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Friends, Neighbors, and Big Brother

President Barack Obama spent much of last Friday trying to reassure the country it is not living under the watchful eye of Big Brother in a high-tech police state, but despite his best efforts we can’t quite shake some nagging suspicions.
Just the very fact that a president felt compelled to offer such reassurances is discomfiting enough, as it was when Nixon thought it necessary to explain that he was not a crook, but there were other troubling aspects to Obama’s lengthy oration on the National Security Agency’s surveillance and data-gathering operations. There are several questions to be raised about the rather modest reforms that the president announced, which mostly amount to continuing all the agency’s data-gathering about Americans’ phone and internet use but storing it with another entity of unknown reliability and accountability, yet there was something about the very tone of the speech that was even more troubling.
The president began with a brief but adulatory history of American intelligence operations from the Revolutionary War through Harry Truman’s founding of the NSA, an epoch he has never expressed much admiration for on any previous occasion, then sought to appeal to his political base of aging hippie radicals with horror stories about the domestic spying of the ‘60s, at which point he suddenly sounded far more sincere, and he spent the rest of it trying to strike a chord incorporating both dissonant notes. With the same exasperated smile one might use on a pouting child, Obama added that “After all, the folks at NSA and other intelligence agencies are our neighbors and our friends.” We live in a dangerous world that requires the vigilant efforts of a vast national security apparatus, Obama explained, but he was quick to let his supporters know that he hadn’t gone all J. Edgar Hoover on them by touting the layers of law and regulation that will prevent it front intruding on the private lives and political activities of individuals. He noted that the nation has “benefited from both our Constitution and tradition of limited government,” and that “our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power.”
Coming from a president whose entire career has been devoted to the unlimited growth of government power, has frequently waived key provisions of the laws he himself signed, made recess appointments while Congress was not in recess, flouted the constitution on various other occasions, and has recently declared his intention to act “with or without Congress,” this is not entirely convincing. Coming from a president who also promised that if you like your health care plan you can keep it, that the deadly attacks on America’s consulate in Benghazi were a spontaneous reaction to an obscure internet video, and that just his nomination to the office of the presidency would begin to heal the planet and lower the sea levels, and who offered his good intentions as proof of all these absurd claims, it is especially hard to believe.
Those aging hippie radicals can be confident that Obama won’t use the data being collected by the NSA to quash their protests against the Vietnam War or capitalism, but anyone whose political opinions aren’t so neatly aligned with Obama’s can be forgiven a doubt. Those who have lately been audited by the IRS or attracted more than usual attention of the regulatory agencies overseeing their business can even be forgiven if they think it’s all bunk.

— Bud Norman

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A Not-So-Fond Farewell to 2013

Another year now comes to a close, and we bid good riddance to it.
We are not alone in this glum assessment of 2013, judging by the results of a year-end poll conducted by The Economist and something called YouGov. A full 54 percent of the respondents called the year “bad,” another 15 percent described it as “very bad,” and we presume the rest must have fallen madly in love or won the lottery or just weren’t paying attention. Except for the soon-to-pop stock market bubble, it’s hard to think of any positive developments that have occurred over the past 12 months.
Looking over another poll from The Christian Science Monitor regarding the ten biggest stories of the year, we find floods in Colorado, tornados in Oklahoma, terrorism in Massachusetts, Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread snooping on the American public by the National Security Agency, the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the disastrous debut of the billion-dollar Obamacare web site. The only feel-good stories to make the cut were the escape of those young women in Ohio who had been held captive in a basement for years by a sex fiend, George Zimmerman’s escape from a politically correct lynch mob, the defeat of gun control legislation in Congress, and the brief partial-shutdown of the United States’ government, which somehow topped the list, but we suppose that only the first of these made liberals feel good, and conservatives can only console themselves with knowledge of the disasters that didn’t happen.
Perhaps conservatives can also take some consolation in knowing that the public at long last seems fed up with it all, and seem to be wising up about who’s to blame. The more strident sorts of liberals will persist in blaming the floods and tornados on George W. Bush and his diabolical climate change machine, and the minority of Americans who want to jettison the Second Amendment and the right to self-defense can rightly resent the right for thwarting their schemes, but it will prove hard for the press to pin the rest of it on Republicans. The Defense of Marriage Act was signed by that notorious homophobe Bill Clinton, the NSA was greatly empowered by the Bush-era Patriot Act but didn’t start poring over your phone records until the next administration, the House Republicans accepted the partial shutdown of the government but didn’t attempt to make it as painful as possible for national park visitors or nostalgic World War II veterans, and only an intellectual could believe the increasingly obvious catastrophe that is Obamacare was caused by a Republican party which didn’t cast one single congressional vote for the damned thing.
This was also the year that a majority of Americans expressed disapproval of President Barack Obama, despite the continuing efforts by the news and entertainment media to bolster his popularity, and the year that a Louisiana duck-call entrepreneur got away with expressing unsanctioned opinions regarding sexuality, despite the outrage of all the right people, and the year that the gun-grabbers lost another round, despite the perfect emotional atmosphere after another horrific school shooting, and the year that some climate change advocates got stuck in the Antarctic ice, which is simply too perfect, so it could have been worse. The economy sputtered along well enough for the more enthusiastic media to proclaim good times, but record numbers of Americans are still out work and most of those who have seen gains know that fracking and free-market resilience deserve more credit than government “investments” and hyper-regulation. If the Republicans regard it as a bad year because they weren’t able to thwart more Democratic initiatives, they can at least take comfort it was a worse year for the Democrats because the failures of those schemes became apparent.
The Republicans could easily blow it, of course, but 2013 hast at least set up the possibility of a successful 2014. One can safely assume the year’s top stories will include floods and tornados, as have happened every year even before George W. Bush’s diabolical climate change machine, and there will be inspiring human interest stories and homosexual stories and stories about the government snatching ever more power, but unless the terrorists get extremely lucky while the NSA is looking into some Tea Party group’s phone records it also seems likely that more Obamacare outrages and the travails of an over-taxed and over-regulated economy will be big stories, as will the results of a feckless foreign policy, while its hard to see how the Republicans can be faulted for offering futile resistance.
Here’s hoping we make the best of it, because a few more years like 2013 will be hard to bear.

— Bud Norman

A Moment of Doubt

A great despondency has descended over conservatives over for the past five years or so, and with good reason, but it might cheer them to consider how very dispirited a liberal must now feel.
The conservatives’ despair is one of powerlessness, most acutely felt in the aftermath of the recent failed government shutdown battle to de-fund Obamacare and wound up with the right-wing insurgents getting bad press and battered poll numbers and plenty of Obamacare, but there’s always a chance another election cycle or two could restore them some power. The liberals’ despair derives from having power and finding that nothing they do with it works as promised, which is most abundantly evident from the aftermath of the Republicans’ failure to de-fund Obamacare, and this cannot be so easily rectified.
Such is the cocksureness of modern liberalism that even the manifest failures of Obamacare have not shaken the faith of the true believers, nor lowered the upturned chins of the president and his administration as they assure a rate-shocked nation that it will come to love paying more of its ever more hard-earned money for coverage they don’t want or need in order to subsidize the poor choices of people they don’t know and probably wouldn’t like, but among the less stridently faithful signs of doubt are beginning to appear. First-person stories by reporters who have lost the health insurance coverage that they liked and were promised by the president that they could keep are now a staple of even the most reliably liberal press organs, formerly loyal mass media satirists from Jon Stewart to Saturday Night Live are now mocking the administration’s ineptitude in implementing Obamacare, and it’s likely that millions of suddenly un-covered Obama supporters without printing presses or television cameras have reached the same angry conclusions. A few hardy journalists and entertainers have dug in to make the argument that Obama might have lied about people keeping their coverage and saving a bunch of money on it but only because people are too stupid to understand that losing their coverage and paying more for less is a better deal, but they can’t be enjoying it.
Liberalism in general doesn’t seem to be much to fun these days. The increasingly evident problems with Obamacare are the most depressing, given that it was supposed to the greatest achievement of the greatest president of all time, but none of the rest seems to be working as planned. When the pork-laden and deficit-swelling “stimulus” bill objectively failed to make good on any of its promises the true believers could argue that at least it kept the economy from sliding into depression and the earth from sliding out of its orbit and into the sun. but four years and seven trillion dollars of debt and millions of discouraged workers later the president’s economic record requires even more inventive defenses. Scandals ranging from Fast and Furious to the Pigford settlement to Solyndra to the president’s extravagantly expensive lifestyle to the Internal Revenue Service’s assaults on free speech and the right to petition for grievances can be easily ignored, given the media’s eager complicity, but it still makes a holier-than-Bush attitude harder to maintain. Increased drone strikes and pointless Afghanistan troop surges and a national security snooping apparatus that exceeds the wildest dreams of crazed Dick Cheney also make the Obama administration’s foreign policy hard to defend the earnest Bush-hater, and the “lead from behind” maneuvers that have handed the Middle East over to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and a soon-to-be-nuclear-armed Iranian theocracy make it hard to explain how a more Nobel Peace-prize winning appeasement strategy would have fared any better.
Things have gotten so bad that even the gray-bearded and hidebound liberal columnist for the local “alternative weekly” that caters to the hipster crowd is grousing about Obama. He seems to believe that the only problem with Obama are a computer glitch that should have been fixed, and overly protective Nation Security Agency, and that uncharacteristic itch to go to war with Syria a while back, but at least he’s willing to admit to some dissatisfaction with his great leader. At the hipster coffee bar where we pick up the “alternative weekly” most of the regulars don’t evince any interest in politics at all. Five years ago the same hip and tattooed denizens of the bistro were all abuzz about hope and change, and were committed to occupying this or that, but these days they seem more preoccupied by whatever gossipy text messages are flashing on their cell phones. All of the liberals of our acquaintance seem eager to talk about something other politics, and less certain that they can deliver on their promises of utopia anymore than their great leader could deliver on a promise that people could keep their insurance, and the great liberal moment seems to have passed.
This does not mean the conservatives’ moment has arrived, of course, and it will be another year before any political power can be restored to their movement, but it seems likely that the conservatives’ anger will grow stronger and the liberals’ cocksureness weaker in the meantime.

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

All of the attention is currently focused on the continuing train wreck that is Obamacare, naturally enough, but it is worth noting that America’s foreign policy is also going off the rails.
The last time Americans took notice of the rest of the world was when President Barack Obama tried unsuccessfully to whip up some enthusiasm for a bigger-than-a-pinprick-but-still-“unbelievably-small” war in Syria, and when that crisis was outsourced to Russian President Vladimir Putin and receded from the headlines the country happily resumed its inward gaze. Without an imminent threat of war, even an unbelievably small one, most people assumed that except for the unpleasantness in that Kenyan shopping mall and the usual massacres of Christians in Pakistan and Nigeria all was once again well with the world. Our international relations have actually been going so badly, though, that the results are starting up in the midst of all those horror stories about Obamacare.
Even The Washington Post, which is usually loathe to report anything embarrassing to the administration, seems alarmed by America’s recent estrangement from Saudi Arabia. The paper’s veteran foreign affairs writer David Ignatius likens the situation to a car wreck, the train wreck metaphor apparently having been reserved for the Obamacare stories, and although he allots some of the blame to the Saudis he does not spare the Obama administration his criticism. He notes that in the past week Saudi Arabia has declined to take a seat on the United Nations’ Security Council as a deliberate affront to America, and notes that the former Saudi intelligence chief publicly expressed “a high level of disappoint” in America’s stands on Syria and Palestine. There’s also a great deal of Saudi disappointment in America’s weak response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which threaten all of the Arab and Sunni Islam world, and in Obama’s support for the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, and a “knowledgeable Arab official” is quoted as saying that the Saudi monarch “is convinced the U.S. is unreliable.”
The Saudi monarch is a terror-loving tyrant running a backwards and troublesome land with typical Middle Eastern brutality, but his country has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy in the region since Franklin Roosevelt started sucking up to it back in the ‘30s. Losing Saudi Arabia to the Russian sphere of influence, along with its considerable economic clout and central position in the Muslim world, is a worrisome development. Worse yet, this time the Saudi’s concerns are all quite reasonable, except for the lack of appreciation for America’s Israel-bashing attempts to coddle the Palestinians, and are shared by such essential allies as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and of course Israel, which has its own reasons to worry about Iranian nuclear bombs and American fecklessness. Throw in the reports that Secretary of State John Kerry is facing the same sort of dissent within his own State Department over the still-lingering-despite-the-news-blackout Syrian civil war, and America’s Middle Eastern policy seems in complete disrepair.
Crucial allies in other parts of the world have also been dissatisfied with America’s conduct in recent years. In Germany, where Obama was treated as a sort of messiah when he spoke to an adoring throng while campaigning there for some reason or another during the ’08 campaign, the big story if Chancellor Angela Merkel’s anger at the revelation America had been listening in on her cell phone conversations. White House spokesman Jay Carney has huffily denied that America is doing any such thing, but he conspicuously declined to deny that America has done in the past, and the omission did not go unnoticed in Germany. Revelations about the National Security Agency’s extensive data-gathering outraged many of the Americans whose phone records and internet use were being monitored, even if the press politely let the topic drop from the news, but Germans who are still smarting from the snoopiness of the Stasi secret police in communist East Germany and the Gestapo of an earlier era are understandably even touchier about such things. The rest of Europe seems miffed, too, and its Parliament has now threatened to stop cooperating with American intelligence efforts.
Obama won the presidency and wowed those naïve German crowds by promising to make America the most popular kid in the international school cafeteria, but that seems to be going about as well as the promises that Obamacare would lower your insurance premiums, allow you to keep your coverage, and be a model of bureaucratic efficiency.

— Bud Norman

Inside the Insider Threat Program

The latest scandal to beset the Obama administration is the ominously-named Insider Threat Program, an executive order issued shortly after the Wikileaks scandal that attempted to plug such national security leaks by having federal employees and contractors rat on one another for any suspicious behaviors. This information comes courtesy of the McClatchy newspaper chain, which also reports that agencies having nothing to do with national security were also affected and that experts believe the suspicious behaviors that are to be reported are not reliable predictors of any illegal acts, and it’s attracted enough attention from the other media that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was forced to admit that he was “stumped” by the insistent questions at a news conference and was completely unaware of the program’s existence.
Although we never actually worked for the McClatchy company it has somehow acquired the obligation to pay us a pension in our old age, so we take its reporting seriously. The company’s reporting has been annoyingly pro-Obama for the most part, at least by the measure of the local newspaper that it bought a few years ago, but in this case it raises several troubling questions. One might well wonder, for instance, why it took so long — after the election, in fact — for a directive that was issued to some five million people to come to light. One might also wonder why Carney didn’t get the memo, given that he’s a federal employee who has surely witnessed enough strange behavior to fill a warehouse of files, and there are more significant questions as well.
As satisfying as it is to know that government workers have been subjected to the same level of insufferable co-worker snoopiness as their private sector counterparts, there is something troubling about the idea that they have been asked to tattle-tale for such easily explained behaviors as financial difficulties, odd working hours, or “unexplained travel.” Combined with the revelations of the Internal Revenue Service harassing the administration’s political opponents, the Department of Justice treating investigative reporting as a criminal conspiracy, the National Security Agency combing through the phone and internet records of millions of Americans, requests that the public report “fishy” information about Obamacare to a White House web site, attempts to silence whistle-blowers on Benghazi and other scandals, as well as a frankly stated view that “the government is the only thing we all belong to,” it starts to give a claustrophobic feeling to life in the age of Obama.
The program doesn’t seem to have been a success, either. It was in effect well before the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, but the officers who witnessed the crazed Islamist rantings and ravings of the shooter but apparently didn’t find it suspicious enough to overcome their fears of being thought Islamophobic by reporting it. Nor did it prevent the scandalous information about the NSA’s far-reaching data-gathering from being leaked by an unshaven 29-year-old with a stripper girlfriend and a penchant for Latin American satrapies. If the intent was to prevent any information embarrassing to the Obama administration from reaching the public, it must be judged an abject failure.
One might also wonder, for that matter, if Obama got the memo. Prior to the election there were a series of leaks about classified national security programs such as the weekly “kill lists” that the president approved to order drone strikes on suspected terrorists which bolstered his reputation as a tough-on-terrorism hawk rather than a Nobel Prize-winning peacenik, and all of them were attributed to “high-ranking administration officials” whose suspicious behaviors were presumably apparent to Obama. One of the leaks resulted in the imprisonment of a Pakistani doctor who had been helping the Central Intelligence Agency’s fight against terrorism, but it was one of those pre-election scandals that got little attention from the press. Perhaps Obama was every bit as outraged about those leaks as the ones that embarrassed rather than glorified administration, but that’s another thing one might wonder about.

— Bud Norman

Europe Falls Out of Love

At this point we must reserve judgment about the allegations of American spying on our European allies, as the information that has thus far surfaced in the international press is quite incomplete. If it turns out that the National Security Agency has been snooping around only in the communications of Frenchmen and Germans who are Islamist nutcases planning acts of terror against the United States we will not be offended, nor care much if the French and Germans are offended, but if the spying turns out to be of a broader and more capricious nature and the allegation that European Union diplomatic offices were bugged is proved we will be forced to concede the Europeans have grounds to be irked.
No matter what the next news cycle might bring, however, there is already a guilty sense of satisfaction in seeing Europe suddenly disillusioned with President Barack Obama. French President Francois Hollande is so incensed with his American counterpart that he’s threatening to block a trans-Atlantic free trade pact, the German government has directed its prosecutors to commence a criminal investigation into the matter, and across the continent newspaper and television commentators are resorting to such foul language as “Bush” and “Cheney.” European patience had already been tested by Obama’s failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, his expanded campaign of drone strikes into Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries, and an American economy that hasn’t exactly kick-started a global boom, but the latest controversy seems to have at last turned European opinion against Obama.
One can only imagine the Europeans’ disappointment, given the high hopes that they had for Obama during the ’08 presidential campaign. During his triumphant tour of the continent that year he was greeted by massive crowds of adoring fans, the press was even more enraptured of his persona than its star-struck American counterpart, and both popular and elite opinion favored him with something scarily close to unanimity. Obama made much of the fact that he “looked different” than previous American presidents, and his dark skin provided Europeans with the same giddy sense of being absolved of racism that so many Americans found in supporting him, but more importantly the Europeans could look at his soft-power foreign policy promises, his spread-the-wealth domestic programs, and his post-nationalist philosophy of the world and see someone who looked very much like themselves. All of the European fears of American power, and all of the resentments that derived from the embarrassing fact that American power had thrice saved Europe from itself during the 20th Century, were alleviated by Obama’s smooth baritone voice and citizen-of-the-world oratory before those adoring crowds.
It was all simplistic nonsense that would inevitably be exposed by the harsh realities of the complicated world, but Europe’s enthusiasm was nonetheless one of the often-mentioned selling points for Obama’s candidacy back home. Self-styled sophisticates in the media and at your local barroom cited Obama’s sky-high approval ratings in Europe as proof of his messianic qualities. After eight years of international ignominy under the oh-so-gauche Bush, Obama’s supporters promised, America would once again be able to sit with the cool kids in the international high school cafeteria. Why supposedly smart Americans should be so concerned with what a bunch European rubes think is a question best left to future historians and psychoanalysts, but it will be interesting to see how the up-date-leftist in America responds to this recent change of international opinion.

— Bud Norman

The Snowden Saga Continues

The strange case of Edward Snowden, that unshaven young fellow who created such a fuss by revealing information about the National Security Agency’s ambitious data-mining operations, becomes more compelling by the day. More sober-minded observers have cautioned that his story shouldn’t distract the public’s attention from the more important matter of what he has revealed, and we readily concede the point, but still, it is hard to look away from an improbable adventure with more plot twists and exotic locales than a big-budget James Bond movie.
All of the news media seem to agree that Snowden has somehow slipped away from his recent refuge in Hong Kong to an undisclosed location in Moscow, where his presence provides Vladimir Putin with yet another opportunity for the Russian president to demonstrate contempt for his American counterpart, but the next stop seems to be anybody’s guess. The New York Times’ and the Associated Press’ sources say Snowden will be heading to Ecuador, the Russian news agencies have Snowden en route to Venezuela via Cuba, and Reuters, in a story headlined “Snowden stays out of sight after leaving Hong Kong,” cautiously reports only that the peripatetic leaker “kept people guessing about his whereabouts and plans.” Wherever Snowden might pop up next, we can only assume that a gorgeous femme fatale and a martini that has been shaken and not stirred will await him.
Much of the world’s audience will likely be rooting for him, too, judging by the reaction of most mainstream press outlets around the world. Germany’s Der Spiegel, the definitive voice of conventional continental wisdom, headlined its story about the NSA program revealed by Snowden “Obama’s Soft Totalitarianism: Europe Must Protect Itself from America,” and the president reportedly was lectured about the data-mining by several heads of state during a recent economic summit. The countries that have aided and abetted Snowden’s flight have obviously made their opinions known, as well, and although most of them prefer a harder form of totalitarianism than even Obama aspires to they can’t resist the opportunity to annoy the American government.
Even here in the United States, where Snowden has been charged with espionage and is officially regarded as a fugitive from justice, he seems to have a following. An internet petition demanding a pardon for Snowden has more than 110,000 signatures, and supporters seem to be coming from all directions. The libertarian right has championed his cause, and even many on the right who were comfortable with similar data-mining operations under the previous administration aren’t as enthusiastic about the information being accumulated by a government that is using the Internal Revenue Service to harass conservative groups and the Department of Justice to pursue investigative reporters as criminal conspirators. Despite the left’s past passion for Obama, who once decried such security measures as an assault for civil liberties, many are now embracing Snowden as their new hero.
There’s a similarly strange mix of people defending the program and vilifying Snowden for revealing it, of course. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has robustly defended the NSA’s efforts, embarrassing the president to the point that he’s gone on television to insist that “I’m not Dick Cheney,” while former critics of the Bush-era terrorism protocols such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are now striking a more hawkish tone. Poor Pelosi tried out her new arguments in front of the “Netroots Nation,” a convention of liberal activists and internet writers, and wound up being roundly booed and harshly heckled for her troubles. We take time out to boo Pelosi every day, and would gladly heckle her if she were within earshot, and although we have very different reasons for doing so we’re glad to see her get it from the same audience that once adored her.
More plot twists are almost certain to follow, and it’s possible that one or more of them will reveal some nefarious rather than patriotic motive for Snowden’s choices, so we’re withholding judgment of the leading character until the final reel. In the meantime we’ll be mulling over the advantages and dangers of the NSA’s various programs, and enjoy watching the president being upstaged by a new action adventure hero.

— Bud Norman

Cell Phone Libertarianism

Our faith in the American public has been slightly bolstered by the eight-point drop President Barack Obama has suffered in the latest monthly Gallup poll, although his approval rating remains an unaccountably high 45 percent, and we are particularly heartened to note that the decline is driven largely by a precipitous 17-point drop in the approval of the young folks.
The under-30 cohort’s enthusiasm for Obama has been remarkably stubborn, especially by the dizzying standards of contemporary pop culture crazes, but it is not hard to see why the young generation’s forbearance has at last waned in the past month. All of the most damning facts about the deadly Benghazi fiasco were well known by the time of the election, and the incompetence and dishonesty and disdain for free speech rights apparently made no impression. The revelation of the Internal Revenue Services’ campaign of harassment to stomp out the Tea Party’s dissent was similarly unmoving, as the Tea Party was just a bunch of middle class white people who didn’t want to pay for the young generation’s health care and Obamaphones. News that the Justice Department had treated a Fox News investigation as a criminal conspiracy also failed to trouble the young generation’s conscience, and for some it was a welcome development to have those buzz-kills get pushed around, and the fact that it was also happening to the Associated Press made little impression on people who get their news through Facebook and rarely read newspapers. Even the persistently high youth unemployment rate didn’t seem to faze the young. When word got out that the National Security Agency was snooping through Facebook and cell phone records, though, that was crossing a generational Rubicon.
If you are ever so unfortunate as to find yourself in one of the nightspots favored by the young folks, you’ll immediately note the strange regard they have for their cell phones and tablets and other electronic gizmos. They’ll contantly caress these damnable devices in the palms of their hands, enrapt by the faint light of the high-resolution screens, texting shorthand witticisms to their most beloved hundred or so friends, “googling” the answer to some trivia question about a Saturday morning cartoon from their childhoods, buying over-priced tickets to some second-rate rock ‘n’ roll band’s concert, or God and the National Security Agency only knows what else. Whatever it is that they’re doing on those things seems to be more important than flirting with the nubile and needy-looking young hipster chicks sitting across the booth, and the latest Gallup poll suggests that young folks don’t seem to believe it’s any of the government’s business.
Some conservatives are hoping that this understandable outrage suggests a libertarian streak that the Republican party might appeal to in future elections, but our experience of young people suggests this is wishful thinking. The young people of our acquaintance are mostly inclined to hold very permissive social views on issues ranging from abortion to same-sex marriage to the right to post photos of their cats on Facebook or “tweet” a misspelling of an obscenity, but they do not embrace the red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism and rugged individualism that define libertarianism. They certainly don’t subscribe to the notions of individual responsibility that are just as essential to the libertarian ethic, and they’ve never stopped to consider how economic freedom is essential to social freedom, so they much prefer the goodies provided by an ever-bigger government.
So long as the government can keep the goodies coming, especially during a period of persistently high youth unemployment, the young folks will likely be satisfied with some assurance that the government isn’t keeping a record of their most embarrassing internet searches or awkward post-hook up phone chats. Obama has taken to the airwaves to offer his word that he isn’t Dick Cheney, even as Dick Cheney is taking to the airwaves to defend Obama’s policies, and that might placate the youngsters for a while. Using Dick Cheney as a slur is so five years ago, though, and perhaps the young have grown tired of it. Many of them, we suspect, won’t recognize the reference at all. If the sweet talk to the youngsters doesn’t work, they might even start to notice the persistently high unemployment rates for the young, but unless the Republicans are offering more generous unemployment benefits it probably won’t make difference.

— Bud Norman

Hero or Anti-Hero

The man who exposed the National Security Agency’s top-secret surveillance programs has mysteriously disappeared from the Hong Kong hotel room where he had recently taken refuge, and a massive world-wide manhunt is now underway. We’re not talking about the American law enforcement officials who hope to arrest him on various espionage charges, although they’re probably on the job as well, but rather about the army of Hollywood agents eager to secure the rights to his story.
The saga of Edward Snowden would make for an interesting movie, and we’d happily pay the price of admission if only for the suspense of finding out if he is portrayed as a hero or a villain.
A 29-year-old former technical assistant for the Central Intelligence Agency, Snowden was working as a private contractor for the NSA when he reportedly concluded that its extensive snooping into public phone and internet records represented a threat to the basic liberties and privacy rights of the American people, leading him to leak the most salacious details of the program to Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Youthful, with a CIA background, high-minded ideals, and a connection to one of the world’s most impeccably leftist rags, Snowden has all the makings of a Hollywood hero. Pictures indicate that he has a rather nerdish appearance, but if the luscious Scarlett Johansson can be cast as Hillary Clinton in a hagiographic bio-pic there’s no reason that Snowden can’t be portrayed by some suitably handsome matinee idol. In most circumstances, Snowden would be the biggest action adventure hero since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers back in the bad old days of Nixon.
Snowden leaked his top secrets during the golden age of Obama, however, which introduces a moral ambiguity that the modern cinema is not comfortable with. As much as Hollywood loves the ol’ speaking-truth-to-power shtick, it always has another sort of power in mind. It took the election of Obama for Hollywood to eagerly embrace the war on terror, and the newfound hawkishness has provided better much better box office action than the string of self-righteously dour anti-war movies that kept showing up at the theaters during the Bush years, so a return to the old-fashioned anti-government themes might prove a tough pitch. We also suspect that any Hollywood types hoping to snag an invitation to the next White House Correspondents’ Association dinner will likely be hesitant to lionize any whistle-blowers who blew their whistles at the movie industry’s favorite president.
The press, which is eagerly spreading all of the secrets Snowden exposed even as they tsk-tsk about the security breach, seems just as uncertain about the main character in the latest big story. How he is treated by the media as his story plays out will be worth watching, especially if you’ve invested in the movie.

— Bud Norman

Big Brother on the Verizon

As much as we love to see the Obama administration bogged down in yet another scandal, we’re not yet sure what to make of the recent disclosures about the National Security Agency’s internet and phone monitoring program. On the one hand it all seems to be legal, with congressional and judicial oversight, and there is thus far no evidence that any of the information gathered has been used for any nefarious purpose. On the other hand the program does seem unsettlingly Orwellian in its newly broad reach, and Congress and the courts have not been the most reliable guardians of liberty lately, and it does seem to hand a lot of information over to a government that has been rather ruthless in its dealings with political opponents.
The president took time out during a trip to California to tell reporters that he’s “happy” to have a debate about the program, and it should prove interesting. On one side you will find Sen. Barack Obama, the presidential candidate of ’07 who decried the Bush administration’s fledgling program as a dire threat to the freedom of ordinary Americans, frowning with his trademark indignation as he scolded “That’s not who we are.” On the other side is President Barack Obama, who has expanded the Bush policy “exponentially” according to the Washington Post, scoffing at the notion there’s any reason for concern about a government snooping through the phone and internet records of ordinary citizens and assuring the public that “Nobody is listening to your phone calls.”
When asked about it by a suddenly feisty press corps, the president modestly conceded some inconsistency in his positions and explained that his past “healthy skepticism” about the program had given way to a realization that its benefits outweighed the “modest encroachment on privacy.” Waxing pragmatic, he further explained that “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” Candidate Obama was once again indignant in his rebuttal, holding his chin high as he intoned that “This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the securities we provide.”
Whatever the merits of the debate, it’s nice to see that Obama’s change of mind is being widely noted and frequently ridiculed by the media. A reporter at ABC News, of all places, even penned an apology letter that Obama might send to his much-maligned predecessor. If the president bothers to have another press conference soon he might also be asked how the program squares with his recent announcement that the government’s efforts against terrorism are winding down, because “That’s what democracy demands,” and the response should provide further fodder for satire. A bold reporter might even ask why they’re poring through the records of people there is no reason to suspect while ignoring a foreign government’s warning about the Boston Marathon bombers, but that would be too much to ask for.
Much of the left, including the fellow who revealed the program’s broad reach, seems to have decided they liked Candidate Obama a lot more than President Obama, and much of the right has decided they don’t care for either incarnation. Well respected national security hawks such as John Yoo have spoken out in Obama’s defense, or at least defense of his current position, which has further enraged the left, but the libertarian wing of the conservative movement seems fully outraged. This convergence made for a fascinating spectacle on Obama’s negotiations-with-China-and-golf trip, where he was protested by both Tea Partiers and Code Pinkos, and it should make for intriguing politics.
The vast middle of the political spectrum seems a bit disconcerted by the news, as well, or at least uneasy enough to laugh at the jokes suddenly being peddled by the late night comics. Yet another revelation about some top-secret security program might have gone unnoticed in the recent past, but coming on the heels of stories about the Internal Revenue Service bullying dissident groups and the Justice Department snooping through the phone records of major news organization, and after more than five years of an administration that makes no secret of its disdain for anyone who opposes its agenda, it’s a nervous laugh that the audiences offer. This administration is determined to expand the government’s power into every realm of American, from the health care system to the energy industries to charities of the Catholic Church, and that makes it a little more worrisome that they’re also peering into the phone records and internet searches of ordinary Americans. Hearing a president of the United States assure his people that he’s not listening in on their phone conversations has the same unpleasant effect as hearing one offer an assurance that he’s not a crook.

— Bud Norman