U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Existential Threats, Digital Shadows

digital shadows

Photo from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00pp585

I’ve mentioned on the blog in an earlier post that in one of his radio addresses for the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign, President Eisenhower told Americans that they needed to find God in their struggle against Communism.  “There are no atheists in foxholes,” the president intoned, “in a time of test and trial, we instinctively turn to God for a new courage and peace of mind.”  Of course it was unclear precisely what God would help Americans understand about the Cold War; though that was obviously not the point of Ike’s plea.  In almost any time of war, governments engaged in the fighting have a need to flatten out the sides involved–the enemy is monolithic, but so are the people they ostensibly fight for.

In the Cold War, the process of flattening out those involved in the conflict entailed viewing all Americans in one large foxhole, all praying to one common (yet ambiguous) God.  In our time of war, we are once again lumped into one large foxhole, but instead of flattening out distinctions through religion, this war seems to do it by digital design.  Campaigns like the one Ike supported, used the existential threat of communism to rationalize the lumping and flattening.  In our time, the existential threat of the “War on Terror” apparently rationalizes the lumping of us all as data and the flattening out of us into digital shadows.  If fifty years ago, suspicious activity involved our religious practices (or lack there of), now no digital activity is beyond suspicion or monitoring.

Perhaps our present predicament is the collision between two trends, traditional government over-reach in a time of war and the transnational collection of data.  We know that historically the United States government, from the time of John Adams to the present, has violated American civil liberties in the name of prosecuting wars.  We are also aware that now more than ever before we leave little bits of ourselves all around cyberspace, in the form of purchases, emails, texts, tweets, blog posts.  Yet unlike the sorely misguided characterization by David Brooks in the New York Times, this is not a world easily cast as one between “the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.”  We don’t know precisely what motivated Edward Snowden to release classified documents, but it seems backwards to me to see Snowden as the lumper rather than the government he works for.

In our time of war, we have abstraction piled upon abstraction; we have become data to a government that fights an existential threat.  Yes, such data has links to real people, real actions, and can produce real terror.  Yet there is a strange symmetry in the government’s hunt for threats to our safety and Snowden’s decision to disclose the identities–the data points–of those the government hunts.  By identifying the targets–broad as they are–of government surveillance, the whistleblower reveals the behavior that continues to make us human.  It might be possible to mine our data and lump us together as digital shadows, but we still make impressions, take actions, express thoughts in the miasma of cyberspace.  Those teenagers in Steubenville, Ohio acted like phantoms in social media until hacker-activists exposed their identities and their crime.  We were all data and digital shadows until Snowden exposed what what kind of activities the government tracks and collects. Rather than betray our humanity, it seems to me it might have affirmed it.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What interests me about the Snowden revelations and our continuing/neverending War on Terror is the disjunct they reveal about the present-day, at-large rhetoric about freedom. The domestic political discourse of general conservatives—a discourse dominated by conservative libertarian principles—defines every little monetary imposition, however noble the aspiration, as another shackle on our freedoms. The political discourse about foreign affairs, however, produces nothing but yawns by many conservatives who espouse libertarian principles. Where is Grover Norquist on Edward Snowden? Rand Paul somewhat ambiguously labeled Snowden’s act one of “civil disobedience.” Shouldn’t Paul and all libertarians, or at least consistently libertarian types, be firmly and vigorously speaking up in Snowden’s defense? What does anyone know about others who considered staunch libertarians in relation to Snowden? And what does this disjunct say about libertarianism in America since the 1970s? – TL

    • This is one of the main points Axel Schaefer is making in Piety and Public Funding: There is NO substantive difference between liberals and conservatives concerning the means and ends of national security.

    • We need a larger discussion of Schaefer’s argument here. A review of some sort perhaps? Tim, do you see a recent change in the way foreign affairs gets “yawns”? Has a certain kind of intellectual oppositional tradition receded that would have done more with these revelations?

      • I should’ve been more clear: this kind of activity (i.e.. monitoring speech/surveillance in relation to foreign affairs) gets yawns from conservative libertarians. And I meant political discourse about foreign affairs that involves freedoms—i.e. conservative libertarians don’t seem to care how we violate the freedoms of others abroad, or how we violate freedoms at home in relation to foreign affairs.

        Now that I reread my comment, that part sounds like nonsense. Hopefully this clears things up a little bit. Sorry for the confusion. Thanks for asking me about it, which forced me to rethink and clarify.

  2. “We were all data and digital shadows until Snowden exposed what what kind of activities the government tracks and collects.”

    The metaphysical acrobatics in here just don’t work, in my opinion. No, we weren’t “all data and digital shadows” at any point, anymore than we “were” our inky scratches on paper in Wilson’s day.

    What we are is people who use gadgets to communicate with each other, and those gadgets leave traces.

    • John, are the ways we use digital technology creating different kinds of evidence of our actions? It seems there are more physical impressions left in the digital world that are much easier to collect and trace than buying groceries in 1914.

  3. “I don’t think we put enough stress on the necessity of implanting in the child’s mind the moral code under which we live.

    The fundamental basis of this Nation’s law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don’t think we emphasize that enough these days.

    If we don’t have the proper fundamental moral background, we will finally wind up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anybody except the state.”

    Harry Truman
    Address Before the Attorney General’s Conference on Law Enforcement Problems
    February 15, 1950

    The Wiki tells us

    At the Legion’s 1951 convention at Miami, Florida, it formally endorsed its “Back to God” movement. When launching the program in 1953 with a national television broadcast that included speeches by President Eisenhower and Vice-President Nixon, the Legion’s National Commander Lewis K. Gough said it promoted “regular church attendance, daily family prayer, and the religious training of children.”

    Clearly something was in the air—after all, godless communism already had tens of millions of scalps under its belt, and had just occupied Eastern Europe.

    This is worth a look.

    http://news.nnyln.net/nccatholic/north-country-catholic-1951-may-1956-july/north-country-catholic-1951-may-1956-july%20-%200464.pdf

    “At this time, when the whole world is torn by dissention between those who believe in God and those who deny His sovereignty over the universe, the American Legion, true to its tradition and our American idealism, recalls to us that God’s law is the foundation of our civilization.”

    And right next to the story on the “Back to God” movement is the headline

    Christian Family Now Under Attack By Secularists

    Culture War already in full blaze as of March 30, 1952.
    ______________________

    I’m not sure how the “back to God” angle dovetails with the cyberwar against Islamic extremism, which has plenty enough God and stuff. As for the partisan politics, the relative indifference of the left seems of more note than the comparatively few “conservative libertarians.”

    Campaigns like the one Ike supported, used the existential threat of communism to rationalize the lumping and flattening. In our time, the existential threat of the “War on Terror” apparently rationalizes the lumping of us all as data and the flattening out of us into digital shadows. If fifty years ago, suspicious activity involved our religious practices (or lack there of), now no digital activity is beyond suspicion or monitoring.

    We need to know what this monitoring has prevented. [They are threatening to tell us!] There’s the level of stopping the “corporate” activities of al-Qaeda that seems to be working. And the frustrating part of these “lone wolf” terror attacks has been that [like the Newtown massacre] there were enough clues out there for us to frustrate the attacks if only we had been more paranoid.

    Our modern scientific culture does not tolerate failing to foresee and prevent all bad things. The rest is abstraction.

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