Oct 17 2013

Boardwalk Empire, NSA Spying, David Simon, and Regrettable Threesomes

Natasha Vargas-Cooper

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My favorite character on Boardwalk Empire, Eddie, Nucky Thompson's obsequious Prussian bagman, killed himself because FBI agents used personal information to coerce him into collaborating against his beloved Nucky. After a Pilsner-fueled night of fraternizing with other German ex-pats (and Al Capone’s brother), sweet old Eddie was picked up by US agents. They held Eddie at an offsite location for 12 hours, offered no lawyer, and harshly interrogated (tortured) him, but still—Eddie did not crack!

But after the G-Men make some calls back to the Fatherland, they threaten to send Eddie back to Germany and expose the fact that he left his wife and children decades ago with a mistress and a petty sum of stolen money from a Hanover factory he used to work in. Eddie, who has the dignified air of a mustachioed sea walrus, cracks, confesses, and weeps. Once released from custody, unable to cope with the shame of being a collaborator and a wife-deserter, Eddie (with tremendous dignity) throws himself out the window! Walruses can’t fly—goodbye, Eddie!

Eddie’s defenestration, of course, brought one thing to mind: the National Security Agency secretly snuffling through our Facebook accounts and email. Here is the true danger of mass surveillance: government access to all your non-criminal, non-political thoughts, feelings, and social transgressions. Who we love, who we fuck, who we cheat on, and our personal shames and failures—this is the shit that makes a person break when used against them. Shame is beyond political ideology. So maybe you’re not a political dissident with plans to overthrow the government but perhaps you’ve engaged in a regrettable threesome (or two) you’d prefer your loved ones not know about?

When the FBI was conducting a surveillance operation on Martin Luther King, they recorded nine hours of the civil rights leader in his hotel room with women who were not his wife. In 1964, the head of the FBI, William C. Sullivan, had portions of the audio recording mailed King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. That same year the FBI sent King a letter urging him to commit suicide:

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don't have one at this time anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God.... Clearly you don't believe in any personal moral principles.

I think we’d all like to imagine that even when put up against the wall, we’d never betray our political ideas, loyalties, or causes. But I cannot imagine the psychic horror of having the things I’ve done in my private realm used against me. I worry that I would fail that test.

To assume government officials would not recklessly, illegally, and thuggishly spy on a "suspect’s" personal life is naive. In Denis Johnson’s 2007 novel Tree of Smoke, which in part follows CIA operative Skip Sands’s misadventures through the morass of wartime Vietnam, there is a lengthy and philosophical discussion between various spooks about the nature of surveillance and psychological coercion. Skip’s uncle (fond of football metaphors and highballs) serves as the head of Psychological Operations for CIA in Southeast Asia. Skip’s uncle argues that data collection without at-all-costs “war-like goals” is useless:

The question about intelligence-gathering is where do you stop taking the initiative? Do we get out there and beat the bushes aggressively, accumulate everything aggressively, and then passively leave others to sift? No. A sifting goes on continually, at every level.

Anything less, as Skip’s uncle says, than constant sifting through all data available would be antithetical to the goal of any surveillance operation. Without any checks or oversight—or, uh, WARRANTS—for surveillance, are we really meant to trust that some NSA operative is going to turn off his/her PRISM program when they come to your sexts?

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I feel a little self-conscious getting indignant about government spying because I've long felt that it is deeply unsexy, uncool. Too closely aligned to the obsessions of drab men and kooks. When you Google this stuff you very quickly end up on crude blogs about JFK assassination theories and Truther web boards. Until the Edward Snowden leaks, surveillance issues have always felt feels very removed, wonky, and cold to me. Very un-corporeal. Other causes like child abuse, death penalty, and human trafficking heat the blood because they have a clear impact on the human body and psyche. They can be summed up with a poster of a mournful face and a six-word slogan. But as we learn more about the secret spying programs—particularly Laura Poitras’s recent revelation that NSA has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify associates, travel locations, traveling companions—it becomes clear how deep, corporeal, intimate, and transgressive these acts of surveillance can be.

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Outrage over the Snowden’s leaks has been countered, by some, with a big “Well what did you expect?” shrug. I am largely thinking of David Simon’s obnoxiously self-satisfied blog post characterizing those indignant over NSA spying programs as whiners. Simon adopts of the world-weary stance of hardened crime reporter, a callback to from his pre-HBO life, calling the NSA spying programs both “inevitable” and “understandable.” He writes:

Having labored as a police reporter in the days before the Patriot Act, I can assure all there has always been a stage before the wiretap, a preliminary process involving the capture, retention and analysis of raw data. It has been so for decades now in this country. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff.

Swaths of educated and enlightened Americans no doubt agree with Simon’s view, chalking up their “so what?” attitude to political sophistication instead of what it really is: some bizarre blend of servility and cynicism. Compliancy on the issue of massive secret surveillance means your are picking the side of power over law. There is a difference between the two. George Orwell wrote in 1941—an attempt to stir the British people to fight in war against fascism—that the defining trait of the English people was their belief in law over power. “It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just,” Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn. “Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor.” But, he argued, “everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.”

Of course, this belief in the rule of law over power is not confined to the United Kingdom or the United States, or any other country with pasty Anglo ancestors, but outrage over abuses of power is essential to functioning democracy. I mean, duh, you know this, just don’t listen to David Simon! Don’t give me that "all in the game" bullshit. Get mad! Treme is fucking boring.

“It’s like if you got upset by a murder that is particularly heinous and wrong,” Glenn Greenwald, told me during a recent trip to Brazil, “and someone responded to your outrage with: 'What the fuck are you upset about? Thousands of people get murdered every year!’ But even if murdering has been happening forever, that’s not a good reason for you not to be horrified by this one. Just because something is common doesn't mean it's not wrong.”

What hasn't come out yet but likely will—and it will be something that I think changes the way Americans think and respond to this scandal—is who has been abused by the NSA spy programs. Who has been unfairly targeted and how. Eventually the victims of these leaks will get a human face—maybe as loveable as Eddie’s. My hope is, no matter what race or religion they are (AHEM, MUSLIM), the public will feel some solidarity with them, because, um, what do YOU do in hotel rooms?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America (Harper Design, 2010).