Is America a Free Country?

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Jimmy Carter is making waves: “America does not have a functioning democracy at this point in time,” he told a meeting of the American Bridge, held in Atlanta, when asked about Edward Snowden’s exposure of Washington’s secret global surveillance system. Looks like the only outlet that covered the meeting was Der Spiegel, but word is spreading and it won’t be long before the Usual Suspects start ranting about what a flake Carter is, and that he should shut up already and go lock himself in his presidential library. But think about it: for a former President to say this is unprecedented in modern times.

The NSA spying scandal, he went on to tell his audience, is subverting democracy around the world: he warned that one consequence of the Snowden revelations will be increasing suspicion of American online platforms, such as Facebook and Google, both of which he characterized as major factors energizing pro-democracy movements abroad.

Carter’s previous statements about the Snowden affair were mildly supportive: he toldCNN he thought “the secrecy that has been surrounding this invasion of privacy has been excessive,” and that Snowden’s bringing the secret surveillance of Americans “to the public notice has probably been, in the long term, beneficial.” Yet this new statement goes way beyond that: it is a sweeping condemnation of the current regime. That a former US President would say such a thing has got to be the scariest public pronouncement I’ve heard since the Watergate era. What’s even scarier: Carter is right.

America is no longer a democracy in the sense we have traditionally meant it. This is really the essence of what Snowden has revealed. The various surveillance programs he’s exposed – PRISM, “Boundless Informant,” Tempora, the telephony “meta-data” dragnet, etc. – are all tools necessary for the construction of what can only be called a police state.

An authoritarian regime has no way to measure public discontent except in this manner: since there is no free media, no political pushback to the regime’s depredations, and no way to discover what people really think, the only way to track – and crush – dissent is by spying on the population. The Soviets and their allies did this– and now it is the turn of their American successors.

Oh, but how can you say that? – I can hear the objections before they’re even vocalized. After all, America has free elections, a free (unregulated) media, and all the accouterments of a Western liberal democracy.

Except all of the above is mostly untrue.

Sure, America has elections, but how democratic are they, really? There are only two political parties in this country, and both of them are privileged by the state over all other political entities and parties: they get automatic ballot status, while other parties must jump over the most onerous hurdles to be listed on the ballot. “Third” parties are effectively outlawed. Hardly what one might expect of a nation so zealous to export “democracy” to the rest of the world, but then lack of nerve was never an American shortcoming.

Given this electoral duopoly, it is quite easy for the political Establishment to manage the system and make sure it doesn’t go “out of bounds” in nominating – or, worse, electing – a candidate dubbed too “extreme” by the Powers That Be, and so duly labeled by our compliant media. Which brings me to the “free” media question….

There is no censorship of the media in the US – because it isn’t necessary. The media censors itself quite willingly. More than that: as the Snowden affair has shown, the “mainstream” media is even more fanatical than US government officials about shutting down dissent. It was David Gregory, you’ll note, and not the Attorney General, who demanded Glenn Greenwald give a reason why he shouldn’t be arrested along with Snowden. None other than longtime respected reported Walter Pincus, of the Washington Postechoed Gregory’s remarks. And of course there’s the minor league pundits, like MSNBC’s Joy Reid – on the “left” side of the spectrum – alongside neocons like Bill Kristol and some of the more unhinged among the Fox News crowd, who have been calling for Snowden’s head from Day One.

This is not to say there aren’t voices of dissent in America – there are. But there are similar voices in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and I don’t hear anybody hailing that country as a bastion of liberal democracy. Russia, too, has an uncensored media, and for precisely the same reason we do – because official censorship is redundant. The media self-censors without even being asked.

Okay, there’s an imprecise formulation up there: “for precisely the same reason” isn’t very … precise. The reason we stand virtually alone in the world in having a media uncensored by government is this document we call the Constitution, specifically the First Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right to speak freely. However, this right has been abridged over the years to the point that it can be violated by government officials almost at will: the WikiLeaks case proves that beyond any doubt.

The Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers is an important part of that generalized assault on the Constitution because tyranny requires one big ingredient in order to take root and metastasize: secrecy.

There are two views of the process by which the US government created a vast surveillance apparatus that scoops up virtually all data transmitted over fiber optic cables in the US and abroad. There’s the naïve liberal view, which says it was a gradual and largely undirected process that eventually got out of hand and created the infrastructure of an American police state by accident. It was all a big mistake!

This view makes zero sense, and should be dismissed out of hand. The reason: the dirty deed was done in the dark. Not even members of Congress knew about it, and those who did were forbidden from telling their constituents the truth. They could only drop hints, here and there, ambiguous warnings that Big Brother is bigger than anyone imagined. It took Snowden to unveil the face of the Leviathan for all to see.

The other view of this is mine: that the whole procedure was (and is) part of a deliberate plan, a long term project by our wise rulers to ready themselves for the day when their power confronts a serious challenge. No, I’m not talking about the American state defending itself against a terrorist attack, or any kind of external threat – I mean a homegrown threat, one perhaps provoked into action by an economic crisis or some other cathartic event.

Anybody who thinks PRISM, “Boundless Informant,” Tempora, or any similar outrages against liberty still be to exposed have anything but a tangential relation to our government’s “war on terrorism” is living in a fool’s paradise. Sure, we want to spy on foreigners, as our European allies have discovered to their chagrin, but don’t kid yourself: the real purpose of the Panopticon is spying on the American people.

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