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Snowden and the paranoid state

The US' paranoid political culture will not fade until we can trust our leaders and the corporations holding power.

Last Modified: 05 Aug 2013 13:50
Sarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior is St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.
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Big Brother isn't scary just because he knows so much, but because he's capable of so little, the author writes [EPA]

"Paranoids are not paranoid because they're paranoid," Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity's Rainbow, "but because they keep putting themselves, f%#king idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations."

On June 23, 2013, Edward Snowden left China, a repressive state with a vast surveillance system, to fly to Russia, a repressive state with an even vaster surveillance system, in order to escape America, where he had worked for a surveillance system so vast he claims it gave him "the power to change people's fates".

In proclaiming his ability to change the fates of others, Snowden lost control of his own. He was lambasted as the instigator of international conspiracies and praised as the source of their revelation. He was at once a hero and a traitor , a pawn and a king, a courageous whistle-blower with the means to bring down nations and a naive narcissist, little millennial lost . He inspired debate and inspired even more debate over whether to debate him.

What are people looking for when they look at Snowden? They are looking for answers about how much states and corporations know about their personal lives, but more than that, they are looking for a sense that answers are possible. They are looking for knowledge untainted by corruption, as Snowden continues his world tour of corrupt regimes. They are looking for state agendas explained by someone without an agenda of his or her own. They are looking, and they are not finding what they seek.

Snowden's legacy

One of the most disconcerting aspects of a massive spy system is how little all that information does to remedy corruption and incompetence. Big Brother is not scary just because he knows so much, but because he is capable of so little.

Satisfactory explanations require trust in the person explaining. In the long term, Snowden will be seen as a symptom of a breakdown in political trust, not a cause. His legacy is paranoia - the paranoia of the individual about the paranoia of the state that spurs the paranoia of the public. This is not to say that paranoia is always unjustified. But it has become a weltanschauung instead of a reaction.

It matters, of course, whether the allegations of mass surveillance and data-collecting made by Snowden and Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald are true, but this is not what determines how the allegations are received. Suspicion of surveillance can be as poisonous to a functioning democracy as surveillance itself. Not knowing the extent of surveillance - of whom, by whom, to what end - heightens anxiety over the distance between the powerful and the public, an anxiety that was in place long before Snowden emerged.

Between the state and the citizen, we have the media, whose biases and careerism thicken the fog. With Snowden, every revelation has a refutation, but the citizen is left to evaluate the state of their nation on their trust in the individual reporting it.

Months into the scandal, it has become clear the Snowden beat tends toward the tautological. If a writer believes - or finds it advantageous to proclaim - that NSA employees respect the citizen's right to privacy and the legal codes that protect him or her, then Snowden's claims are unfounded exaggerations. If a writer believes - or finds it advantageous to proclaim - that NSA employees are prone to abuse the system they have created, and that the government will lie to protect its creation, then Snowden's claims are evidence of systemic abuse.

"Sometimes paranoia's just having all the facts," wrote William S Burroughs. And sometimes paranoia is the broken belief that having the facts is possible.

When anxiety attacks

American political paranoia has a long history, perhaps most famously summed up in Richard Hofstadter's study of the "paranoid style in American politics", in which he described how a small minority employed theories that were "overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression", often gaining power in the process.

Hofstadter's study was published in 1965, thirty years before the popularisation of an international communications system that potentially gives every citizen the ability to debunk fatuous claims and distribute reliable evidence. The internet would seem an antidote to conspiracy theories and state secrecy, but it has only amplified both.

Paranoia is aggression masked as defence. It was paranoia (and hubris, and greed) that caused the run-up to the Iraq War; it is paranoia that leads to thousands of innocent Muslims being profiled in New York; it is paranoia that led to Trayvon Martin being shot to death on the street. In Congress, paranoia is less a style than a sickness, employed less with flourish than with fear. Paranoia is the refusal to recognise others except filtered through ourselves - and how do Americans see themselves? Afraid, afraid, afraid.

Fixing the NSA scandal will involve far more than reforming the NSA. It means changing America's paranoid political culture, which means reviving trust in our leaders, which means finding leaders deserving of trust.

Digital transparency changes politics, but also reinforces what aspects of politics seem resistant to change. When WikiLeaks released its cables two years ago, they did not impart shocking new information so much as confirm people's worst suspicions.

One of the most disconcerting aspects of a massive spy system is how little all that information does to remedy corruption and incompetence. Big Brother is not scary just because he knows so much, but because he is capable of so little.

Snowden came of age in a paranoid era. The Bush administration was marked by twin delusions: 1) hysteria over terrorism, abetted by an insistence on defining reality contrary to evidence; 2) self-congratulation on triumphs never achieved, highlighted in Hurricane Katrina's "heck of a job", Iraq's "mission accomplished", and the bubble economy.

Obama ran as an alternative not only to Bush policies, but to the Bush mindset, offering "hope and change" as antidote to delusion and intransigence. He inherited the Bush administration's problems at the same time social media networks like Facebook gave powerful people new means of exploring the data of our lives - of exploring our lives as data.

The fear that the government was inventing justifications to persecute citizens turned into a fear that they were justifying persecution by manipulating data that we did, in fact, produce. We create the trail, but they determine where it originates and leads. This is the anxiety that propels Snowden's revelations.

A culture of paranoia

But the deeper fear, the real sadness, is that ordinary people are insignificant to the government, and that those in power are indifferent to our fate. You do not need a database to watch Americans suffer.

The Obama administration espouses moving rhetoric about some of our biggest problems - unemployment, violence and inequality - but has had little success in solving them. Their frenetic pursuit of Snowden is remote from ordinary life. Citizens only feel the repercussions in paranoia, a grasp at self-importance despite all evidence to the contrary.

On July 31, journalist Michele Catalano became convinced that a Google search for "pressure cooker" and "backpacks" had caused a "joint terrorism task force" to pay a visit to her home. In reality, it was not a terrorism task force but the local Long Island police. They did not come because a cadre of distant observers had access to her internet search history but because her husband's former employer had asked them to investigate activity he had conducted on his work computer. As Gawker's Adrien Chen writes , "The actually scary part of Catalano's story - the creepy correlation of Google history in some distant control room - started, and ended, in her imagination."

Fixing the NSA scandal will involve far more than reforming the NSA. It means changing America's paranoid political culture, which means reviving trust in our leaders, which means finding leaders deserving of trust. It means that people in positions of power - in government and in corporations like Facebook and Google - need to come clean with what they know and why they want to know it. Our privacy settings, literally and figuratively, need to stop shifting. Our privacy expectations need to stop being dictated by those who read our mail.

Until then, paranoia will rule. "Power is impenetrable", wrote Elias Canetti, in his 1960 study of paranoia in politics. "The man who has it sees through other men, but does not allow them to see through him."

Edward Snowden proclaimed he could see through everybody. And then he said he was on our side. That is the novelty of this whole affair. He saw through us and we watched him run.

Sarah Kendzior is St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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