Tuesday, July 8, 2008

And Another Thing . . .

And another thing . . . (to channel Gilda Radner. I wish. That marvelous human being had more wit in her little finger than I have in my entire body.)

I did also mean to note earlier that the condition of spiritual itchiness often causes irritability. I have never been the least irritable of God’s creatures—as anyone who knows and loves me despite knowing me will attest.

But shake up one’s spiritual life, and you’re likely to get even more rocking and rolling on the part of those predisposed to irritability. My irritability is focusing lately on some of the huge lies we seem expected to swallow during the current election process.

The more I try to follow the “logic” of Mr. Obama’s ever-twisting path to what the commentators like to call the center, the more perturbed I am by the twists and turns. In particular, I’m very unhappy with his back-tracking on the FISA issue.

Here’s my concern, flat and unpolished: I believe in my heart of hearts that the domestic snooping that has been going on under the current administration—the warrantless violation of privacy in email accounts and phone accounts of citizens by the federal government—has been not only far wider than we know, but has been far more insidious in its political intent than the government has ever admitted.

I believe that the government has been gathering information on any number of citizens, which is designed to destroy the reputations and careers of those citizens—and that such destruction has been taking place in ways we don’t even know about. It takes only one leak of any kind of damaging (or deliberately misconstrued) information from the government to private employers, in states where employers may fire employees without providing any cause, to end someone’s career.

Do I know of any cases in which this has occurred? No, of course not. How could I, when we’re being protected from knowing how widespread the surveillance practiced by telecom companies is?

Do I suspect such cases have occurred? Absolutely. Our intelligence service made it its business to expend enormous amounts of energy (and money) compiling dossiers on Martin Luther King and other leading civil rights activists in the latter half of the 20th century. Here in Little Rock, when white “club” women worked hand in hand with their African-American domestics to keep the schools open during the integration crisis, the FBI routinely appeared at any of their gatherings to photograph their license plates.

Information such as this is always gathered for malicious use, for dirt, for dirt that those doing the spying intend to throw when it is opportune to do so. This was the intent of surveillance programs targeting American citizens in the McCarthy and Nixon era; it is the intent of similar surveillance programs in the current administration. There's a direct line of inheritance between the Nixon administration and the Bush administration.

The primary reason the telecoms and the government want to block our attempts to gather information about the domestic surveillance of recent years is that 1) we’ll learn it has been amazingly widespread and has targeted “ordinary” citizens, 2) it has had a malicious political purpose, including destruction of the reputations and careers of some citizens, 3) and if we ever learned the extent of the spying and how the information gathered has been used, we’d not only lose further confidence in our government, but the telecoms would be wide open to thousands of damaging lawsuits.

For those inclined to snoop, for those whose leadership style is paranoid, for those who have something to hide themselves and who are therefore intensely suspicious of others, the Internet age provides a much wider range of opportunities to spy. For such folks, this new age of technology does not usher in the possibility of wider communication, of building communities of discourse and action to work for the common good.

It ushers in new opportunities to oversee the communication of others and to use what one learns from that process against others, if one so desires.

I learned this lesson very well at an institution of higher learning at which I previously worked. This was after the advent of the Internet and email allowed (and required) much more university business to be transacted online.

As a member of the university’s leadership structure—and as someone eventually targeted myself by the university president, whose leadership style was intensely paranoid—I learned far more than I would ever like to know about the ability and shocking willingness of supposedly principled leaders to spy on employees. I learned of surveillance of telephone conversations and email; I learned of hidden cameras in offices about which employees had no knowledge.

On the basis of what I learned, I began to suspect that the surveillance included snooping on the private email communications (from home email accounts) of employees, when such snooping could take place. I also began to suspect (and this suspicion was eventually confirmed) that the employer in question compiled dossiers on some employees that were different than those available for employee scrutiny in the university’s personnel office.

We live in an age in which unprincipled folks will use new tools of mass communication to spy, if they wish to do so. We live in an age in which any one of us sends so many emails and pursues so much research online, that it is possible for an unprincipled supervisor with access to this information to twist almost anything we have written online to turn our words against us.

When we do not know that such surveillance is taking place—when we cannot know, because our government is unwilling for us to know—we cannot defend ourselves against it, and against its misuse. I am convinced that an employer who could successfully depict any employee as a potential “radical” could quite easily gain access from government sources and telecom companies, under the current climate of surveillance.

This needs to stop. I will be very disappointed in Mr. Obama if he continues to oppose stringent new FISA regulations that stop up the holes in domestic surveillance.


colkoch said...

It's funny you should post on this today. I read an article just this morning on how employers are now googling a prospective employee to see what they have written and what sites they visit.

I guess I won't be applying for a diocesan job in the future! :)

The truth is I thought long and hard about this before I ever started posting anywhere on the net. This is one kind of net which can snare a lot of unsuspecting fish.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, you're absolutely right when you say, "This is one kind of net which can snare a lot of unsuspecting fish."

And it's a particularly dangerous net for people in academic life. The ultimate outcome of enhanced tools of worldwide communication ought to be to enhance worldwide communication!

And that's all to the good, in academic life.

Unfortunately, when the "managerial" sector of academic life--notably presidents (some presidents) and boards (some boards)--uses these tools to monitor free discourse rather than to encourage it, the end result can be disastrous.

As an academic dean and v-p, I have found some faculty all too ready to spy and report on others. It is unbelievable, the lengths to which faculty will go to dig up dirt on other faculty.

When these faculty have easy access to information, and when they can twist just about anything anyone has ever written online into something other than what the person has said, a lot of mess can ensue. Unscrupulous faculty trying to do a colleague in can easily get the ear of top-level administrators and/or boards, who may decide to end the targeted person's employment just because the person has been made controversial.

All of this discourages what academic life is all about--free exchange of information and free speech. And all that I have just said is true a fortiori of theology and theologians.

One of the most disgusting things I discovered in my years of academic life is that many administrations compile secret dossiers on select faculty members of lower-level administrators. When administrations intent on controlling faculty or administrators through this practice misuse the internet to gather information, you can well imagine how thick those files are becoming!

And in my experience, the faculty on whom they are kept are never given the chance to see them, to respond to trumped-up charges against them, etc.