More on NSA spying

What do freedom, liberty and privacy mean? Why do I feel they've been violated?

Published June 21, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Lost,

Well, I've been writing about the NSA spying revelations for three days now, and after today I'm done. I'm ready to hear more about divorces and betrayals and drug abuse and addiction and polyamory and dog cruelty and alcoholism -- things I know something about!

But I'm not done yet. So today, my friend, I am going to address you directly, in some anger and with some pointedness, because I think that may help you.

You write, "Growing up, perhaps naively, I have carried this ideal of America, freedom, liberty and the right to privacy as absolutes. ... The recent revelations about widespread government warrantless spying including recording phone conversations, email, and Internet traffic — programs that have been blessed by secret courts created by secret laws — have shaken my belief in what it means to live in a free society, about the basic ideals of America."

You have reached a personal crisis. Certain beliefs you held dear have been shaken. So I have to say to you, first of all, the words freedom, liberty and privacy don't represent absolute, unchanging things. They represent living agreements made by competing social actors. They represent agreements between people about how much power various parties can have over each other, and how much protection they may have from each other, as arbitrated in courts and through the political system, and enforced by police and other agencies.

The meanings of these terms change as social actors negotiate their relative positions. The meaning of "freedom" changes all the time. "Freedom" didn't mean gay rights or abortion rights until recently. It didn't even mean that women could vote.

And frankly, some of these things you believe in are not even uniform throughout America. Some of them are a luxury of social class. For instance, we generally agree that the police cannot come into your house, rough you up and take your stuff. But in some neighborhoods that happens and there's nothing you can do about it.

It depends on where you live. If I can stand on a street corner casually watching passersby, waiting for a friend, and the police do not order me to place my hands on the wall and spread my legs, then I may feel that the ideals of freedom, liberty and the right to privacy are working just fine in my life.

But if I should be captured off the street and bundled into an airplane and flown, blindfolded, to a secret location where I am tortured and interrogated without benefit of legal counsel or medical attention, then I may feel that the ideals of freedom, liberty and the right to privacy are not working so well.

You say you have "carried this ideal of America, freedom, liberty and the right to privacy as absolutes." That's your problem right there -- where the patriotic verges on the religious.

Men wrote these words. They wrote them for specific purposes. They had intrusive government and spying and invasion of privacy and getting their stuff taken away from them without permission and they wanted to fix that. They were politicians. So they devised words to sway others. It worked. They hammered out a set of documents that helped them hold a country together. The country has stayed together a long time. Their words entered the language of the country and were taught in schools and memorized by generation after generation, and eventually reached the status of poetry, or myth, or religious sayings.

These beliefs are powerful but sometimes experience will force us to adjust our beliefs -- when we are tear-gassed by police or followed by the FBI, for instance. Being stopped and frisked or subjected to extraordinary rendition may change your beliefs. That is why I say that these beliefs are a luxury of social class. They are also a luxury of good luck.

You do not have to be roughed up in a dark cell to change your beliefs. You can also read and think. I suggest that you read Howard Zinn. Maybe just read the last chapter of his "People's History of the United States," or even just the last few paragraphs.

I share your reverence for the ideals of America and I, too, feel things slipping away. But you have many choices. You could probably go to law school. Perhaps you should become a lawyer and work for the ACLU.

You are young and passionate and idealistic and have energy. But you are going to have to let go of the absolutes and admit that life in a democracy is dangerous and complicated.

What are your personal motivations? What are your ideals? If you can discover them, you can discover an enduring source of energy to pursue your dreams. Perhaps the reason these patriotic words resonate with you is that you yourself want to be free of something. Perhaps you feel trapped, or have been mistreated. Perhaps your own privacy has been invaded, or you have been abused and so you want to feel safe. And of course you want safety for your children. You care about the world they are going to grow up in. So your political emotions signal personal goals.

What I suggest is that you dedicate your life to understanding what these words mean to you, and seek concrete ways to make your own life exemplify them. Good luck.

Now I've got to go put on my helmet and gas mask. It's time to go out and demonstrate.

By Cary Tennis

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