You’re probably familiar with Godwin’s Law, but let’s review. Invented by author and editor Mike Godwin, it states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” A more current interpretation of the meme states that during a political debate, whoever is the first to invoke a Hitler or Nazi metaphor automatically loses the debate.
Not only is dropping the Hitler bomb in a debate a cheap and easy trick, it also trivializes Nazi crimes against humanity — especially when shoehorned into, say, a debate about Sarah Palin or a conspiracy theory about lizard people from outer space.
Along those lines, I’m fairly certain no one has invented a meme for invoking George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four while discussing national security and civil liberties, so here goes. Given enough time during a debate about national security or civil liberties, the chances of an Orwell or Nineteen Eighty-Four reference rises to 100 percent. And whoever is responsible for it loses the debate. To be clear, violating this rule goes far beyond simply using the adjective “orwellian” as a shorthand to describe double-speak or projection. Suggesting that the U.S. government is like the Oceania government of Nineteen Eighty-Four and its use of Big Brother surveillance is clearly broader and more damning than criticizing an instance double-speak.
The reason I’m bringing this up is that over the weekend I read the following tweet from blogger and Liberal Superhero Glenn Greenwald: “Note: key to 1984 wasn’t that everyone was always being watched; the knowledge one could be is what imposed fear.”
Note: key to 1984 wasn't that everyone was always being watched; the knowledge one could be is what imposed fear pic.twitter.com/u3fbOlXmLq
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) December 7, 2013
Greenwald, for the gazillionth time, made the case that just because the government uses foreign surveillance, it will absolutely turn those operations on its own people, targeting each of us personally and without warrants. And until it does, the government is using the fear that it might collect your cat memes and porn habits to keep you in line.
Sure, I suppose anything’s possible. I suppose NSA could target U.S. citizens for surveillance without warrants again, as it did during the post-9/11 years, or as it did in the years before the Church Committee when counter-intelligence programs such as MINARET and SHAMROCK were clear examples of intelligence overreach. The problem is this: MINARET/SHAMROCK were unconstitutional and were therefore appropriately stopped, and the warrantless post-9/11 actions of the Bush government were both unconstitutional and illegal. Since then, laws have been established that further restrict NSA from targeting American citizens and “U.S. persons” without court oversight. (I should note here that I once supported Greenwald’s efforts to expose the Bush-era circumvention of the FISA court. Why? Because it was obviously illegal.)
In other words, those trespasses could be implemented again in some form. However, doing so would be extraordinarily illegal, as well as a violation of the Constitution. Indeed, illegality (or legality) is the hinge in all of this. If an action is illegal, it should be stopped. But there’s no statute to preemptively disrupt crimes that aren’t happening now or haven’t happened yet.
A future administration could also abuse the powers of the IRS to audit every political enemy. Or worse, it could prosecute all members of the opposition party for income tax evasion. A sinister administration could garnish the wages and levy the bank accounts of anyone for any reason and at any time. But doing so would be very, very, very illegal. The IRS has necessary powers for collecting taxes that could be exploited as a means of violating the rights of the people. Should we roll back those powers because they might be exploited… some day?
You could extrapolate any government power like this. But in doing so, you’re only journeying farther down a Greenwaldian rabbit hole — one that’s looking increasingly like an Alex Jones rabbit hole. Just because, for instance, the government has added fluoride to our drinking water, who knows? It could also add psychotropic drugs to it, or, gasp!, hormone-disrupting chemicals — you know, just like it’s already adding to our juice boxes in order to turn hetero men into gay men (no, it’s not). Before we know it, Greenwald’s readers are talking about cyclotronic warfare, chemtrails and weather weapons.
Greenwald’s logic, like Jones’ logic, is less logical and closer to the symptoms of raging paranoia. Again, he’s fighting crimes that haven’t happened yet, while tenaciously convincing his disciples to join him — spinning his ooga-booga worst-case tall tales about what might happen if we don’t genuflect at the sacrificial altar of Ed Snowden.
This paranoia over what might happen bears a similarity to the paranoia of right-wing militia crackpots who are actively stockpiling ammunition and military-style assault weapons in preparation for Obama’s inevitable gun confiscation program and the pernicious creep of Sharia law. Just because Lincoln invaded the South, and Kennedy sent federal troops to Alabama, Obama is totally going to take your guns while dispatching IRS goon squads into our neighborhoods to enforce the Obamacare mandate. Don’t you get it? What may seem harmless now will eventually getcha’. Just when you least expect it, expect it!
This argument covers a broad range of what Greenwald has reported from the Snowden files. Instead of focusing on specific, problematic areas with rational arguments for reform, Greenwald has discredited himself and his followers by skewing off into the paranoid realm of increasingly irrational suspicions about dystopian overreach. Instead of explaining to his readers whether the evidence contained within the Snowden files is legal or illegal, he’s repeatedly made the speculatively unhinged leap to what might eventually some day be illegal, and then scolded the government for those uncommitted future crimes, all of which are figments of Greenwald’s imagination.
And by the way, if Greenwald had ever actually read Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its post-apocalyptic hellscape, he’d realize that the U.S. — in this reality — is nothing like the world of Winston Smith.
But it could be. Some day. Maybe. So… RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!