On Not Being “Wrong,” Or Why You Should Start Worrying About the U.S. Surveillance State

Sometimes I feel like somebody's watching me

Sometimes I feel like somebody’s watching me

Richard Sahn

How often one hears these days the following line:  “Why should I care about government surveillance. I haven’t done anything wrong.” But “wrong” does not mean what it used to mean when I was growing up. “Wrong” today means saying the politically wrong things, expressing ideas and desires which can be interpreted to mean, for example, that you question the quid pro quo relationship between government and big business.

“Wrong” also means that your electronic or phone conversations hint at psychological instability: you may potentially be a terrorist, capable of suicide and homicide at the same time because you are dissatisfied with your job or with society in general. Or, you may be experiencing anomie, the condition described by the sociologist Emil Durkheim where one feels that life itself is absurd and meaningless. Then, too, you may simply be expressing a dark or satirical sense of humor—such as Jonathan Swift’s antidote (“A Modest Proposal”) for the Irish potato famine (to kill and eat babies) in on-line correspondence  or on the phone.

Alas, your remarks are taken out of context by an NSA computer and you end up on a terrorist watch list. Worse yet, you could be legally, although un-Constitutionally, “disappeared.”

Doing something “wrong” may be a digital or electronic communication to others that you are fearful of the effects of artificially induced global warming.   Consequently, you are labeled as a potential eco-terrorist even though social activism is the farthest thing from your mind.  No matter, Big Brother does not read minds, only verbal signals and written words.

If doing “wrong” is simply a matter of what the government (or its computers) interpret as such then all of us are capable of wrong-doing.  Social reality is no longer as simple as the line in the Gene Autry cowboy song, “Back in the Saddle Again,” where “you sleep out every night and the only law is right.”  Ah, if we could only return to that era! The frontier days of the Old West look better and better.

Speaking of popular songs but of a different genre, I wonder how the NSA computers would react to the words from John Lennon’s ”Imagine” with his “imagine there no countries…and no religion, too.” How terribly unpatriotic! Was NSA surveillance designed for the purpose of criminalizing people with such sentiments?

One is compelled to ask, Is the real goal of NSA surveillance  not to prevent terrorism but to ensure a world where what sociologists call the “ideal culture,” as opposed to the “real culture,” prevails?  If so, the real cultural goal is a world where corporate and imperialistic interests are forever preserved because the propaganda which supports those interests is never questioned.  Or if it is questioned, those doing the questioning are identified quickly as doing “wrong” and are either reeducated or disappeared.

Indeed, in the “newspeak” of today “doing nothing wrong” does not mean doing nothing wrong but often the exact opposite. Those who realize that “wrong” does not mean wrong anymore are condemned to be cautious about what they say or write.

Only the naïve equate “doing wrong” with law violations or sociopathic behavior.  Only the naïve believe they are safe from massive computer surveillance.

Richard Sahn is a professor of sociology and an at-large contributor to The Contrary Perspective.

5 thoughts on “On Not Being “Wrong,” Or Why You Should Start Worrying About the U.S. Surveillance State

  1. I know the work of singer James Ingram primarily from one terrific song, which contained the lyrics: “If loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.” My position is simple: If opposing the foreign and domestic policies of the US government is wrong, I sure as hell REFUSE to be “right”!! In many respects we are already living in the world George Orwell depicted in “1984.” As an individual we must each choose whether we will go along with the program or cling to what was once deemed an inalienable right to freedom of thought. I have chosen the latter for several decades now. That puts me in the minority–unfortunately for the future of this nation. As for good old “frontier justice,” haven’t you noticed its revival? The Great, Enlightened State of Georgia, I understand, just passed “stand your ground” legislation and said “Y’all bring your guns to the tavern, to the campus, to church, it’s all good!” Apparently college officials said “No thanks!” I guess the bar owners and clergy are still thinking it over!

  2. I think this article would have gotten nearer the Orwellian point at issue had the author used the word “unorthodox” instead of “wrong” — a word which carries with it too many vague moral or metaphysical connotations.

    As Orwell wrote in 1984: “Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” It will not suffice simply to conform outwardly to the publicly promulgated demands of the omniscient state, but rather, one must constantly strive to discover for oneself the orthodox thing to do and then do it without requiring the state to constantly issue edicts spelling out what behaviors it will accept and which it will not tolerate. One must not just grudgingly obey Big Brother but must genuinely love him and seek in every way to win his approval — even before it occurs to Him to bestow it. One must anticipate orthodoxy and conform to it unconsciously. Any failure to eagerly discipline one’s own mind in this manner constitutes “the essential crime that contains all the others in itself. Thoughtcrime …”

    As Bob Dylan sang it: “Because the cops don’t need you, and man they expect the same.”

  3. Yes.. “WRONG” is the government’s word for describing what citizens do in opposition to the government’s illegal or immoral actions. Citizens must use other language to show that they are not wrong but on the right side and the government is wrong. We should be proud to be unorthodox in the land of mendacity. Language is important!

    • In his famous essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell advised that we not employ the deliberately loaded words and phrases commonly encountered in the press/media every day. Rather, we should think first, he said, about what we wished to say and then search for the words and phrases that would accurately express our thoughts. In this regard, it helps to remember that the U.S. political/military (now, corporate/mercenary) establishment pulled off the greatest propaganda coup of all time when the government stopped speaking of the War Department in 1947 and began employing the euphemism “Defense,” in 1949. The U.S. government could just as easily have maintained the individual Army, Navy, and Air Force subdivisions under the War Department, administered by the Secretary of War, but chose instead to sell the American people a monstrous lie about what these various military subdivisions actually do with all their brandished weaponry and explosive ordnance. Shortly after the great propaganda coup, naturally, the Truman administration embarked upon a “police action” in Korea, followed by a long sequence of bungled imperial misadventures — none of them resulting from a threat to the United States or Congressional Declaration of War — from Vietnam through Iraq to Afghanistan today.

      Yes, indeed, language — more than simple size — does matter. So I advocate speaking and writing of the War Department, the Secretary of War, and the War Budget (along with the War Budget Deficit), etc., etc. The American people must obstinately refuse to passively accept mere “noises” (meaningless speech) and “spell-marks” (meaningless writing) — in Alfred Korzybski’s apt terminology — and instead insist on the use of language that clearly addresses reality. I’ll do my part by speaking and writing of Warfare Welfare and Make-work Militarism, Manufactured Mendacity and Managed Mystification, The Global War on Working People, and so on and so forth. Others with a keener insight and greater command of the English language can, of course, do better. So let the determined debunking of the (dis)Enlightenment begin.

      • Interestingly (I think), just last night I watched the chapter on “The Cold War” in Oliver Stone’s “Untold History Of The United States” and the change from Dept. of War to “Defense” was pointed out. [Since I refuse to subscribe to “premium” cable channels, I can only see HBO presentations if/when they’re released on DVD.] In Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” the sign at the entrance to Burpleson Air Force Base reads ‘Peace Is Our Profession’; the delightful irony there is that this was a real life slogan of Strategic Air Command. Truth is at least as strange as fiction, for sure. I think a number of “propaganda coups” in playing with/perverting language could contend for title of the “greatest.” On a larger overall scheme of geo-politics, we have the magical phrase “national security” used to justify a wide scale of transgressions, from the small to the truly egregious, against our own citizenry. (File drone strikes targeting specific individuals, including US citizens, here.) It’s not reserved solely to justify military aggression abroad. And how about: “The vital national interests of the United States require us to…” Translation: “The economic interests of a small fraction of one percent of the population of the United States require us to…” By and by, I want to share this fact: my FBI file contains a form with a checklist of reasons to justify my being investigated/under surveillance. One of the items checked is: “Seeking redress of grievances.” Funny, I have this vague memory of that being a right guaranteed by the Constitution. Or perhaps that was just some distant dream?

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