Tilly: It's time for anger

BY ZACH TILLY | JUNE 10, 2013 5:00 AM

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I recently discovered that the government could be logging my calls and tracking my Google searches. It could be watching my Skype chats and thumbing through my emails. My reaction upon learning that the National Security Agency has virtually unchecked access to my phone records and online data was one of deep ambivalence.

My abiding lack of outrage disturbed me a little bit. This feels like something that should make me angry. Or at least something that should coax a little fabricated moral outrage from me. But I’ve been a data fatalist for a long time now. I’m at peace with the idea that Google knows my most intimate secrets, that Apple knows exactly how many hours I’ve logged playing Candy Crush, and that my NPR News app has never been opened.

I have long since abandoned the idea that privacy applies to us “digital natives”; the record of my life and yours is online, and it’s public. So what should I care if the government sneaks a peek at the records Google and Facebook already have? If I have no problem telling all my Internet pals when I’m watching “Golden Girls” (almost always), why should I care if the government knows, too? As it turns out, my attitude makes me a de facto supporter of an argument that I generally hate: “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then why does it matter if the government’s watching?”

This argument, which seems to underlie the widespread complacency surrounding government surveillance, is problematic because it upends the concept of justice upon which our society is built. The notion that only people with something to hide can oppose surveillance creates an environment in which all are guilty until they prove their innocence by letting the government snoop around a little bit. Constant surveillance requires people to continually demonstrate that they aren’t doing anything wrong. That’s an oppressive way to live, even if you’ve got nothing to hide.

My docility (and yours, too) is therefore troublesome. The lack of collective anger among the public has allowed Republicans and Democrats alike to support draconian surveillance tactics with minimal political blowback. In Washington, it seems that something of a War on Terror Consensus has emerged. Domestic snooping under President George W. Bush was regarded as a fleeting case of neocon overreach, but now that President Obama has gotten the Democrats in on the fun, it may be too late to get the government out of our business. Republicans and Democrats don’t agree often, but when they do, look out.

The Cold War Consensus — a bipartisan commitment to approve any and all resources deemed necessary to crush communism — led to the unchecked military spending we enjoy today. The Washington Consensus — the Clinton-era celebration of free trade and markets — led to the bipartisan sanctification of minimally regulated markets that still lingers even after the economic implosion of 2008. Now the War on Terror Consensus threatens to institutionalize a disturbing level of government surveillance.

To stop this consensus from hardening, we’ve got to dig deep, through our ambivalence, and tap into our outrage reserves. We must reject as false the idea that the government’s wandering eyes must be tolerated in the name of safety.

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