Monday, March 24, 2014

NSA and the Matter of Truths, Lies and Exaggerations

In a few days I will be hosting a discussion for the Boston Area Philosophy Discussions group called Ethical Empowerment: Reflections on the NSA Scandal and so I got to thinking about what I really think about this fascinating mess. And I rather quickly formed a view about the truths that the scandal has highlighted, but also about the lies and distortions and/or exaggerations that come from both sides. Here are two indisputable truths: The vast majority of Americans care deeply about their personal liberties and among these are rights to privacy and the freedom to use the telephone or to transmit messages without Big Brother or, perhaps, a government—and perhaps this means any government, that is a Big Brother wannabe. Lord Acton was certainly correct when he said that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Truth #1: privacy is a huge concern.

However, the other indisputable truth is that the right to privacy can be trumped when the threat to national security is such that it undermines our survival or poses a legitimate threat to the well being of the nation or its citizens. But what is the criteria for weighing threats to national security? It seems to me that if it were not for the outrageous lies and fabrications perpetrated by the U.S. government or its spokespersons, then we would not see the rampant mistrust of the government that we have today. If we trusted the government, then when it states that something is being done for reasons of national security we could at least believe it. Unfortunately, however, "national security" has been bandied about so freely and has become so inflated that it no longer holds any currency. Some files relating to the JFK assassination are still marked top secret or documents that are released are blacked out; Kennedy was murdered over 50 years ago and if there is anything about it that is still kept from the public because of "national security" it is a bald faced lie and a transparent absurdity; yet, many people buy it. When it comes to claims about "national security" we should perhaps always question whether the need for secrecy is more CYA than CIA, i.e. someone's ass needs protection. Truth #2: national security is a legitimate concern; it too is hugely important. But an equally large concern is the power lust that all too easily affixes the label of "national security in such a manner that our national security is—ironically, unduly compromised.

My simple point here is that privacy and national security, clearly, are both extremely important issues that most Americans care about deeply. But exaggerating or distorting the truth is the best means of sabotaging both values. The national security freaks who, it would seem, care little about liberty other than in terms of strong military posture do much harm—as we have seen with devastating effect in the lies, misinformation or exaggeration over Saddam Hussein's alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. And so national security was fed and stoked until the truth no longer mattered. And the same—actually much worse in terms of the pure number of those maimed and killed, can be said about American involvement in the Vietnam War.

But there are, as is almost always the case, two sides to a controversy. It is also possible to exaggerate the claim that the government exaggerates the need for national security in many cases. From my perspective, it seems to me that a defense of what the NSA was doing with respect to its electronic surveillance on American citizens can only be done with great exaggeration and hyperbole. The phenomenon of seeing George Orwell's 1984 flying off the shelves is a beautiful statement of the lasting function of a great philosophical novel. Before we descend along the ever-widening path of surrendering our liberties we had better check over-exaggeration and scare tactics, as they can truly be our greatest threat. But I am reminded of the criticisms that some people have concerning outdoor cameras on busy streets. I do not understand or feel any sacrifice of my freedom if in a public place cameras watch so that a rapist or a Marathon bomber might be caught. In our complicated and dangerous world, I wish that those who protest the loss of privacy in innocuous circumstances, when it is done to protect the public without any real and genuine loss of freedom, would just get real for once. In reality, the cameras are a great advance of freedom because improvements in the safety and well being of the public are surely an investment made on behalf of liberty that is paid with an insignificant token of privacy.                                                                                  

Monday, February 3, 2014

Real v. Fictional Heroes

Fictional heroes are extremely important. But they may teach us more about the aspirations of life than its limitations. And both are necessary for the achievement of true greatness. Nietzsche's Ubermensch or Rand's John Galt are wonderful fictional heroes, but they would both generally flop in non-fictional reality. But there are exceptions.

It is something of a paradox that we are inspired by fictional heroes whose actions would be unacceptable in real life. But it is a difficult call. Nelson Mandela was a true hero, as was Martin Luther King and others who risked imprisonment and/or death in order to further the empowerment of their people. In the cases of Mandela and King, the social system that they fought against was morally bankrupt and corrupt to is core and nothing other than defiance to existing political corruption and social decadence could elevate themselves to what history demanded of them; they accepted the challenge and it is a much better world today because for there sacrifices. But not all heroism can operate on this model.

More typically, heroism is a quieter internal struggle to achieve what one believes that s/he must achieve even when it is contrary to convention, the easier path, or the more profitable one. And, of course, heroism can sometimes entail personal risk against the powers that be. The cases of which I am thinking do not necessarily put the hero up against the legalized corruption and moral bankruptcy in which King and Mandela found themselves, but nonetheless power interests within the social framework—political, corporate, cultural etc.—tip the odds against them as much as in the gross injustices of, say, a legally sanctioned racist social structure.

Heroism and greatness can often require knowing when to bend or break the rules and when to stay put and accept them while enduring a struggle to change them. Nietzsche's so-called noble or master morality can be faulted because it provides no sort of dependable foundation to help negotiate the curves and the conundrums of ethical decision. Clearly this is true of the John Galt character as well. And it is also true of other heroes of forms of ideology or religion whose struggle is ultimately one of trying to force submission to an ideology they "know" is right or true. But in my mind, the most commonly needed form of heroic courage is the courage or fearlessness to question what we somehow know we are supposed not to question.

This post is a reflection on the Boston Area Philosophy Discussion meeting of 08/24/2012 entitled, "Of God, Gods and Goddesses." I have meandered in a different direction here, but the closing of my introductory remarks for that meeting is relevant here as well, I think, when it is subjected to some circumspection concerning questions of who we are and who we want to become that are always in vogue in the eyes and the spirit of the examined life. I wrote that, "Who and what do we want to become? That question sums up the topic for discussion. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, the Greek and Roman gods and other mythologies, the primary aspirations of ethics, Utopian ideals and finally, the possibilities of science all enter into the conversation. But most certainly, the question of who we want to become also implies the question, “Who do we want not to become?” And perhaps that is the more fundamental question."