Orwellian and Kafkaesque Aspects Of NSA Surveillance

The revelations regarding NSA surveillance has led to a boom in sales of 1984. Further exposure to Orwell’s work is one good outcome of the recent leaks, showing the ultimate results of a totalitarian surveillance state. As I’ve pointed out before, to actually compare our current situation to 1984 is a tremendous act of hyperbole. The problem is not that we are experiencing anything as severe as the society portrayed in 1984 but that the NSA surveillance program is one step on the road towards developing the infrastructure which might make such a society possible. Those who run the intelligence programs should remain servants of the people in a free society, not masters. While we expect accept a certain degree of secrecy, this does not justify outright lies by leaders of the intelligence community such as James Clapper,director of national intelligence, in speeches and testimony before Congress.

Orwell provides many things to think about beyond surveillance. Consider his concepts of “War is Peace, ” “Freedom is Slavery,” or facts disappearing down the memory hole. The NSA surveillance program poses a serious threat to liberty, but to keep things in perspective, there are far more Orwellian threats to liberty which we face, such as Fox News. Promoting such propaganda as news is quite hazardous to a free society where we want self-rule by people who vote based upon facts, while living in a free society prevents any action against such anti-freedom propagandists beyond aggressively exposing their tactics. To the right wing, “Ignorance is Strength.”

1984 is the obvious classic to read when considering the risks of slipping into totalitarianism. There are many others worth reading, such as Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. There might also be novels which are more pertinent to what we are facing. Yesterday Rebecca Rosen quoted Daniel J. Solove in describing why another novel might be more applicable:

I suggested a different metaphor to capture the problems: Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used. The problems captured by the Kafka metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance. They often do not result in inhibition or chilling. Instead, they are problems of information processing–the storage, use, or analysis of data–rather than information collection. They affect the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. They not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but they also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.

The surveillance can certainly be called Orwellian. The laws which try to hide the very existence of surveillance are more Kafkaesque.

This debate over security versus privacy and liberty has been needed since September 12, 2001 but I suspect that most of the country was not ready for it until now. The first poll taken on this subject by Pew showed that 56 percent supported the NSA program of tracking phone records. Gallup now has  slightly more recent poll out, which includes the revelations regarding both telephone data and the more recently revealed inclusion of internet communications. Gallup found that fifty-three percent disapprove and only thirty-seven percent approve of these programs.

Barack Obama has been quiet on this subject, frustrating many of his supporters. I hope that this means that another debate is going on, between the views of candidate Obama and those of President Obama. We have seen Obama’s views evolve on other issues, such as support for same sex marriage. Obama discussed the issue of privacy rights versus security before the recent leaks. I am hoping that the current public debate prompts further evolution on this issue, or devolution back to the views he expressed as a candidate.

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2 Comments

  1. 1
    Mauigirl says:

    Good post on this subject, Ron. I agree, the surveillance program, while perhaps not yet in itself Orwellian, has the potential to be used for such purposes. It’s the old slippery slope. Of course, I’m sure these tactics have been used ever since the passage of the Patriot Act, it’s just that finding out Obama supports them is concerning – and I agree, I hope he is rethinking these strategies to figure out a way to continue to protect us from terrorist attacks while ensuring Americans’ privacy. It is a thin line to walk.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    No doubt this has been going on. I linked to early news reports on this in previous posts It does differ in that Obama is doing this more legally than Bush by using the FISA courts, but being legal doesn’t mean it is a good idea. The other difference is that people are now more willing to consider such programs, and we have a president who is more likely to act to reform the system.

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