Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Most Boring Job in the World

It’s funny how yesterday’s tinfoil-hat paranoia becomes today’s conventional wisdom.  All of a sudden the political landscape is teeming with people (and not just from the “radical right”) saying “I told you so!”  Yes, the intelligence agencies really are spying on American citizens, and not just on “terrorists” (whatever that might mean any more) -- and great is the outrage and indignation.  But is it really such a surprise?  For one thing, you can count on any technology, once it’s developed, to be abused by people who have nothing better to do than get the “goods” on other people.  It has happened with mail (of the pen-and-paper variety) since time immemorial… it’s happened with the telephone… and now it’s happening with e-mail and the “social media”.  And what are they looking for?  Well, as usual, it’s not always all that well defined.  It could be “terrorist plots”, or any connection thereto, or any tendency in that direction, or any “contact”, however remote or irrelevant, with a person, or persons, who might conceivably have something, directly or indirectly, to do with… just about anything considered dangerous or subversive.  Or any personal weakness or vulnerability (read: potential for blackmail or coercion) that might open them to compromise.  In short, just about anybody.

And there’s nothing new about any of this; the difference is in the tools.  And in the excuses given.  Anybody remember when membership in a certain racial or ethnic or religious group was ample reason to suspect them of being “un-American” or of having un-American tendencies?  We had the “Red Scare” after World War I (once we got over being afraid of German-Americans)… homosexuals were considered particularly vulnerable to blackmail during the Cold War… and now it’s come down to people who identify with the Tea Party, or patriotism, or who are against big government, or who are anti-war (a sure sign of being un-American, for reasons which I won’t belabor at this point).

So… has any significant line been crossed with these latest revelations?  Perhaps it’s that, for the first time, “normal” people, AKA “law-abiding citizens” are included in the dragnet.  It’s no longer the “alien” or the “other”; it’s pretty much everyone.  That’s one difference.  But also, let’s face the fact that we are living in a strange time, where tell-all, public confession, and sharing the most intimate information is the fashion of the day.  Call it the Jerry Springer Syndrome, except it’s no longer limited to trailer trash -- we now have the most revolting stuff being discussed out loud in public via cell phone, and everything else being revealed and paraded on TV and the Internet.  This notion of Americans “valuing their privacy” -- nonsense.  That’s the one thing you can be certain they don’t value.  It’s not just about the sanctity of the confessional any longer, as in days of old… or about things you’ll only tell your doctor, lawyer, or therapist… or, if pressed, the other people in your therapy or encounter group.  That was, apparently, not enough; now it has to be shouted from the rooftops, and it’s interesting to speculate as to why.  No longer do we dwell on the quaint concepts of “family secrets” or “skeletons in the closet”; all the closets (of any type) are open now, and even the government occasionally coughs up tidbits when it comes to big stories, like the JFK assassination, etc.  Once everyone who was involved is dead, things start to leak out, the way they have with the Soviet Union.  Of course, some things really are still kept under lock and key, but in general our lives are an open book, and that is, by and large, because we want it that way.

But again, why?  Why this compulsion to hang out dirty (or even lightly-soiled) laundry?  What deep psychological need is it meant to satisfy?  One possibility is that with the decline in morality, rules, and standards of behavior (not to mention etiquette), we are all looking for some sort of anchor -- for someone to tell us that, in fact, some things are still wrong.  Perhaps by indulging in public confession, and exposing all of our real or imagined offenses to the public eye, we can get the feedback we so desperately want.  Or on the other hand, we could simply be looking for validation; this is what the “gay marriage” thing is all about, in my opinion.  “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”  But it’s not just about people “getting used to it” -- it’s about them saying it’s OK, it’s not a bad thing, in fact it’s a good thing -- a better thing than what we had before, in fact.

But why should we care?  Because there are lingering doubts, and I believe those are based on that small remnant of Natural Law that we each carry within us -- the notion that somewhere there is a god, or a father figure, or an authority figure who is displeased and has to be placated -- or to be convinced that, in fact, we are right and he is wrong.  So we yearn for two things at once, in effect -- validation (“I’m OK, you’re OK”) and correction (“You’ve been a bad boy and deserve punishment”).  So much for Rousseau!  The notion that once the human race is freed from all of its “hang-ups” a new day will dawn for humanity -- one without the burden of guilt, but only the freedom of unlimited permission… this notion seems to have overlooked something, or a lot of things, about human nature and the human condition.

And in fact, we have not, after all, evolved into a society without rules; quite the opposite.  In place of traditional morality, we have political correctness -- a far more onerous burden than the Ten Commandments ever were.  We have a modern materialist mythology -- Marx, Darwin, Freud, John Dewey, etc. -- that looms over our existence in a far more baleful way than any church doctrine ever did.  And of course we have the government -- not just the “nanny state” but also the “big brother state”, patting us on the head and kicking us in the behind at the same time.  And does it operate through kindness and persuasion?  I invite you to pore over the tax code or Obamacare for that answer.  No, it’s all about threat, coercion, and punishment.  And this is all perfectly understandable.  When the government steps in where all of the more traditional means of controlling behavior have been rendered mute and powerless, what else can we expect?  The Ten Commandments fit onto two stone tablets; how many tens of thousands of pages are in the tax code or Obamacare? 

So yes, we have become slaves… servants… subjects.  But much of it is our own doing.  If we did not consciously volunteer for this situation, then we certainly allowed it to happen by voting for, or tolerating, “leaders” who were consciously aiming at this state of affairs, and who have been consolidating their gains for lo these many decades.  Recent advances in information technology have accelerated the process, certainly -- but in qualitative terms it differs not from the 100-year-old income tax, or “revenooers”, or the draft -- all of which make the town bully or the neighborhood gossip of old seem benign by comparison. 

And another point is that there is always an “enemy” -- an “other” -- which is to be feared, and for the sake of which we have to give up our freedoms.  Just temporarily, of course, until the threat goes away -- except that it never does, it’s just replaced by something else.  Anyone recall the “vacation from history” that the Clinton administration is sometimes called?  Ah yes, that palmy time between the fall of communism and when “terrorism” appeared on radar.  Well, obviously, that would never do -- something had to be done.  The meticulously-constructed “state of fear” would never survive an extended period of non-fear, when all we had to amuse ourselves with was the ongoing soap opera in the White House.  New monsters had to be discovered -- or, if not discovered, then invented.  Make no mistake, 9-11 was the answer to countless prayers -- or the materialist equivalent thereof.  Suddenly we had a new enemy that required our full attention, and sacrifice, and tolerance for pretty much anything the government decided it had to do to “protect our freedoms”.  Not that the mechanisms were not always in place, but they were, by and large, being held in reserve until the next “crisis”.  And so here we are, defending our “freedoms” by giving them all up -- an operation that requires not only government surveillance on all levels, but an impressive propaganda apparatus as well.  (Apparently the Soviet Union served a purpose after all -- it taught plenty of people on this side valuable lessons.) 

But speaking of the Soviet Union… it, as we know, collapsed of its own weight.  But that collapse took 70-plus years -- not an encouraging sign.  And I don’t think it was just about perestroika, or glasnost, or some sort of “spring”, or a “color revolution”.  The Soviet Union was a symptom of one side of human nature -- a dark side, to be sure, but every bit as authentic as what lay behind the American Revolution.  Was communism a more “natural” environment for the human species than what we refer to as democracy and “capitalism”?  Some people persist in thinking it was… but that would be like saying that neurosis is more natural than mental health simply because it’s more common.  On the other hand, the “naturalness” of capitalism, and of the style of democracy that enjoys symbiosis with capitalism, have been called into question as well, of late -- and for good reason.  Where can the “natural man” thrive, then?  Only in primitive settings like the Amazon jungle?  Again, some feel that this is the answer -- smash the state, sabotage the machinery, disavow “progress”, and go back (if it even is “back”) to a Rousseauean paradise.  Unfortunately, that ship seems to have sailed, not the least reason being the overwhelming density of the human population on the globe (a product of technology, please note), which seems to call out for more and more government, more control, and more totalitarianism -- or all is lost.  How does one “return to the land” if there is no land left -- or if what is left is polluted or all owned by Monsanto? 

Now… the preceding was supposed to be only an introduction to the main topic of this post, but you know how that goes.  However, a point still can be made.  If one of the main outcomes of all of the above is the new “surveillance state”, what does it mean to the average citizen -- now or in the future?  To go back to the Soviet Union for a moment -- one could have wondered, all that time, how such a huge country with such abundant natural resources could have yielded up such a low standard of living (for a place not part of the “Third World”).  And yes, it was all about lack of incentive, collectivization, regulations, militarization, and so on.  But it was also the fact that half the population was employed, full-time, in spying on the other half.  How economically sustainable is a situation like that?  We worry about the welfare “burden”, and about tax receivers as opposed to tax payers -- and these are real concerns.  But how about a bureaucracy that our leadership can (so far) only dream of -- a nest of spies, with regular people spying on regular people for no good reason, but just because they can?  When your neighbor can, and will, “drop a dime” on you at the slightest provocation, it tends to put a bit of a chill on your ambition (not to mention creativity and innovation).  Imagine a country where half the population are either IRS agents or social workers, and you get an idea.  In that case, your best bet is to stay home and shut up -- and, if asked, parrot whatever came out of your radio or TV that day.  (And yeah, I know this is starting to sound familiar.)

So if this is where we’re heading, and if it’s largely our own fault, why is everyone getting so upset?  (Everyone, that is, except Obama’s lickspittles in Congress.)  It’s because we’re still sustained by illusion -- by ideas and ideals -- by words and word magic.  Politicians make fun of the people who identify themselves as “reality-based”, as if there were some other, superior, basis on which to formulate foreign policy.  But turn it around for a moment, if you will.  Let’s say that the government, is, in fact, reading all your mail (both electronic and otherwise), monitoring all your Facebook posts and “tweets”, recording your phone calls and casual conversations (even in the sanctity of the bedroom), noting all of your Internet searches, keeping track of your every movement and action through credit card, bank, and tax records, and so on.  What are they getting?  For most of us, the answer is:  Not a whole heck of a lot.  In fact, nothing of any significance -- at least not as things stand at the moment.  And this is not to make excuses for the NSA, CIA, FBI, etc. -- only that they are, 99.99% of the time, wasting their time and our tax money. 

And here’s what’s even more appalling -- everyone involved in these operations is, still, a real person.  These are not jobs that robots can do as yet, since they do involve some modicum of judgment.  So we have this spectacle of a vast army of government agents sitting in windowless buildings wearing headsets and staring at computer screens -- only to spend eight hours a day reading, or listening to, drivel.  I actually feel kind of sorry for these guys (and gals).  I mean… OK, we’ve all been privy to one end of inane and crushingly boring cell phone conversations, right?  It can’t be avoided.  We see the sorts of things people insist on putting up on Facebook or Twitter, and on Internet chat rooms.  (When I was a kid, it was the deadly stuff that one overheard on ham radio when it wound up on the same frequency as Howdy Doody.)  I mean… let’s face it, folks, most people are boring, and most of what they say and do is boring.  And yet we have this vast army of people -- also boring, if I don’t miss my guess -- whose job it is to overhear, record, compile, and summarize all this boringness… and then report it to the higher-ups.  Ever see a spy movie?  I mean a real one, not some James Bond-type fantasy.  These guys would spend weeks at a time wearing earphones and looking through binoculars, sitting in an unfurnished apartment, wearing wrinkled clothes, eating carry-out food and drinking gallons of coffee.  Pretty glamorous, huh?  And I suspect that the lot of our contemporary spies is much the same.  So let’s have a little sympathy, shall we?  If there’s anything more boring than the average person’s everyday life, it’s the life of the person whose job it is to keep track of it. 

And yet… we have all of these “reality shows”, that are full of people who, even though there might be an occasional bit of color to their existence, are, ultimately, boring.  And soap operas… and checkout-line tabloids.  So maybe boring is “in” after all.  And how much different is that from despair?  And once we get to that point, there’s not a whole lot the government can do to make things any worse.       

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