The captive mind and the new American authoritarianism

Photo credit: Multimotyl

The UK government today asked a British journalist if he loved his country. The implication was that his journalism -- specifically his publishing of NSA leaks from Edward Snowden -- was treasonous or unpatriotic. There have been many such episodes lately, not just in Britain but also in the United States, where elected officials and corporate media stars have called for the extermination of journalists they don't like. And it's not just rhetoric: the UK government is investigating journalist Glenn Greenwald's husband for possible terrorist crimes, and is making threats about prosecuting Guardian journalists for their NSA/GCHQ stories. Here in the United States, a war on journalism rages; in it, the federal government has intimidated, spied on, and investigated reporters for doing their jobs. 

Those of us who are concerned about these Terror-related developments inside the 'western' democracies would do well to revisit mid-20th century literature about the cancerous effect authoritarianism has on the individual, her intellectual and artistic production, and her society. Lithuanian-Polish poet and author Czeslaw Milosz' famous book about humanity under the influence of authoritarianism, 'The Captive Mind', is a great place to start.

Before your ruffles start fluttering in outrage, let me be clear: No, we do not live in a Stalinist society. The United States is not the USSR. No two societies or epochs are exactly alike, and that's beside the point. Here's the point: In order to break free of the chains that bind us in 2013 America, we have to understand if and how we are being controlled. 'The Captive Mind' is extremely helpful in this regard. 

To understand authoritarian mechanisms of control and how they function in the mind of the individual and in society at large, what better place to look than to the arts, where culture is expressed (and produced) as form -- in painting, writing, and movement?

Consider the rippling effects of state control over the individual and her production of culture; you'll see that artists act like canaries in the mine, alerting us to dangerously high levels of carcinogens in our political atmosphere. Therefore when evaluating government's relationship to individual freedom in any society, in any epoch, we must ask: Can writers and artists fully express themselves? If not, why not?

Describing the state of the arts under Stalin, Milosz reminds us that the "objective conditions necessary to the realization of a work of art are, as we know, a highly complex phenomenon, involving one's public, the possibility of contact with it, the general atmosphere, and above all freedom from involuntary subjective control" [my emphasis].

Milosz quotes a Polish poet, who confided to him that the Communist Party's requirement of a rigid adherence to 'socialist realism' in all licensed works of art and writing had blocked off certain trains of thought in his head, precluding exploration of his own ideas. 

"I can't write as I would like to," he told Milosz. "My own stream of thought has so many tributaries, that I barely succeed in damming off one, when a second, third or fourth overflows. I get halfway through a phrase, and already I submit it to Marxist criticism. I imagine what X or Y will say about it, and I change the ending."

Consider now the following quotes, pulled from a recent survey of American writers done by the PEN American Center [emphasis all mine]. 

"I was considering researching a book about civil defense preparedness during the Cold War: what were the expectations on the part of Americans and the government? What would have happened if a nuclear conflagration had taken place? What contingency plans did the government have? How did the pall of imminent disaster affect Americans? But as a result of recent articles about the NSA, I decided to put the idea aside because, after all, what would be the perception if I Googled ‘nuclear blast,’ ‘bomb shelters,’ ‘radiation,’ ‘secret plans,’ ‘weaponry,’ and so on? And are librarians required to report requests for materials about fallout and national emergencies and so on? I don’t know."

"I feel that increased government surveillance has had a chilling effect on my research, most of which I do on the Internet. This includes research on issues such as the drug wars and mass incarceration, which people don’t think about as much as they think about foreign terrorism, but is just as pertinent."

"The codification of surveillance as a new ‘norm’—with all different forms and layers—is changing the world in ways I think I fail to grasp still. And one of the things I’ve learned through repeat visits to another country with a strong police/military presence is what it feels like to not know whether or exactly how you are being watched due to some categorization you might not even know about. This is of great concern to me, the sense that this condition is spreading so rapidly in different nations now—or perhaps more accurately: that the foundations are being laid and reinforced so that by the time we fully realize that we live in this condition, it will be too late to alter the infrastructure patterns."

"I have made a conscious, deliberate choice to avoid certain conversation topics in electronic emails out of concern that those communications may be surveilled."

"I would hesitate to express in writing understanding for anti-American sentiments abroad, as I suspect that expressing such understanding might make me suspect in the eyes of the American security apparatus."

"I have felt that even to comment on the Snowden case in an email would flag my email as worthy of being looked at."

“I am pretty free with political opinions online, but hesitate to write about liberal organizing, especially during Occupy."

"I have dropped stories in the past and avoided research on the company telephone due to concerns over wiretapping or eavesdropping."

One writer told PEN: "Even taking this survey makes me feel somewhat nervous."

Now, you may be thinking: Ok, so some writers in the United States are afraid to conduct research or say what they think. But what are they so afraid of? It isn't like they need a government license or cannot publish -- the First Amendment is strong! And it's not as if they'll take "a trip to a region where polar bears thrive but human beings do not", as Milosz described the disappearances that added up to the Stalinist purges. You may protest: No writers have been banished to any US gulag for the simple crime of performing intellectual or artistic work! 

The underlying assumption guiding these protestations is correct. It's certainly true that, in order to use ubiquitous surveillance towards the end of authoritarian control, a regime needs sharp teeth to gnash at those among us who step outside the boundaries of what it deems appropriate. The knowledge that one is being watched -- while deleterious to thought, culture, and identity, and antidemocratic in the extreme -- does not alone constitute coercive, physical violence.

But it's wrong to assume that the United States has not already traversed this gulf. Again, I am not saying Obama is Stalin. But throughout its history, and with gusto over the past twelve years, the US government has made crystal clear to both citizens and non-citizens that its surveillance architecture is backed up by very sharp teeth indeed, and that it will bite if and when it wants to -- no matter what any meddling law might say. 

Loud bark, strong bite: ubiquitous surveillance and the threat of physical violence

With due respect to American Indians and the descendants of enslaved Africans, in certain respects the fangs of US state violence have become sharper of late. But that's a relative statement. What's undeniably true is that the government appears less and less afraid of gnashing its teeth and biting at even the most privileged among us.  Meanwhile its repression of the 'least among us' has been ratcheted up in significant ways, both through negligence and direct attack. For evidence of worsening norms, look no farther than 

The mantra in the War On Terror is "sentence first, verdict afterwards". But even if you get inside a court room, you likely won't have a fair trial if you are charged with Terrorism. That's because the evidence against you is probably secret.

In the US today, the threat of being watched is backed up by threats of very real violence that extend beyond the now-routine state violence visited on the poor and communities of color in the decades old drug war. The War On Terror, which might be more accurately described as a War Of Terror or a Permanent State of Exception, has delivered new threats and new violences, and substantially expanded their reach. 

Perhaps the most common among these threats  was one of the first to emerge post-9/11: the threat of being added to a List. From the PEN report:

‘Selected’ for a special security search returning to the United States from Mexico twice last summer, I learned I was on a U.S. Government list. I was searched for ‘cocaine’ and explosives. I suspect … that I must have been put on the government list because of an essay I wrote … in which I describe finding a poem on a Libyan Jihad site, and ultimately express some sympathy for young men on the other side of the world who are tempted into jihad … one can see how [the poem] might be a comfort to jihadists.

Then there's the threat of being charged with and convicted of Terrorism for translating materials, something Massachusetts resident and US citizen Tarek Mehanna will never forget. The young pharmacist and writer spent three years in solitary confinement during a trial that blew open a Muslim-sized gash in the First Amendment. He was sentenced to 17.5 years in federal prison for terrorist crimes. He has never been accused of funding or participating in any violence.

There's also the threat of indefinite detention without charge, either in the United States or at US government 'black site' prisons scattered across the globe. More explicitly, the threat is of being kidnapped, rendered, and tortured -- possibly to death. In Latin America, they call it being disappeared. 

And then there's the final threat: of execution. The Terror Tuesday Kill Lists are probably significantly smaller than the terror watch lists, but they are replenished as quickly as the latest number two can be efficiently exploded -- usually by robot. Therefore the threat of death-for-opinion or death-for-association looms larger than ever, even for US citizens. Ask Anwar al-Awlaki, never charged with nor indicted for a crime, and yet blown up by a US missile in a strike the US media and government largely celebrate as a resounding success for the War On Terror. Or you could also ask his son, a sixteen year old Denver native whom the United States also blew to bits without so much as bothering to mention why

The US government tells us Awlaki was a Very Bad Man, and expects that's enough. A former Obama spokesman went so far as to say that the US justifiably killed Awlaki's teenaged son for this very reason -- he had a bad dad! In a sign of the times, he was soon after rewarded with a paid position to pontificate on air at a major cable television news network.

All of that brings me to what I see as a major problem with reading Milosz' analysis today, sixty years later: It's out of date. Milosz didn't think the US was some kind of capitalist paradise, but, contra Stalin's regime, he ascribed to our government a respect for the rule of law that lots of readers of this blog and students of the War On Drugs and War On Terror will probably find obsolete. Back in 1953, he wrote:

To seize a man on the street and deport him to a concentration camp is obviously an excellent means of dealing with an individual who displeases the administration; but such means are difficult to establish in countries where the only criminal is the man who has committed an act clearly defined as punishable in a specific paragraph of the law. Nazi and Communist criminal codes are alike in that they efface the frontier between penal and non-penal deeds--the first, by defining crime as any act directed against the interests of the German nation; the second, as any act directed against the interests of the dictatorship of the proletariat. What the man of the East calls the "lifeless formalism of the bourgeoisie" does, on the other hand, afford some guarantee that the father of a family will return home for supper instead of taking a trip to a region where polar bears thrive but human beings do not.

Nor is it easy in legally minded countries to adopt the use of scientific torture under which every man confesses with equal fervor whether he be innocent or guilty.

Secret evidence, evidence gleaned from torture, classified law, extrajudicial assassination: are these the markers of a society that considers "only criminal...the man who has committed an act clearly denied as punishable in a specific paragraph of the law"? Hardly.

Milosz' poet censored his own ideas because he feared what would happen to him if the official censors rebuked his work as deviant from the Party line. Today, one in six American writers surveyed also censors herself -- perhaps out of fear that her government will do more than simply watch and listen. She has good reason. 

Milosz spells out the gravest danger, faced with a set of problems of such magnitude:

"The wind scatters...papers labeled "Confidential" or "Top Secret"...Now the wind blows them through the street for anyone to read; yet no one does, for each man is more urgently concerned with finding a loaf of bread."

Edward Snowden has given us a once in generation gift to seize these papers and the course of history with them. Armed with the knowledge of our collective past, and determined to avoid repeating the mistakes of those who came before us, we must shake off fear. To avoid becoming captive to a growing authoritarianism, we must find the courage to resist. 

Bread alone is not enough. We want freedom.

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