Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Patriots and Authoritarians

As predictable as it is, it's still shocking to see Britain's parliament haul in for questioning Alan Rusbridger, the head of The Guardian, rather than looking into the extremely serious revelations of metastasized, unaccountable UK spying Rusbridger's newspaper has reported on.  In essence, in response to Edward Snowden's unprecedented revelations, the UK government has decided to investigate journalism rather than the unchecked growth of the surveillance state.  If I put this kind of thing in a novel, people might not believe it, and yet here it is, actually happening.

At one point during the inquisition inquiry, a Labour MP named Keith Vaz actually asked Rusbridger, "Do you love this country?"  Unsurprisingly, Rusbridger assured Vaz that he does.  But I wish Rusbridger had gone further.  He might usefully have taken a page from the CIA's "Admit nothing, deny everything, make counteraccusations" playbook (yes, they really do teach this, and yes, it really is effective), and assured Vaz that he obviously loved this country more than Vaz does.  In doing so, Rusbridger would have usefully accomplished at least two things.  He would have:  (i) shifted the focus from his supposed lack of patriotism to Vaz's actual lack; and (ii) provided a teachable moment about the difference between patriotism and authoritarianism.

Authoritarians don't love their country.  They worship the state.  These are not the same thing.  I would have loved Alan Rusbridger to point out the difference to the goose-stepping parliamentarian, and by extension to anyone else ignorant of the difference.

Sadly, I'm sure Rusbridger and others will have plenty of other opportunities.  I hope they'll fully avail themselves.


Unknown said...

Excellent post, Barry Eisler. I wish Alan had exploited that moment too. But I had to admire his cool.

The patriotism question made me wanna puke. Haven't Americans ruined forever the fantasy of actually "loving" one's country?

Barry Eisler said...

A writer friend emailed me the following thoughts, which I thought I'd post here along with my response:

I couldn't comment online - don't seem to fit the categories - but I believe you missed the call on Keith Vaz. I know him, he's liberal to the core, the very definition of "a Guardian reader" - a very specific type of UK person - and a bitter opponent of the UK government and by extension the GCHQ/NSA stuff. But fortunately he's chair of that committee, and gets to lay the groundwork, and what he was doing was lobbing softball questions to get certain Rusbridger answers out there, to neutralize ahead of time the kind of tabloid crap the UK now gets from the Mail group and the Murdoch papers.

Thus the "love your country" question spoke not to Vaz's views, but to the shameful necessity of always having to think of the growing Fox News-style nonsense over there. That's what's truly sad.

Nuance, dear boy.

You seem to know Vaz well, and it’s logically possible that he intended his question to be a friendly one, as something he thought would preempt similar (but hostile) such questions from rightists. But this interpretation also strikes me as more generous than my credulity will allow — akin to Obama supporters arguing in the face of even the most Bush/Cheneyesque policies that no, in fact Obama is playing "11-dimensional chess" and a "long game" and in the end fully intends to usher in a liberal paradise. Possible, I suppose, but also a violation of the principles of parsimony and Occam’s Razor. And also something I’ve seen suggested nowhere else (Google “Rusbridger do you love this country” and I think you’ll see that whatever Vaz might have intended, not only has no one else spotted the 11-dimensional chess aspect of his question, but commentators are unanimously appalled).

Moreover, were it true that Vaz intended his question as you suggest, there are numerous more obvious and more effective ways he could have gone about it. For example: “Mister Rusbridger, as you know, various authoritarians have suggested your journalism is unpatriotic. What do you say to them?” He could even have submitted his questions to Rusbridger in advance, as a similar committee did with the heads of the UK’s three spy agencies a couple weeks ago. Yet Vaz, who you claim meant so well, who you note “gets to lay the groundwork” for the committee, did neither of these things. Why not? Is he both that well intentioned and that inept? Again, I suppose it’s possible, but among the possible explanations, is “yes, that well intentioned and that inept” really the most likely?

What we have here is a member of parliament demanding during a formal inquiry — an inquiry Rusbridger himself describes as part of an official intimidation campaign — that a journalist publicly declare his loyalty to the country. If this doesn’t strike you as unsettlingly McCarthyite in effect if not in purpose, then I would respectfully submit that what you call nuance is in fact missing the forest for the trees.

Don Bay said...

Mr. Rusbridger at least retorted that journalism was under attack even though he failed to turn Vaz's question against him. Shockingly, the British government's intimidation gambit is having the desired effect: journalists are now treading very carefully. Much the same is happening in the USA where even other "journalists" are attacking Glenn Greenwald. See the Tom Dispatch.

I commend to your attention Peter Van Buren's article in The Nation dated December 3, 2013, online version. The article is titled "Could Google and the NSA Make Whistleblowers Disappear?" It deals with Edward Snowden's type of revelations being undermined or eliminated by technological means that are even now being used by dictatorial regimes to thwart the opposition.

The government is working on methods that will send revelations and even mention of the whistleblowers themselves into the "memory hole" so folks opposing government actions never even know of those actions. This would eliminate the need to intimidate journalists because they would be blocked from even learning about governmental actions. It's a vast leap from Rain's pager to such sophisticated technology.

I'd like to read your view of this development. It's bad enough as it is without the government shutting the citizenry out altogether.

JWMSales said...

We really aren't looking far enough back. This is the exact same scenario as the "Patriot Act" after 911. Anyone who questioned the merits of attacking Iraq was ridiculed by the right and left-wing war hawks and the media.

As Barry wrote: "Authoritarians don't love their country. They worship the state. "

Snowden, Rusbridger, and the NSA spying on us all are just the next steps down the same path. The real horror is the acquiescence to these things by the public and the overall lack of outrage.

We should include the banking fiasco, as well. Again, no real outrage and NO accountability.