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How strange is too strange for bedfellows?

danps's picture

Political coalitions often bring together otherwise adversarial groups: In the eighties a subset of feminists and Christian fundamentalists worked together on anti-pornography issues; starting in the nineties immigrant rights and business groups found common cause on citizenship reform (still no success though); earlier this year environmentalists and Tea Party members created a Green Tea movement for local renewable energy choice; there are lots of examples.

When working on a specific issue it's often practical to turn a blind eye to the motives of one's partners, especially when the issue in question has dicey prospects. In theory, anyway. The issue of National Security Agency (NSA) reform, though, presents some allies the left might want to be a little wary of.

California's Tenth Amendment Center (TAC) is creating the most cognitive dissonance right now. Founder Michael Boldin appears to be a bit of a gadfly, though he seems to spend more time courting the far right than anyone else. I hadn't given him or his group a second thought until last weekend, when I read about a wildly creative proposal for fighting the NSA's new Utah data center: By cutting off its water supply.

The problem (to my mind) is that the TAC immediately cripples its own proposal by framing it in terms of a bunch of high-minded claptrap (PDF). Even its local action page recommends communities pass 4th Amendment Protection Resolutions.

The NSA can't be successfully fought with those kind of direct challenges to the federal government. Congress has greased the skids, presidents love the power, and secret rubber stamp courts are eager to approve of everything placed before them. Anyone who wants to openly defy all of that should be ready to get very familiar with federal prison cuisine. And I suspect there won't be many volunteering to become martyrs to that cause.

Using sub-federal level legislation to show disapproval of the NSA is worth considering, though. Within its defined scope. Creating an environment that says "we don't like this and you are not welcome here" is a lot more realistic than a Constitutional showdown, and may - unlike pinning all hopes on a single, grand duel - accomplish something by slowly eroding support for the NSA.

I would think there are an abundance of hilariously subversive ways to make that disapproval plain. For instance, set the speed limit at all roads leading to the data center to five miles an hour - and speed trap the hell out of it. Zoning ordinances, property laws, and so on contain a wealth of details, with devils in them, for people to creatively work against the surveillance state. You don't need to start by chaining yourself to the courthouse door.

Between Boldin's grandiose strategy, protests-too-much references to proto-secessionists and wildly inapt comparisons to civil rights leaders, it's a bit hard to imagine the average liberal signing on to his approach. The same goes for Stop Watching Us, which mysteriously sprang up a couple months ago just in time to announce a big protest - and is still advertising the protest on its home page, incidentally ("On October 26th, join us" etc).

This thing - group? organization? web site? what the hell is it? - has no contact page, no officers listed, no known funding, no history, nothing. Nothing but the whiff of Koch-funded astroturf, anyway. Yet it is very concerned with NSA spying. Give them your contact information and I'm sure they will keep you abreast of all the important ways you can help them do whatever it is they think of next.

Then there is the new Reform Government Surveillance (RGS) web site (via), created by big tech companies now that obediently handing over massive quantities of data to the government is a PR problem. At least this site is backed by known entities and is advocating more than romantic displays of bluster. On the other hand, there are no legislative partners listed, nor are proposals or even model legislation offered. All it has is (brace yourself) high minded claptrap,1 this time from tech executives.

Should those principles be translated into bills and introduced in Congress, it might be at least somewhat worthwhile. Legislation that even ostensibly reined in surveillance would be a good indicator of the national mood. That's better than nothing.

Of course, supporting RGS means throwing in with the very companies that went along with the program just fine as long as it remained secret. Companies that also, incidentally, engage in some pretty unsavory activities when they are not lamenting the new unpopularity of helping the government spy on everyone. For instance, Google has recently launched a civil re-engineering program that allows their privilegemobiles to muscle people out of public spaces. With friends like that who needs enemies?

Still, what can an individual do? If one opposes the surveillance state, the options are pretty thin. It will probably never be a flashpoint issue, something that stands on its own and gets sustained, dramatic attention. (That might even be appropriate. This comment on the controversy over Pope Francis besting Edward Snowden for Time's Person of the Year gives a good indication of why many rightly put government surveillance low on their civic To Do list.) Contacting representatives at key moments is a good and useful thing, but being a part of any ongoing campaign will require progressives to figure out just how much tolerance they have for working with those they otherwise oppose.


1. The stated principles are so uninformed on the current state of play that whoever wrote them must have just fallen off the turnip truck. "Reviewing courts should be independent and include an adversarial process"? Yes we went through that already years ago, thanks. The government is perfectly satisfied that the FISA court provides both. The surveillance state became so aggrandized precisely because all the democratic forms articulated in the RGS principles were, according to those who favored it, followed.

If weak sauce argumentation like that is the sharpest thinking our job creating titans in the tech sector can come up with, it's no wonder they spend all their time these days suing each other for patent infringement instead of creating products that improve peoples' quality of life.

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