June 09, 2013

Just a Marker for All the 60-Second Arendts

As regular readers probably suspect, I am following developments in the NSA/Prism story with great interest. I have many thoughts about it, and I'll probably start actually publishing some of them in the latter part of the coming week.

And even though I fully understand this will have precisely no effect whatsoever, I offer one general caution. It is the same caution I discussed in some detail with regard to the WikiLeaks story from almost three years ago. In the seventh part (!) of my WikiLeaks series, I spoke about the enormous perils "of our culture's insistence on speed as a primary virtue." With the growing popularity and influence of Twitter in the intervening three years, this problem has been significantly exacerbated. In that same article, I wrote: "[E]verything is 'news,' and it is here today (or even only for a few hours), and gone tomorrow. Everything passes, and nothing is remembered; usually, nothing is understood."

I also said this:
Nonetheless, it appears to be the commonly accepted view that the almost instant analysis offered by blogs has serious merit and represents a valid, considered perspective. I am filled with admiration, mixed with indescribable astonishment, that we have evolved so far that the world is filled with 60-second Arendts. It is truly a wonder for the ages.
The reference to "60-second Arendts" was chosen because of one of the most ill-considered criticisms offered about WikiLeaks. As I paraphrased that criticism: "While the materials may contain points of interest, they certainly aren't the Pentagon Papers!" The people who offered this view thus established that they understood close to nothing about what the Pentagon Papers revealed -- and, of equal significance, what they did not reveal. In explaining that issue, I relied on Arendt's justly praised article on the Pentagon Papers, which was published five months after the story first broke. By today's standards, as I noted, Arendt was a remarkable "dawdler." While I obviously would not be so stupid as to claim any comparison between my work and Arendt's, I noted that I myself am also a plodder, certainly by the lightning-like standards of analysis that most writers subscribe to at present.

With regard to almost all of the analysis of the NSA/Prism/surveillance story that I have read thus far, and especially in connection with what the significance and effect of these disclosures are likely to be, I will be blunt: speaking generally, I consider it garbage. While there are valuable isolated points offered here and there, I have yet to come across a consideration of this story which addresses what I consider the most crucial issues involved.

In addition -- and here, I must ask you to indulge me, for I am not ready to go into specifics yet -- there are certain aspects of this story and how it is developing that cause me tremendous unease. I can't shake the sense that there is something "off" somewhere. I can point to some specific statements and reactions related to my response, but I still am unable to offer what I consider a convincing explanation of precisely what it is that troubles me. But it troubles me a great deal. I can express part of my feeling by saying that I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop -- and it's a shoe that no one has even thought of yet. (I will note that my instincts about matters of this kind are usually right, as the past decade's record contained in this blog will show.)

I'll continue to keep a very close eye on these developments in the coming days. It certainly seems to be a monumental story -- but I'm not at all convinced it's monumental for the reasons currently on offer, or at least not primarily for the reasons so eagerly and unreflectively set out before us.

And with regard to genuinely monumental stories: in retrospect, it is beyond dispute that World War I was the seminal event of the 20th century. Almost one hundred years later, scholars and writers still argue about exactly what happened in the critical months leading up to the outbreak of that conflict, and what forces led to war and in precisely what fashion. (This post from 2006 describes some fascinating observations from David Fromkin based on documents that became available only comparatively recently.)

As for the still-breaking story about the U.S. as the surveillance State of our nightmares, I only wish that a few more people considered a bit of humility -- and that they took just a week or two (I'm not asking them to wait five months, as that doltish Arendt felt was required) before portentously telling us WHAT IT ALL MEANS.

Well. That's all for the moment.