Here's Looking at You, Kid

Column by Paul Hein.

Exclusive to STR

The conversation around the lunch table got around, not surprisingly, to the NSA and its surveillance activities. Nobody liked it. It was Virgil who said what many were probably thinking: “I don’t like it either, but if you’re doing nothing wrong, what’s so bad about it?” There were nods of assent, and a few murmured “It’s for national security, after all.”

“Do you need to go to the men’s room?” I asked Virgil. He looked surprised.

“No, why do you ask?”

“I’ve got my camera with me; I thought I’d go with you and get some pictures.” Virg looked at me as if I were crazy.

“You mean to tell me that you’d be taking pictures of me in the john?” he asked.

“Sure, why not. You’re not going to be doing anything wrong in there, are you?”

“Of course not, but there’s such a thing as privacy, you know; and your photographic ambitions would trash my right to it.”

“Hold it! I’m confused. You just claimed a right to privacy, but said a minute ago that no one should object to being observed if they were doing nothing wrong. How can you have it both ways?”

“Easy. Some things are private, and what happens in a bathroom is surely very much so. Security is well and good, but there have to be limits, after all.”

“Well, if that’s true, then the bathroom would be the perfect place for villains to meet and plot their terrorist activities. What better place for cameras?”

“I think you’re being ridiculous, but if national security can be enhanced by cameras in the bathroom, then I can’t object to having them there. Does that make you happy?”

“Not especially, because you are agreeing to waive your rights—in this case a right to privacy--for what you call ‘national security.’” That’s a euphemism, Virg. Your security isn’t enhanced by government spying, nor is mine. With distrust and even fear of government on the rise, the rulers are taking steps to protect their own behinds, but calling it 'national security' sounds a lot better than 'covering our butts'!”

“Well, call it what you want, but I still say that if I’m not doing anything wrong, I can’t complain about the surveillance, even though I don’t like it.”

“But that’s precisely why you SHOULD complain about it! You don’t like it!”

“Wake up, buddy. There are lots of things we do that we don’t like, because it’s the law.”

“OK, but this law you subject yourself to, but don’t like, is simply what some strangers DO like. It’s not engraved in stone by the finger of God, after all.”

“So now you’re a scoff-law?”

“No, just a realist. Look up any definition of 'law'. You’ll find it is just an expression of what the law-givers--strangers in City Hall, or the state capital, or Washington, want. What you are saying is that the wants and desires of these strangers, concerning your own life, carry more weight than your own wants and desires regarding your own life, and, moreover, you approve of that situation.”

“We all just can’t go around doing whatever we please, can we?” He intended it, I think, to be a rhetorical question.

“Why can’t we?” I said. “To paraphrase you, ‘if you’re not doing anything wrong, why can’t you do what you want?’ In any event, why would you assume that strangers are better equipped to direct your life than you are? Have these rulers of ours demonstrated a superior moral character, or intelligence?”

He laughed. “Well, hardly.”

“So there you have it,” I said. “We’re conditioned to think that we must put aside what we would like--namely our privacy, in this matter--for what the strangers that rule us would like. We gasp at the very thought of doing what we want to do, but accept without blinking that we must do what they want us to do. Think about it, Virg. How does that make us different from slaves?” There were several moments of silence.

We ordered dessert.

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Paul Hein's picture
Columns on STR: 150


Samarami's picture

Good approach to basic, critical thinking, Paul.

Most who know me would be disappointed if I ever did a thing, or refrained from a thing, because it was a law, a rule, a regulation or a policy. I'll go along with things that make sense (to me). When they do not, and you can't explain (to me) why you're "mandating" the thing, I'll not follow it.

On the other hand, as an entrepreneur I generally follow "...the customer is always right..." rule. As your contractor or your employee I see you as my customer. If I want to continue in your employ I will follow your dictates to the best of my ability. If too much of what you require seems senseless, I have the "right" (whatever that's supposed to mean) to quit and seek employment elsewhere (find a more satisfactory customer).

That leaves me with the freedom to not whine and moan over the white man's machinations. I refuse to give him emotional power over me. If he wishes to install cameras on every street corner (and more than a few men's or ladies' rooms no doubt) I smile and move along.

I am a sovereign state. Therefore, I am not in the white man's employ. He has no more "power" over me than any ordinary, free-market, gun-toting robber. There are many benefits of the free-market robber over the proclaimed state agent; but that's a topic for other threads at another time. Sam

Samarami's picture

One additional comment: You pay those would-be and professing "rulers" homage with use of the term "strangers". I see that as a bit mild. My tendency is to go along with the increasing number of individuals who are seeing them as psychopaths. Sam

Thunderbolt's picture

Right again, Dr. Hein. Glenn Greenwald says he is quick to ask for all passwords to email accounts, to make the same point. The camera in the bathroom paints a vivid picture. Sam is correct that we are dealing with psychopaths, who appear eager to have a little nuclear war with Russia. That should be fun.

Paul's picture

Good job, Paul. With some luck, Virgil might think himself through this conundrum.

1) Complaining: I can see both points - either we should complain long and loud about surveillance (such as this article), or we can ignore it as Sam says.
2) Evading: I believe we should make life as difficult as possible for the snoops, within the bounds of our tolerance. Turn it into a form of entertainment.
3) Fatalism: We can never be sure we can beat the snoops at their game.
4) Arms: Being armed means we don't care that #3 is true.