Over the past month, a lot of people have written a lot of words about a certain domestic surveillance program. People have drawn conclusions, made blanket statements, outlined historical cases, and - in general - simply done what people do best when confronted with a huge and terrifying new fact: babbled and babbled and attempted to explain it all to themselves and others.
Our earliest ancestors did this, and we got religion out of that. Now, we have television pundits and internet bloggers and, or course, “proper” columnists. I count myself among the latter two, of course, and I’m just as guilty as anyone else.
I suppose where I am different is that I sometimes don’t agree with the logic of people who may share my opinions about a topic. And while it’s easy for most people to read something they disagree with and tear its internal inconsistencies to shreds, I find it is a lot harder for most people to do that for ideas with which they likely agree.
I don’t usually have that problem, which is one reason I am sometimes told I am either a jerk or just difficult. Well, sorry, but I think people should take time to think through their radical ideas about something and figure out if they really make sense. I have written around forty weekly columns for the Charleston (SC) City Paper over the last 10 or 11 months, and have started and failed to complete at least five because, after I started writing, I realized that I did not have the sort of logic behind my ideas that I felt backed up the opinion soundly. In short, I was unable to think my ideas through to a conclusion that satisfied my opinion.
So, as I have read some of the pieces about the NSA’s PRISM program, I find myself saying both, “I agree with you: PRISM is a scary thing” and at the same time saying, “but this is a horrible argument in that direction.” In particular, it is the writers who are taking a look at how PRISM might affect our Founding Fathers and American Revolutionaries that bother me the most.
The first was Kieran Healy’s Using Meta to Find Paul Revere. It’s a very clever piece, written from the perspective of a 1770s British intelligence agent who has pieced together metadata on the activities of American colonists to point to a person who most likely is a traitor to the British Crown.
The piece could be just a simple technical breakdown of how PRISM would have worked in the 1770s, a mere exercise in historical fantasy. After all, the author never leaves his historical/satirical setting to specifically say how he feels about PRISM - but I think it’s safe to say he is against its existence. He closes his piece with:
But I say again, if a mere scribe such as I—one who knows nearly nothing—can use the very simplest of these methods to pick the name of a traitor like Paul Revere from those of two hundred and fifty four other men, using nothing but a list of memberships and a portable calculating engine, then just think what weapons we might wield in the defense of liberty one or two centuries from now.
Here’s the interesting part, where Mr. Healy’s logic (assuming he is taking the position of being against PRISM, that is), falls off the rails. He rightly presumes that an agent of the “RSA” in colonial times would assume that they, and not the American revolutionaries, are the defenders of liberty.
And that’s where it gets complicated. If Paul Revere were a “traitor” or “terrorist” to the British (the former is true, the likely might be a stretch if it weren’t for how we now define “terrorism” in this country), then can we use his story as an attack on PRISM? After all, aren’t yesterdays “terrorists” to the British now our collective folk heroes? Two hundred years from now, will a similarly clever scholar pen a similarly clever article about, say, the Boston Bombers?
You cannot assault the existence of PRISM by using America’s revolutionary figures simply because they were, by any measure you choose to use, actively working against their government. You cannot use today’s standards (or even yesterday’s) to measure whether or not they were justified in their actions against the state which ruled them - because all actors against a state feel justified in their actions.
In fact, you are likely making the defense of PRISM easier to make by using this line of reasoning.
Supporters of “free speech” often like to say, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” Perhaps now supporters of critical thought should say, “I agree with what you are trying to say, but I wish you would think it through a little bit better.”
And, of course, here’s hoping I thought this one through well enough myself!