Sunday, January 12, 2014

What do people mean when they say "I'm not surprised by the NSA revelations"?

In part because of my unhealthy infatuation with most things that Glenn Greenwald writes and does, I've been following the Snowden leaks and most of the little details about them since they began in June last year, and sometimes I glance at the comments sections of articles or Youtube or skim stories that I don't really care about and there's this very interesting ubiquitous trend where some people declare "I'm not surprised about any of this" and then just leave it at that, or talk about something else in a new paragraph.

What is the purpose of this? People do things because they feel uncomfortable with the prospect of not doing them. More specifically, it seems that when people are in settings where they know other people will see what they do, they behave in a specific way that they believe they should, to satisfy how they want to be perceived. Social theory often refers to this as "performativity." People feel the need to air this declaration before going to do something else. What are people "performing" when they say "I'm not surprised about any of this"?

When people write their version of that specific sentence, they have in their mind the people who are going to read it. They think something along the lines of "lots of people on the internet are going to read this and [something]".

What I think that "something" is, is something along the lines of "a lot of people are going to agree with me and give me upvotes or props," and/or "the people who are acting surprised and excited are going be humbled by my cynicism/complete lack of emotion." It's perhaps sort of a modification of macho superiority. People who are acting surprised and excited must be more childish than I, less worldly than I, and so I must be a good role model and donate my comment to the unwashed, illiterate masses.

She's not surprised about what Snowden revealed either

So from what I can tell, either these people fundamentally misunderstand the point of why other people are acting surprised and energetic (because they think things should change ASAP), or they understand it and wish to exploit it for their own benefit (pretty much just +1's on a website) and/or for empty boosts of self-esteem. Maybe both sorts of people are making this comment.

I'm not surprised by the NSA revelations. When I read each article as it came out, I didn't gape at my computer screen, I didn't leap out of the proverbial bathtub and go running through the streets naked. What I felt like doing: I felt like learning cryptography programming, I felt like going to the DC protest (but didn't make it), I felt like talking to people I know and writing about the issue, I felt like helping my friends secure their computers. What I didn't and still don't feel like doing, is making sure that the world knows that I was/am not surprised. Some people are at a young age or have other things on their plate and simply have not had time to read all the books you have.

This kind of flamboyant posturing often betrays a smug sort of attitude, shared by people all across the political landscape, that posits that focusing on the NSA is futile, for any number of reasons depending on the person. Things like:

  • What we really have to do is overthrow capitalism
  • These kinds of programs have been targeting non-white people forever, so the focus now is invalid
  • What we really have to do is reduce/get rid of the government
  • The Constitution is broken and failed anyway

To me this is like proclaiming that rape victims shouldn't go to the police because the police are historically and presently bigoted racially, and protectors of the ruling class. However accurate a description that might be, rapists pose a real threat and law enforcement has power to protect rape victims. The NSA specifically poses a real threat to real people, and most people find the US Constitution a good ideal for a country to aspire to. Now we need a mass of people to see the connection there, between the NSA and their supposed rights, and what are you doing? If you've ever left a bare "I'm not surprised by any of this NSA stuff" declaration anywhere (before now, obviously), or written a piece where you declare as much, leave a comment linking to it and then tell me what you've subsequently done for real people.

I wrote this without really knowing where it was going to go -- sometimes thinking flows better when I'm writing it out (i.e. Graham's The Age of the Essay). I don't actually know why people make this sort of comment. I just think this particular phenomenon I'm talking about is a good crystallization in which we can see the reflection of what most people aren't doing: learning more, building more alternatives, finding ways to help radically change the way things are in the US government, that allow the NSA to be the way it is.

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A young man