Nadezha Tylik Tranquilized for “Excessive Emotionalism” as She Questioned Authorities after the Death of her Son in the Kursk Sinking, 2001 (c/o St. Petersburg Times)
The revelations of NSA domestic spying have produced a wealth of commentary. Most of it is quite useless (when a prevaricating general tells you all of it is done with legal authorization, no, that doesn’t mean that it is legal). Some of it, however, has been quite sharp and public opinion (especially among the young) seems to have turned on Barack Obama for his obvious hypocrisy. Hell, even George W. Bush is looking better to people now that they know the Obama presidency is essentially his fourth term–on government snooping and so many other things beside. Liberals will have to deal with the damage done to their brand by the guy who sold “hope and change” and ended up being the betrayer of hope and denier of change. (When Ari Fleischer and Dick Cheney think you’re doing a swell job, being a change agent is not part of your portfolio.)
But that’s politics or the churning surface phenomena of government’s rigid and inflexible structural imperatives. Very few commentators have looked, seriously, into what the NSA incident suggests about the creeping totalitarianism of America’s crappy little oligarchy. Not enough people have given appropriate attention to the fact that, as revealed by Snowden and publicized by Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian, the mass of espionage by this state is directed not principally at foreign powers, but at American citizens (note the name of the program, “Boundless Informant”–a spook’s dream). National Security Agency, indeed. Makes you wonder if we should rename it the National Insecurity Agency, since so few people can now be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Indeed, when a state charges a leaker under the Espionage Act for giving evidence of that state’s criminal spying to the press (and therefore the public), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the “enemy” to whom the information has been leaked is, in fact, the citizens of that state. And to those, especially the liberals, who want to jump up and defend these practices by citing obviously skimpy judicial fig leaves like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court (can we just call it the neo-Star Chamber and leave it at that?), you must immediately apologize to the ghost of the Soviet Union, which had similar legal “authority” for its snooping (and Putin has given Obama a big thumbs up on his domestic surveillance). Big Brother always hires him some lawyers. Moreover, if it’s so damn legal, why don’t they publish the legal opinions saying that this is so? Because if they were to publish them, as when we got John Yoo’s crayon scribblings pretending to argue for the constitutionality of torture, the vast majority of lawyers not enjoying Big Brother largesse would roll over with gales of laughter, that’s why. (And note that getting a paycheck from Uncle Sam really does seem to impact one’s legal reasoning. Funny that.)
I would like to note another trend here–not the demonization of the whistle-blower, which was just to be expected–all good Establishment journalists, after all, are united in their opinion that Julian Assange wears smelly socks so can be safely consigned to a road that leads to “sealed indictments,” but rather the psychologizing of his motives.
Of course, the faux-Freudian picking apart of Snowden’s life and character is part and parcel of the general demonization process, but it is much more dangerous. Corey Robin, in a very thought-provoking post at Crooked Timber, points out how this is classic marginalization gambit is operated. And this is a favorite trick of centrists and liberals, not conservatives. Whereas conservatives usual see the hand of Satan in every political stance they dislike (or Hitler/Stalin, who are more demons than men at this point), liberals love to explain political actions they abhor as some sort of personality disorder straight out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Handbook Manual of Mental Disorders, or, more likely, the pop psychology of Oprah and Psychology Today. As Kirsten Powers notes in the Daily Beast, Snowden has been smeared as too “individualistic” by David Brooks of the New York Times, “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison,” by that shrinking violet, The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin and, in perhaps the weirdest psychologizing, a “cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood” by Richard Cohen of The Washington Post. I mean, seriously, what the fuck does that even mean except to give the impression the dude is very bent? This psychologizing is, of course, all about protecting power. For as Robin points out:
In the same way that journalists call high-level leakers in the executive branch “White House officials” and low-level guys like Snowden “narcissists” or “losers,” so do they dole out accolades like “Secretary of State” to mass murderers like Henry Kissinger while holding the Snowden-like epithets in reserve for Al Qaeda, Communists, the Militia Movement, and the Weather Underground.
Word. And this psychologizing one’s political enemies is fundamentally Nixonian. Indeed, the the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, was subjected to precisely these tactics complete with an illegal break-in at his psychiatrist’s office to dig up useful dirt. The smear back then was so repulsive that it got Ellsberg off on the charge of espionage as the jury found the government’s action reprehensible. Nowadays, the smear that “leaker=nuts” gets you some pretty toney real estate on the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. So Snowden, and yes also Bradley Manning, are in good company when they’re painted as having mental problems. Indeed, Ellsberg, himself has understood these men are doing what he did and as having done to them what was done to him (actually, worse). Am I equating Obama to Nixon here? Not a chance. Obama is much worse–Nixon only charged one person (Ellsberg) under the draconian Espionage Act of 1917 (note the year!), Obama has gone to that well eight times. Gee, I guess Americans are just so much more damn treasonous under Obama than they were in the previous 90 years of the act, when all other prior administrations only managed to bring three prosecutions.
But the danger of this psychologizing of politics is more than just transparent marginalization of political dissent. It has been used, and used for centuries, to persecute political dissidents themselves. As a Russian historian, the parallels in another place and time are shockingly evident to me. Various Tsars, famously, branded critics such as Pyotr Chadaaev as insane persons, rather than dissidents because, who could not view serf-holding, autocratic, imperial bully-boy Russia as anything else but a terrestrial nirvana? Only a madman or a Pole. The Soviets took this approach toward political dissent to unseen heights with the creation of special psychological Gulag wards–the psikhushkas, where political opponents were found to be suffering from “creeping schizophrenia” (yeah, sounds like complete bullshit, which it was, just as branding someone you dislike as a “narcissist” is supposed to sound all learned and stuff). Hundreds of perfectly sane people were subjected to various Soviet Cuckoo’s Nest and very invasive “treatments” (i.e., tortures) because they disagreed with the state. One can read Zhores Medvedev’s A Question of Madness and or General Pyotr Grigorenko’s autobiography to understand what a complete abomination of the healing arts represented by these institutions, but hell, Americans should be completely familiar with branding sane people mad, and also driving “enemies of the state” mad. The interrogators at Guantanamo Bay and other infamous CIA prisons certainly have made use of psychology to do their evil (much to the concern of the American Psychological Association, which, so far, has been quite a toothless watchdog). Perhaps the most hideous example of this “clinical” approach to dissent is Mr. Obama’s treatment of the hunger strikers at Guantanamo (many of whom are cleared for release but evidently will never be released), which dozens of doctors are now protesting as cruel. Take, for example, the amazingly hypocritical statement:
“I don’t want these individuals to die,” Obama said of recognized hunger strikers. “Obviously the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can. But I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this? Why are we doing this?”
Yes, Mr. President why are “we” brutally force feeding men who are charged with no crime, dozens of whom you long ago cleared for release, men who realize they are going to die in a cage because you and the Pentagon have to “manage” the situation? And for those naïfs out there who don’t think this is a form of clinical torture, I urge you to read the great Vladimir Bukovsky, who knows a thing or two about such clinical approaches to “difficult” inmates and has no problem at all branding these “medical interventions” as torture. Go ahead, read him. I’ll wait.
As for the state and its enablers, I doubt they would even consider force-feeding to be torture. These authoritarians hold the institutions and practices of “legitimate” authority (in quotes because a state that openly flouts its own laws is certainly not “legitimate”) as sacrosanct, and resistance to them, as criminal or insane. Hell, whole cultures can be branded as “radicalized,” the better to ruthlessly murder them with a clear conscience. You don’t have to read Foucault to know that this turns every discussion of power into an exercise of power–where ultimately the truth of the proposition is what power says the truth is (i.e., its truth-effects).
That, unlike in the Soviet Union, this discourse of insanity, of the alleged ”paranoid style” of politics by those who reject the state project, is decentralized does not make such strictures weaker, but rather more powerful. And, by its very nature, expansive. President Obama already dismisses legitimate questions about his policies as emanating from the black helicopter crowd. I expect we will be hearing soon of the personality disorders of ecological activists once, as is inevitable, they turn out to protest the President’s tar sands pipeline (that eminent and disinterested expert in psychology, Mr. Don Blankenship, has already laid the groundwork here). We were certainly subjected to the most fact-free infantilizing of an entire generation following the Occupy Wall Street episode by Establishment hacks (which seems to be a pretty general trend over decades for the “news” magazine in question–love the bit about Joel Stein, a middle-aged guy, trying to pass as a twenty-something. Uggh). Dislike school closings? I’m sure they’ll find a mental disease for you too. Protest rampant financial criminality? Well, they’ll fit you with a tin hat for that. Or let’s go further, to a political sensibility I do not have sympathy with. Clearly, if you are opposed to a gun-background check, then you are a “gun-nut” who is pathetically concerned about “black helicopters” and owning a weapon as a phallic symbol to overcome your own failures of masculinity. Because it is hard to imagine that the government would ever abuse a list designed to prevent criminals from hurting people, right? Right? (Yes, TSA, the keystone clowns of the police state, I’m looking at you).
Robin is right. We have already seen how the misuse of essentially reference-free terms like “terrorism” are now routinely used to clamp down on dissent and terrorize one’s own citizens (don’t like the taste of your water post-fracking, well, hell, according to the state–the state! not some pumped up politico–then you are, indeed, a terrorist). But the tossing around of psychological terms by ignoramuses is much worse–it is designed to marginalize not only individuals but entire intellectual frameworks. And, again, it is essentially soft totalitarian. In a free society, if one disagrees with a proposition one argues against it deploying evidence and rationality. I’m not telling anybody to agree with birthers or truthers or the NRA, but if you can’t come up with anything better than he, she or they are “nuts,” then, dude, you got nothing. As John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago, even a fundamentally irrational argument serves the public good if it is not dismissed but rather refuted in a compelling way. But Mill, of course, had a rather different view of the way things ought to work than the present American Establishment (after all, he did name his essay on the subject, On Liberty).
Folks can have legitimate debates about whether Edward Snowden is a criminal (or exposing criminals) or a hero (or saboteur). Those are positions which do not assume your subject is in need of therapeutic intervention. Whatever the guy is, he has acted completely rationally and continues to do so to further his political agenda and maintain his own self preservation. While I personally consider charges of treason and espionage to be overwrought, they at least allow us to have a political conversation, which is impossible if we treat those who resist state power as “crazy.”