Monday, June 10, 2013

On National Security and Civil Rights, Obama is Bush (Or Worse)

Last week saw a fairly stunning series of revelations from Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian concerning the size and scope of the US surveillance state. If you haven't been following, the quick summary is that the government is collecting all the data on everything you do online, and monitoring every phone call made in the US. While this story is extremely important and concerning for anyone who believes in the idea of democracy or freedom, as a critical thinker I am far more interested in the official responses to these revelations  and the spin and fallacies that are employed by these individuals to defend something that should, frankly, be seen as indefensible (at least if one actually thinks the Constitution ought to apply).

Today I want to start with President Obama's response as revealed by Josh Voorhes at Slate. In reporting on Obama's answers to some questions, he records the following:
You can't have 100-percent security and also have 100-percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society.
If we think about this comment for a little bit, we can see some serious flaws in the reasoning presented here. Perhaps the most obvious issue is the claim that we could ever achieve "100-percent security" (or "100-percent privacy" for that matter). The simple fact is that we can never be completely safe, and the president is essentially committing a False Dilemma by claiming that. The implied argument is that we can choose between privacy or security, and if we want all of one, we need to sacrifice all of the other. This is a false choice because we can have both. Once we acknowledge that "100-percent security" is a chimera, then we can seriously explore how to balance privacy and security. However, Obama's use of absolutes here muddies this conversation in ways that are unhelpful and counterproductive (not necessarily to Obama's goals, but to our interestes as members of a democratic society).

This leads to a second aspect of the quote concerning the choices we will need to make as a society. This is a theme touched on in the second sentence of the above quote, but can also be seen when Obama says:

One of the things we're going to have to discuss and debate is how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy. Because there are some trade-offs involved. I welcome this debate, and I think it's healthy for our democracy.
Obama is being particularly disingenuous here when he claims, "I welcome this debate..." because such a claim is obviously false. If he welcomed a debate he wouldn't have done everything in his power to hide and suppress this information. One can't have a debate if one has no idea what is going on. If Obama truly "welcomed" a debate, then he would have made this information public so that the American populace could actually debate it. This is a great example of Bullshit. According to Harry Frankfurt, a distinguishing features of bullshit is that one of its primary concerns is not the truth of what is said, but the attempt by the bullshitter to create a certain impression of himself in his audience. In this case, Obama is trying to appear as if he cares about civil rights and privacy. His actions clearly indicate that he doesn't care about any of this, and this is why we can label his words as bullshit. Despite his assertions to the contrary, he doesn't welcome a debate and he doesn't care about civil rights and privacy. If he did, then he wouldn't be acting the way he is.

This is enough for now, but this is such a massive story with seemingly more revelations to come that I will be blogging about this for quite some time.

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