By David E. Roy
At this unique point in time, as the magnetic pole of the Fourth of July pulls us closer while we are walking, head down, under the NSA’s watchful cloud, our nation is revisiting one of the most fundamental issues that is relevant not only to us but also to every society, every nation, regardless of its form of governance: How much freedom and privacy should we have today when, if we believe in the world according to the TV show 24, the lives of millions might be just one e-mail or one cell call away from nuclear and/or chemical death?
And, unlike Dick Cheney, if we don’t believe in that world, but we do see some unclear and not necessarily present dangers, what is our take on the degree of our rights to freedom and privacy?
Even more important, on a rubber meets the road basis, what is all this frenzy of fear, this tsunami of terror, this plethora of paranoia doing to our personal and collective sense of well-being, our experience of inner peace and joy? How is it affecting the issues that matter most to progressives, and how is it affecting our ability to work on these issues?
First, a bit more about the current maelstrom of accusations and revelations: Our national discussion about the massive spying program has become particularly acute and public thanks to the actions of a few [brave/foolish/dangerous] younger men in key positions whose conscience propelled them to release extremely secret information revealing in a highly public fashion the extent of covert U.S. surveillance on U.S. citizens. These releases finally pushed all of this to the tipping point for a viral public conversation, ranging from rational discussion to moral outrage. (Personally, I can identify with the entire spectrum at different moments.)
This Is Not Totally New Information
While perhaps the scope of the government’s spying on U.S. citizens is new information, the fact of this spying has been revealed and talked about for some time now. In the May 23, 2011, issue of The New Yorker magazine, Jane Mayer had a 9,250-word article (“The Secret Sharer”) on the government’s prosecution of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake.
Drake worked to avoid revealing anything classified while exposing serious internal failures at the NSA, including wasting a billion dollars on a data collection software program that did not protect privacy and ultimately didn’t work. The NSA director chose this program over another one that did protect privacy and was far cheaper.
The takeaway from that story, obviously, is that beginning after 9/11, the NSA was hard at work seeking ways to collect all the data it could on U.S. citizens. Now we have that confirmed, or, better, reconfirmed.
The article also lifted up the fact that the Obama administration, specifically Attorney General Eric Holder, has only prosecuted whistleblowers:
Mark Klein, the former A.T. & T. employee who exposed the telecom-company wiretaps, is also dismayed by the Drake case. “I think it’s outrageous,” he says. “The Bush people have been let off. The telecom companies got immunity. The only people Obama has prosecuted are the whistle-blowers.”
This pattern does not appear to have changed in Obama’s dealing with the new crop of whistleblowers.
Freedom and Privacy Limitations Negatively Affect Social Justice
Returning to the question of how all of this affects the problems that concern progressives and our ability to work on those problems, it is helpful and important to recognize that freedom and the right to privacy are not just important in themselves but also important because they intersect with social justice at all levels (global to individual).
It can be said without too much debate that human beings need and strive to be free, to grow into the experience of making our own decisions about many things. While there is much more to define and refine about this theme (such as realistic limits, etc.), what is important here is the fact of our passion for freedom.
The inner need for freedom is restricted by factors that fall under the heading of social justice. For example, as a general issue, poverty imposes a functional “prison” by limiting all sorts of options: good health, good healthcare, adequate food, knowledge and experience to pursue better paying jobs, a lower standard of education, and so on and on.
Privacy can come into play in the area of social justice as well. For example, to change these conditions requires planning and intentional and intense advocacy. Planning and organizing these efforts necessitates some measure of privacy because those benefitting from the status quo will almost never actively seek out or even embrace change. From their point of view, they invariably have far more to lose than gain. This means that change has to be pushed vigorously sometimes and the planning for that can be viewed, in the extreme, as seditious, as anti-government. Governments and gargantuan businesses hate it when they are contradicted and sometime react to eradicate the pests.
The Prophets of Ancient Judaism and of Today
The advocates for change, the individuals who have the knowledge and can motivate and lead people, are the point people in these skirmishes that sometimes rise to outright battles. The Jewish religion has used the title “prophet” for those who advocated on behalf of the marginalized, on behalf of justice.
“Prophet” in this case refers not to a fortune teller but to someone who emphatically shares his or her concerns with those in the power position about what will happen in the future if there are no changes to the injustices being inflicted upon the powerless, the poor, the hungry, those at the margins of life.
Any time there is a prophetic treatment of social justice, no matter the source, it will be in harmony with the best of the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu traditions, among others. Social justice, concern for the marginalized, compassion for all, are the highest values in these traditions. Social justice themes are threaded throughout many of the sacred writings from these traditions. Because of that, it is reasonable to assume that one steeped in the irreducible essence of any of the great world religions will understand that justice and care for all is the goal aligned with God’s aims.
Humanistic atheists are aligned with the same goals while maintaining there is no need to put a Deity in the picture in order to make the seeking justice a priority.
In their most open, receptive, cordial moments, parties on both sides of the theological divide can appreciate the efforts that all are making without needing to “convert” the other (either way).
Two More Core Values: Compassion and Diversity
Two additional themes rise to the top in these world religions. The first is compassion. In Judaism, this can be found in the commandments to care for the stranger and in Christianity it can be found in the commandments to care for the marginalized and oppressed.
Predictably and tragically, a fearful, suspicious society turns against these commandments and impulses toward a compassionate outreach. Compassion and compassionate acts become seen as something that is foolish, allowing yourself to be used and taken advantage of, and in the extreme, if one is compassionate toward the wrong person (or, “kind” of person), this can be judged as betrayal making one a traitor. (“But officer and judge, Jesus did this exact same thing.” “Yeah, well, look where that got him.”)
There is a third major theme that is not as obvious because there was less written about what had to be a major internal debate during the period of the early Christian Church.
The form of the debate is achingly familiar: Who is in and who is out? In this case, the first followers of Jesus were only Jews, as was Jesus. Eventually, however, gentiles (non-Jews) became followers of Jesus. All male Jews, according to Jewish law and tradition, are circumcised on the eighth day of their life. Gentiles typically were not circumcised in that era. The obvious question: Could a non-Jew become a full-fledged follower of Jesus without having first to become a Jew and therefore circumcised (among other factors).
According to an account in the book of Acts (Acts 15), there were debates, likely bitter, but the decision eventually made was to open the door to any and all who felt moved by Jesus’ life, ministry and teachings. I can imagine the apprehension, even extreme distaste for some, and likely an ongoing struggle for a time to affirm and reaffirm this decision.
This was a powerful, indeed radical change from exclusiveness to inclusiveness. It set the stage for the type of future growth that could only be accomplished by affirming the value of welcoming diversity, of welcoming into one’s inner circle those who are truly different.
Embracing Creation’s Diversity
While a practical policy, at a deeper level all of these changes express a theological position that, in this case, is the ideal of being open to and valuing all of Creation. If God is understood as the Creator, then all of Creation is to be included in God’s embrace. Unfortunately, many Christians often disregarded this—as do others of other faiths and of no faith.
Again, the impact of fear on openness to diversity, let alone seeking out and embracing diversity, can be quite negative. Our brain stem is part of what comes into play when we are threatened. At that level, there are only friends or enemies. Enemies you try to annihilate, to get rid of in some fashion. You don’t invite them in for tea (though perhaps Alice would).
Fear Slows Down Everything
Fear also has played an enormous role in keeping social progress vastly slowed. Over the centuries, slowly and often with tremendous resistance, the Christian Church overall has moved to become inclusive where it was exclusive. It is inevitably the efforts of and on behalf of a despised and attacked minority that leads to a change, while the large majority fights to keep things the way they are.
Radical Christians fought against slavery; they came to the fore during the civil rights movement in the 1960s; they have been strongly involved in women’s rights, abortion rights and today’s struggles to gain full rights for the LGBT community. An even broader spectrum of Christian churches and churchgoers have become active in the environmental movement.
In the United States, a tone is set by the elected leaders, particularly the President. Psychologically, as well, it is easier to focus on a handful of people rather than the tens of thousands that can make up a crowd. The President is just that person. Where are we with President Obama? “Frustrated” would likely be a word many of us would use for starters because he doesn’t seem willing to put up the good fight with the No-No-No crowd.
I am not just disappointed but deeply disturbed by President Obama’s unequivocal support and profound expansion of the national government’s ability to know an enormous amount about each one of us. We do not know what they know, nor who it is who knows, what they are going to do with that knowledge and how they are interpreting their secretly, silently assembled “facts.”
All of this creates for many of us a reasonable suspicion. It is not paranoia, which means a wildly unrealistic fear; if it were, then we would be offered suitable medication to calm our nerves (except at the Fresno County Jail). What makes many of us even more concerned is that we have zero power to find out the answer to any of these questions and no power to correct the inevitable inaccuracies let alone to shut down the whole process itself.
Obama’s Seeming Passion for Covert Operations
I was particularly concerned when Obama renewed the Patriot Act after he had actually made it a more aggressive tool to be used against U.S. citizens. When challenged about this, he reportedly said that we did not need to worry about any of this because he was in charge. Even if that were true—that he personally would, let alone could, safeguard our rights—that is just a meaningless deflection.
Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage wrote a book during the Bush administration (Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency, Back Bay Books, 2008) where he carefully detailed how the executive branch under the nominal leadership of President Bush (and the powerful presence of Richard Cheney) managed to amass, finagle, bluster, connive and otherwise use sneaky ways to accumulate much more power for this branch than had ever existed before.
Savage said one thing in particular that continues to disturb me, namely that the trend for presidents in this power grab is always one-way: more and never willingly less. The lessons learned by those who gave shape to the start of our nation were exceptionally clear: If one man has nearly unchecked power, most will suffer the consequences of poverty, hunger, poor health, ignorance. No king requires sharing authority and responsibility, two forms of power.
And Then There Is Pete Seeger!
I recently watched a special on veteran progressive leader, Pete Seeger. There is a lot to comment and admire about how he has lived his life and how he has used music to help create support for change and to generate the oceanic waves of energy to get things moving.
So, we progressives may be in for more of a struggle than ever given the atmosphere of fear amid the epidemic of spying. If so, then we hopefully can feel support from the models of the ancient biblical prophets and from our contemporary prophets such as Pete Seeger. We just need to keep going, to be persistent as Bryan Jessup challenged us to be and do.
Our Jail Is a Disaster for the Mentally Ill
One place that has become one of my deep concerns is the barbaric conditions that have existed at the Fresno County Jail, particularly the withholding of medications for seriously mentally ill inmates, under the leadership and direction given by our Sheriff Mims and by about four of our current county Board of Supervisors. I will save the details for another issue.
In the meantime, do what you can to persist to make the wide range of changes needed to make this Valley the gem it can become.
Ordained in the United Church of Christ, David Roy is a pastoral counselor and a California licensed marriage and family therapist who directs the Center for Creative Transformation. He has a Ph.D. in theology and personality from the Claremont (California) School of Theology. Send comments to him at email@example.com or 5475 N. Fresno St., Ste. 109, Fresno, CA 93711.