Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
In which country do you lay your head down to rest? It is a deceptively simple question, one that easily prompts a response of “this country” or “that country,” yet such answers may be factually correct but in their obvious truth hide another larger matter. For we may sleep within physical territorial boundaries, but beyond this we dream within the borders of national ideas and mythologies.
The United States of America is a country whose existence owes as much to fantasy as to fact. The “American Dream,” the “Melting Pot,” “The Land of Opportunity,” “The Freest Nation on Earth” all of these are not so much true aspects of the nation as they are aspiration like visions of the country that citizens and would-be citizens are invited to cast upon the country. These myths break down constantly and they obfuscate mountains of misdeeds and yet the strength of a good tale is that it can endure and even be strengthened by the new tales that are created in the overcoming of the sins of the past. Thus – through the struggles that might find the term “rights” affixed to them – those who have been shut out of seeing themselves in the old myths are slowly brought under the aegis of those same myths.
Yet breakdowns still occur, or more accurately breakdowns can still be caused. As in any good fantasy a certain willingness to suspend disbelief is necessary and when too much reality interjects itself it can muddle the whole matter. This can prove particularly problematic when the muddling is not revealing the well-known historical travesties (which in the light of current times can be cast as part of the larger march towards freedom) but when the revelations disfigure our sense of the dream. When we live within the dream of a country, what happens when we are forced to abruptly awake?
This shaking from our current technologically-mediated REM cycle came courtesy of Edward Snowden (as reported by Glen Greenwald [and others]), and though some have questioned the degree to which what was revealed was really “unknown” what really occurred was a vast shaking of the American mythology. A country was systematically spying on millions of citizens with the quiet collusion of multiple branches of government? This is sadly all too believable, but many people weren’t ready to believe it about the United States. After all, aren’t US citizens protected from such abuses by the US Constitution? The dreamer quivers and shakes…
Following eight years of the administration of George W. Bush a great deal of damage had been done to the US mythos; faith in the government, in the economic powerbrokers, in the media, were all sinking. In this context Barack Obama represented something of a revitalization of the myth; after all, he was a candidate whose very biography read like a page from the “American Dream” (or “Dreams from my Father”), and in his candidacy many saw hope for a distinct turning away from the path that it seemed that the Bush administration had steered the country on. Such hope was invested in Obama by many who were not even huge supporters, in one interview Snowden noted that he had been hopeful that Obama would rein in the excesses that had taken place under the Bush administration.
One need not ignore all of President Obama’s achievements to recognize that his invocations of “hope” may have had less to do with a promise of action than with our “hope” to go back to believing in the American myths. It does not require writing off all of Obama’s accomplishments to recognize that the national security apparatus has not been pulled in under his administration. It is unfair and unhelpful to describe Obama’s current term as Bush’s fourth term, and it misses the larger point, this is just what it looks like when the current system is in power. Bush might provide a brand with a more conservative bent and Obama might provide a view that doesn’t demonize the LGBT community, but when it comes to the military, surveillance, the economy, and generally maintaining the status quo…both parties are culpable.
Thus we witness the rather absurd display of rare bipartisan unity as the politicians in Washington come together to defend the NSA and vilify the chap who is, perhaps, one of the very few actual persons of conscience employed by the national security apparatus. The crime is not the program that seems an egregious violation of the fourth amendment, the crime is not the collusion of branches of government in effectively freezing out public oversight, the crime is not the empowerment of a secret surveillance state that would make most dictators blush, the crime is in daring to tamper with the myths that allow people to fly the American flag and call their friends to gush about America while those very same phone calls are logged by the NSA. The crime is making it so we wonder who is watching us while we sleep.
Our mythical notions of nations have been on further display as people have shouted with furrowed brows upon watching Snowden leave the US for Hong Kong (and now to Russia [bound perhaps for Venezuela]). Those who would see the man prosecuted balk at his heading towards nations with less than stellar humanitarian records and thereby only further show the breakdown of the American myth. We are no longer living in the days of Daniel Ellsberg (of the Pentagon Papers infamy), when a whistle blower might reveal unconscionable actions in the US but still rely upon the sanctity of the American mythology to provide them some measure of protection. Indeed one can almost understand the appeal of countries like Russia in times like these: at least one expects them to be borderline authoritarian regimes. It is not that Snowden leaving the US reveals that he is a “traitor” it is that in having to leave the US Snowden has revealed that the current forces that seek to cloak themselves in the mystique of “America” are themselves traitorous to the faith that people feel towards America.
In his book The Death of the Liberal Class the writer Chris Hedges described the systematic breakdown of the levers of change that had once allowed citizens to challenge the imbalances of their nations (the press, universities, the public sphere, liberal religious organizations); with his dirge like conclusion being that all of these mechanisms had completely failed. Yet in recent light one must question the extent to which these have broken down and the extent to which they never truly worked, the extent to which they may have always served to maintain a mythical façade over a rotting core. What we see is what Herbert Read wrote of in his essay To Hell With Culture (from1963):
“The whole of our capitalist culture is one immense veneer: a surface refinement hiding the cheapness and shoddiness at the heart of things.” (Read, 30)
Alas it now appears that this mythical notion of our nation is yet another element of this “cheapness and shoddiness;” and it seems that the various institutions of which Hedges had written prove to be painters attempting to apply one more level of veneer to the facade. It is not that what has been shown about the NSA reveals anything truly stunning about the NSA, but that it forces us to recognize that the NSA exists and that this is the type of thing that it exists for; we are then forced to ask ourselves whether or not this fits within our notion of this nation. This is only made more difficult as twin mythologies are simultaneously breaking down: for Snowden’s revelations challenge our blind faith in the mythos of technology at the same time as they challenge our national myths. As Lewis Mumford wrote in Technics and Civilization (in 1934):
“Every culture lives within its dream…This dream pervades the life of a culture as the fantasies of night dominate the mind of a sleeper: it is reality—while the sleep lasts. But, like the sleeper, a culture lives within an objective world that goes on through its sleeping or waking, and sometimes breaks into the dream, like a noise, to modify it or to make sleep impossible.” (Mumford, 28)
The question for us to ponder as we watch the NSA story begin to recede from the headlines is whether or not our “American dream” has been shaken, whether we have jumped up in bed with a start, or whether we’ve simply decided it’s just the sound of a car in the street and gone back to sleep. Were we jostled from our sleep by the revelations? Were they the nightmare or was it just a lone bogeyman with a wintery name?
If Mumford is correct in claiming that “every culture lives within its dream” perhaps it is time for us to ponder whether the real American dream is in being allowed to stay continually asleep.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Read, Herbert. To Hell With Culture. Schocken Books, 1963.