Bonfire of the Liberties

For a second year in a row, Obama’s stealth legislation unhands our claims to liberty

Walter Lippmann, one of the godfathers of public relations, once noted that in a totalitarian state you could control the populace by force, but in a democracy force wasn’t an option—you had to control them through opinion. You had to “manufacture opinion.” While the role of forcibly controlling the demos has been insidiously extended by Washington, opinion continues to be the primary means by which we are soothed and cajoled, frightened and enflamed, and sometimes bludgeoned into believing Washington behaves on our behalf, a paragon of selfless service.

Fewer and fewer believe this sinister imposture. Originally a government-funded project, the Internet has dramatically expanded access to dissident literatures, texts by radical leftists and musket-wielding right-wingers among them, as well as the burgeoning industry of conspiracy theory. All of these novel opinions flooding unchecked into the public consciousness have destabilized Lippmann’s concept of manufactured opinion. Slowly, our tightly knit groupthink is coming unraveled, even as our enervated liberal class finally concedes that their conquering Hawaiian hero has not, in the end, been all that heroic—oh, how the house of cards crumbles.

And so, just as conventional warfare no longer provides clear-cut victories, neither do the blandishments of the State Department necessarily produce media consensus, however much they are robotically repeated by The New York Times and Washington Post. But, as we are rapidly learning, the mere existence of available alternatives does not guarantee they will be sought, found, and utilized.

Stealth Legislation

Still, the constriction of our rights continues unabated. The only difference now is that greater stealth must be employed. That’s why on the final holiday weekend of the year, when the public’s political interest was at a low ebb, President Obama signed a five-year extension of H.R. 5949, better known by as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or by its inimical acronym FISA.

As viewers of CNN and Fox News were being regaled with last-ditch efforts to dodge the farcical fiscal cliff, another violation of our civil liberties was slipping its invisible net over a dozing population. For those who question the bill, such as Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), national security and state secrets are instantly invoked as an unanswerable response. Craven flag-wavers tremble in fright at the grainy footage of machete jihadists in distant lands.

Bon Voyage, Fourth Amendment

Now with continued and unregulated access to all of our international communications—imagine bays of Homeland Security lackeys combing through our blathering emails and inane cell phone transcripts under flickering lights in giant data-mining factories—we have effectively buried the fourth amendment beneath our slavish surrender to fear of the foreign. No longer must the government provide “probable cause” to ransack our “papers and effects”. at least when it comes to talking to people beyond our sacred borders.

Adios, Habeas Corpus

The timing of the signing is no coincidence. On December 31st of last year, Obama signed the horrid National Defense Authorization Act, better known by its insidious acronym NDAA, which authorized the government to indefinitely detain Americans at sites like Guantanamo without trial. On that night habeas corpus became a habeas corpse. This New Year’s Eve we were all rendered suspect by our government. Instead of employing the singular zealotry of a McCarthy to forage through our effects in search of Marxist sympathies, we now employ invisible armies of data analysts to separate the patriotic wheat from the dissident chaff, suspicious Arab sympathizers from sycophant regime-change hawks. Again, the abandonment of privacy is said to be our only recourse if we want to be safe.

Manufactured Distraction

Instead of creating the roiling public protests it ought to, the FISA extension—just like its cousin the NDAA—is lost in the media clamor over the cliff and Obama’s trumpeting very slightly higher tax rates on just over 0.6 percent of the population and solemnly confirming the “bitter pill” of billions in cuts to social programs. Some victory.

But fatuous distractions like the fiscal cliff are necessary to distract the populace from doing its due diligence—digging through Internet caches in search of non-imperial newspeak. But before we have the chance to unearth the stray leftist blog, we are bombarded with news of an impending debt ceiling, a madhouse of intransigent Republicans clamoring for political blood, and our gentle defender, President Obama, summoned to the scene to shepherd the nation past the threat of a work stoppage and into the clutches of deficit hawks who would savage their own to salvage their principles—namely that the rusting planks of the New Deal must be chopped apart in order to impose ‘necessary’ hardship on those who might turn to government in time of need.

Paternalism Decried, Big Brother Applied

The irony of the alternating techniques of stealth and distraction is that they uproot with one hand what they implant with the other. Political theatrics decry the paternalistic impulses of a caretaker government, even as a clandestine government embeds paternalistic surveillance programs they insist are required to save us from jihadists. So which is it? Are we adult enough to fend for ourselves, or are we eternal dependents on the benevolence of a stranger state?

Perhaps a conservative response might be, “But these two are not the same. On the one hand, we cannot possibly protect ourselves from terror without the overarching umbrella of state protection. However, we can guard against poverty, debt, unemployment, and malnutrition simply by taking responsibility for ourselves.”

While the former has a grain of merit, it falters in the detail: while strong borders controls are essential, neither wiretapping nor indefinite detention have been shown to be bulwarks against terror, and, in fact, they can be argued to have invoked the psychological terror of perpetual surveillance.

The latter, however—the idea that we need no social safety net—is thoroughly without merit—the notion that we can all feasibly overcome the circumstances of our birth, the inconstancy of justice, our unequal genetic patrimony, and the hazards of chance to achieve our dearest dreams. This is a simple fatuity, unproven and unserious. The unlucky need help; the lucky should provide it. Is there a human morality that dispenses with this basic proviso? Unlikely, although the acolytes of the Ayn Rand cult of personal responsibility is doing its damndest to test its baseless hypothesis.

It was Benjamin Franklin who railed that, “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither…” To that I would add ‘illusory safety.’ As we are interminably distracted by fears for our security, we forget the freedoms that those distractions are so often designed to remove. As the national pulse fails again to beat a drum of protest at their removal, we have only ourselves to blame. When we are one day cuffed for some untoward remark or glib gesture, we might then recall with nostalgia a time when speech was free, debate was civil, and the enemy was not so near.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, political commentator, and veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He is the recent author of Imperial Fictions, a collection of essays from between 2015-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at Read other articles by Jason.