Historians and the NSA

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The NSA’s espionage against us could offer historians of the future unprecedented entree to these sorry times – and an excuse Our Rulers will wield to protect their spying. As Scott Frost wrote me: “I can foresee people using the argument that historians could someday use the information that is being collected by the state. The information could … serve as a more accurate reflection of history than they would have if future historians did not have access to that information.”

This may seem an unlikely concern with far more immediate ones pressing (“Did the NSA listen when I called my friend and mentioned [pick your favorite illegal behavior: there are so many now]?”) But speaking as a historian, I will tell you we have few scruples against studying anything that sheds light on our era or heroes. Friends who wrote Nathan Hale in 1772 or 1773 could have had no idea that he would one day immortalize himself with his dying words, nor that someone would collect and preserve their letters to him, nor that I would peruse those hasty notes 250 years later for my novel on their buddy. And for sure I read whatever letters, no matter how personal, I discovered from those innocents to correspondents other than Nathan, to learn more of their lives and outlooks so I could better understand their relationship with my main character.

Which of your acquaintances might likewise achieve fame? Remember that hordes of doctoral candidates every year need someone, anyone, to study, preferably a new subject whose possibilities previous dissertations haven’t exhausted, so your pen-pal need not hang while fighting an empire or discover the cure for cancer: any moderate accomplishment will do. Which of your emails and phone calls might you reword, or not send at all, or tone down, did you know a snoop like me would be reading and judging them a few centuries from now? As Scott Frost observes, “We are not permitted by our overlords and masters to opt out of the information collection even though there are many moments, conversations and assorted details of our lives that we simply want to be kept private, not because those things are incriminating or embarrassing but just because. For example, Thomas Jefferson, who was, likely, well aware that posterity would examine his every scribble with great interest, burned all of the letters between him and his wife before he died. That says a lot, considering that he would never be able to view those letters again once they were gone and I assume they were precious to him since, by all accounts, he was depressed and went into seclusion for some time after Martha died. If they had used e-mails and lived under the surveillance state that we do, he’d have been out of luck.”

Yet another reason Jefferson and his fellow Founders distrusted the State. What unspeakable tragedy that later Americans scorned their wisdom and example.

9:25 am on June 27, 2013