Remember when we had nothing to fear but “fear itself”?
Okay, that was an effort to stop a run on banks, maybe not intended to express a broad social outlook. Nonetheless, it conveys an important proposition: the role of government is to calm the public, convince us that everything is under control. It suggests something I learned in civics class long ago – that a democratic government derives power from trust rather than fear.
We live in a very different time. The role of government, for quite some time, has been to create a climate of fear. Rather than keeping people calm, our government exists to fan the flames of fear – fear of the threat from Outside, fear of one another, and fear of government reprisal if we step out of line. In fact, it doesn’t much matter which we are more afraid of – Them or The Others, as long as we are sufficiently afraid.
The fact that we are a fear-based society creates a paradox for those who are trying to alert us to the menace of government overreach: their revelations may end up helping the institutions they are trying to bring down.
Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange are willing to spend their lives in exile, burying every keystroke on their computers in layers of encryption. Laura Poitras, in an extraordinary interview with Peter Maass, says she avoids using a cell phone and spends a day cleaning or securing her electronics before she travels. For the work she does, that makes sense. For many of us, it doesn’t.
I predict that the revelations will lead to a heightened security culture in movements, and in my opinion, that’s part of what the government wants. Some activists, especially young ones, in my experience, like the idea of being involved in something dangerous. It makes activist drudge work feel exciting and important, and knowing the security culture – whether it’s PGP (Pretty Good Privacy, a no-doubt-passé encryption software) or Guy Fawkes masks – is like a secret handshake.
But for those of us who are stopping by meetings or actions between our paid job and our volunteer job, our first paid job and our second, or our paid job and putting the kids to bed, it adds a level of complication we don’t have time for. I barely – as lots of you know – get around to answering emails from friends and family. I certainly don’t have hours every day to spend downloading, updating and learning to use encryption software. I don’t want to dismantle my cell phone at a meeting to plan a public demonstration or a banner drop. I think masks at demonstrations make us look shady and scary. And the Guy Fawkes thing is just creepy.
For my coworker, who tends to be paranoid anyway, the exposure of the NSA’s spying program convinced him that if he signs an online petition he’ll go to prison. He’s an extreme case, but it’s not hard to convince ordinary Americans that the cost of political activism is too high.
The NSA and their ilk don’t care if I don’t join a demonstration because I don’t want to encrypt my computer, you don’t join because you don’t like the people telling you to encrypt your computer, Debbie doesn’t join because the people encrypting their computers suspect her of being a government agent, and Tom doesn’t join because he’s afraid the government will put him in prison. As long as we all stay home, they’re happy. If enough of us don’t, that’s when they get busy using their security culture to turn our security culture against us. I’m not going to go into how that happens – I’ve written about it plenty and so have many others. It happened with Occupy. It happened with the“Anti-Globalization” movement of the early 2000s. It happened with ELF and ALF and you can bet it’s happening somewhere now.
I’m not saying whistleblowers shouldn’t keep blowing the whistle. I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep listening to what they have to say. I’m just saying we have to figure out how to absorb it and keep moving forward. The fact is that all the prodigious spying that Homeland Security AND the Wall Street banks engaged in didn’t prevent Occupy Wall Street from pulling off huge disruptive actions. All across the country, people planned actions, including major port shutdowns, in General Assemblies in public parks, and no one was sent to Guantanamo. (In one infamous infiltration case, police involvement led to the charges being dismissed against Texas activists.) For all their sophisticated spying equipment, the government was no match for the people, and it never is when we believe in ourselves.
What it was able to do, as so often in the past, was use fear of counterintelligence to drive wedges between activists. In Oakland, core organizers assaulted each other in public, and a media collective branded a Palestinian activist a terrorist. COINTELPRO? We’ll never know, but if so, security culture didn’t help us – and Occupy Oakland was a hotbed of security culture.
For activists, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.