“Good people don’t hide; bad people have to hide because they are planning evil things like trying to bomb this auditorium,” said Glenn Greenwald during a presentation at Carnegie Hall in New York City earlier this week.
He explained that he took that line from former CIA director Michael Hayden, who kept on repeating that warning during a debate in Toronto a couple months ago.” In that debate, Greenwald took on two grumpy old men, one who looked like Eric Forman’s father from That ‘70s Show and the other who claimed to be a liberal democrat who believes that we can have enough surveillance that is consistent with liberty. Needless to say, Greenwald destroyed them both with his secret weapon: the NSA’s own files, which he received from Edward Snowden in what has become one of the greatest government leaks in history.
Truth be told, I didn’t really know or care much about Glenn Greenwald until I heard Facebook rumors that Bolivian president Evo Morales’s plane had been stopped and frisked in Austria. From there, I began to read about him, including about his reaction to the nine-hour detention and questioning of his partner in the London airport.
“If the U.K. and U.S. governments believe that tactics like this are going to deter or intimidate us in any way from continuing to report aggressively on what these documents reveal, they are beyond deluded. If anything, it will have only the opposite effect: to embolden us even further,” Greenwald responded.
I had to give the man some props.
Of course, Greenwald is best known for exposing the vast and unchecked surveillance of the National Security Agency, whose very motto, he explained in his presentation on Monday, is: “Collect it all.” But what was most interesting about his talk was not what the NSA is doing, but why we should care.
Greenwald’s response to that question begins with a look at the amount of character-shaming Snowden received after he revealed himself as the source of the leaks. As Greenwald explained, Snowden was a 29-year-old who had a loving girlfriend, a well-paying job and parents and friends who loved him. The idea that he would throw that all away was incomprehensible to the media and elites, who Greenwald described as “soulless.” So, according to Greenwald, they quickly assumed that the whistleblower must have psychological problems, and went on to diagnose him as a “fame-seeking narcissist.”
This, Greenwald says, is a fundamental problem that goes beyond Snowden. Instead, it speaks to a too-common view that dissent is a form of mental illness, and that submission to the status quo is indicative of a healthy state of mind. Now, let’s be clear: Actions like Snowden’s are called dissent because there are no other ways or processes to actually address the flaws of this system. This leads to dissent as an act of survival (not as a symptom of psychosis), which, in return, provides the excuse for government surveillance in the first place. And, as Greenwald explained and studies have shown, a society that is being watched is a society that is complacent and compliant.
In other words, the NSA’s surveillance at its core is an attack on our ability to dissent — and our ability to try to meaningfully change the flaws of our system.
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The big question, of course, is: What do we do about this?
During his presentation, Greenwald mentioned the temptation to simply succumb to this type of problem, since at times it seems so grand. We automatically assume a sense of perceived helplessness and view subjugation as rational. And that’s what the NSA and its “Collect it all, exploit it all” machine is betting on: That if they place enough eyes on everything we do, we will be scared off this incredibly powerful and rich resource, which is the Internet. This is why we are going to have to go through a massive recognition and reclamation process if we want a fighting chance. Just as many indigenous and First Nation peoples have been reclaiming land and water across the world. We need to begin seeing the Internet as a territory as real and resource-rich as physical land, and we have to reclaim our right to it.
With the combination of NSA spying and the recent attacks on net neutrality, this is looking like a monumental task. But Greenwald had a few words of encouragement there too, explaining that “history has shown over and over again that if you have the will and good political clarity, you will always find the power.”