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.