I retreat into the relatively unambiguous world of fiction or, better yet, mean criticism of fiction I haven’t read. The Literary Review has given its 21st annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award to Manil Suri, who wrote this completely accurate depiction of doin’ it:
Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.
Get back to me when you’ve hit six, buddy. Suri responded to the award, presented to him in absentia by Joan Collins, in perhaps the best way possible. “My one chance to meet Joan Collins and I blew it,” he said.
I feel better just reading that. There is still decent humility and a sense of humor in the world, even if things are mostly run by shadowy conspirators. Of course, there’s no reason we can’t have both. Consider Action Bronson’s alter ego, Mr. Baklava:
Patrick Ewing is going to sue the shit out of him. You should download Blue Chips 2 while it’s still up. In an age of real villainy, we need fake ones more than ever.