Four weeks ago, I wrote a post that I soon came to regret, the one titled We Are All Snobs Now. This was my response to Rick Santorum’s widely publicized remark calling President Obama a snob for wanting to provide the opportunity for everyone to go to college. My regret came from the realization that I had been manipulated. Santorum set the bait; I swallowed it. What’s the point of allowing such hypocritical pandering to get the better of me?
Last Tuesday, Charles Simic provided what amounts to a more considered reply, in the post Age of Ignorance at the New York Review of Books. Simic is a member in good standing of Snob Central: poet, poetry editor, professor, MacArthur Fellow, Pulitzer Prize recipient, US Poet Laureate. At the same time, he personifies all that a politician of Santorum’s ilk would extol as the greatness of the United States — growing up in the Yugoslavia of WWII and its aftermath, leaving communism behind for the US, achieving great success in his adopted land and language. Perhaps this gives Simic credibility.
Let’s dip into Simic’s post for a taste of what’s on his mind.
Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.
An educated, well-informed population, the kind that a functioning democracy requires, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose by the various vested interests running amok in this country. Most of our politicians and their political advisers and lobbyists would find themselves unemployed, and so would the gasbags who pass themselves off as our opinion makers. Luckily for them, nothing so catastrophic, even though perfectly well-deserved and widely-welcome, has a remote chance of occurring any time soon. For starters, there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened, and deceiving Americans is one of the few growing home industries we still have in this country. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business.
If this lack of knowledge is the result of the years of dumbing down of high school curriculum and of families that don’t talk to their children about the past, there’s another more pernicious kind of ignorance we confront today. It is the product of years of ideological and political polarization and the deliberate effort by the most fanatical and intolerant parties in that conflict to manufacture more ignorance by lying about many aspects of our history and even our recent past. I recall being stunned some years back when I read that a majority of Americans told pollsters that Saddam Hussein was behind September 11 terrorist attacks. It struck me as a propaganda feat unsurpassed by the worst authoritarian regimes of the past—many of which had to resort to labor camps and firing squads to force their people to believe some untruth, without comparable success.
… Where else on earth would a president who rescued big banks from bankruptcy with taxpayers’ money and allowed the rest of us to lose $12 trillion in investment, retirement, and home values be called a socialist?
What we have in this country is the rebellion of dull minds against the intellect. That’s why they love politicians who rail against teachers indoctrinating children against their parents’ values and resent the ones who show ability to think seriously and independently.
I think Simic may have Santorum in mind at the end there.
What a snob!
Change We Can Believe In: Expanding the Security State
Good news: our government has expanded its powers to spy on us. On Thursday, Attorney General Holder signed new guidelines for the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). As Charlie Savage explained in the Friday NYT,
The guidelines will lengthen to five years — from 180 days — the amount of time the center can retain private information about Americans when there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism, intelligence officials said. The guidelines are also expected to result in the center making more copies of entire databases and “data mining them” using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat.
They set up three tracks by which the center could retrieve information gathered by another agency: by doing a limited search itself for certain data, by asking another agency to perform such a search, or — in cases whether neither was sufficient — by replicating the database and analyzing the information itself.
The new guidelines keep that structure in place, but put greater emphasis on the third track, while also relaxing restrictions on how long data on Americans who have no known tie to terrorism may be stored. The old guidelines said data on innocent Americans must be deleted promptly, which the agency interpreted to mean if no tie to terrorism was detected within 180 days.
The new guidelines are intended to allow the center to hold on to information about Americans for up to five years, although the agencies that collected the information — and can negotiate about how it will be used — may place a shorter life span on it.
To understand the meaning of this, let’s turn to the blogger emptywheel, who read through the guidelines and provided a preliminary analysis in a post on Friday. Her analysis is short. I recommend reading it in full. Her main theme is that the guidelines “allow the NCTC to obtain information on US persons, dump it into their datamining, and then ultimately pass it on. In this, I’ll show how, by magic of cynical bureaucracy, the government is about to turn non-terrorist data into terrorist data.”
Emptywheel takes us through some key passages, describing how the document “blathers on about how NCTC also has the responsibility to request information and pass it on. This is the legal language they’re going to translate to mean the opposite of what it says.” She highlights the following passage from the guidelines –
NCTC’s analytic and integration efforts … at times require it to access and review datasets that are identified as including non-terrorism information in order to identify and obtain “terrorism information,” as defined in section 1016 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004, as amended. “Non-terrorism information” for purposes of these Guidelines includes information pertaining exclusively to domestic terrorism, as well as information maintained by other executive departments and agencies that has not been identified as “terrorism information” as defined by IRTPA. [emptywheel's emphasis]
– and identifies the sleight of hand:
Note that bolded section is not a citation from existing law. It is, instead, NCTC turning NCTC’s authority to sometimes get domestic terrorism information into authority to get any dataset maintained by any executive agency that NCTC believes might include some information that might be terrorism information.
Those of us in the US Government’s tax, social security, HHS, immigration, military, and other federal databases? We’ve all, by bureaucratic magic, been turned into domestic terrorists.
So in addition to all of us in government databases–that is, all of us–being deemed domestic terrorists, the data the government keeps to track our travel, our taxes, our benefits, our identity? It just got transformed from bureaucratic data into national security intelligence.
Not exactly a surprise, but now this policy has been approved by our attorney general (and president).