I’m a bit devastated by the lack of attention that yesterday’s congressional hearing on the proposed 5-year renewal of the FISA Amendments Act has received. The FISA Amendments Act is part of an astounding move to establish a massive surveillance network, spying on the private activities of the American people, and Congress is moving to renew the law into early 2017, but only six journalistic articles have been written by about the hearing. The Associated Press hasn’t picked the story up at all.
What the heck is going on, I’ve been wondering, that the American people can see their constitutional rights being taken away, and do nothing to stop it? Part of the answer, it’s occurred to me, is that most of the American people actually cannot see this happening. The corporate news media doesn’t report on it much, and the spying itself is invisible, as all effective spying is. Even members of Congress aren’t being given the information about how often Americans are being spied upon with the FISA Amendment Act’s powers.
The partisan dynamics are also stacked against widespread outrage. When George W. Bush was pushing the original passage of the FISA Amendments Act, rank and file Democrats were outraged, and opposition to the law was an effective political tool against the Republican Party. But then, Democratic lawmakers started to go along with the spying legislation, and when Barack Obama decided to support it, Democratic voters began to fall in line too. Now, there are still some Democratic members of Congress who are opposed to the renewal of the FISA Amendments Act, but even they are timid about expressing that opinion, generally. They speak of “adjustments” to the law.
In yesterday’s hearing, Chairman Representative James Sensenbrenner made note of the odd political dynamics related to the FISA Amendments Act, commenting, “You have the Republicans supporting the Obama Administration and the Democrats opposing the Obama Administration.” Yes, Barack Obama endorses the five-year renewal of the unconstitutional spying powers of the FISA Amendments Act – without reform.
These days, many Democratic voters just don’t feel inclined to disagree with their own political party’s leader, so if Barack Obama supports Big Brother spying against Americans, then they do as well. Republican voters always seem game for a move toward a security state. So, where is opposition to the renewal of the FISA Amendments Act going to come from? It can come from politically-aware independent voters, but frankly, that’s a small group.
How did we get to this state? What’s going on?
To answer these questions, I looked to the Ngram engine over at Google Books. The Ngram engine is an interesting tool with which to gain a quick measure of long term cultural trends. Unlike most online search engines, it doesn’t search through material created for online consumption. Instead, it searches through the millions of books that Google has scanned into digital form, and those include books that were published hundreds of years ago.
Search for a word or phrase in the Ngram engine, and you’ll get a line graph, showing the prevalence of that word or phrase in all the books Google has scanned, relative to all the other words (and other printable items, like punctuation marks – Google calls all the searchable terms ngrams). Put a comma between two search terms, and you’ll get a graph that shows the relative prevalence of the two terms. It’s a measure of the relative frequency with which book authors used a word, and a presentation of how that frequency has changed over time.
It’s possible to limit the search to books published in the United States, and that’s what I’ve done in the searches that produced the charts you see below. Each one of them shows changes in the relative frequency of the words “freedom” and “security” over the years. (You can click on the images of the graphs to make them appear larger on your screen.)
This first graph shows the frequency of the inclusion of the words “freedom” and “security” in books published in the United States all the way from 1776 to 2008. As you can see, in the years of the founding of the USA, freedom was a very popular term for American authors, and security really wasn’t much of a concern, in comparison.
Something happened just before the year 1800 to change that, bringing security and freedom into more comparable use. At almost the same time that American authors began to write about freedom less, they began to write about security more. Actually, the decline in writing about freedom came a few years before the zeal for writing about security came. The zeal for the term security in American books came at about the time that John Adams was elected President. As President, Adams pushed through the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made political dissent into a crime. For an entire generation, security and freedom were at about the same frequency of usage in American books, compared to other words, until the 1820s, when writing about security diminished, while writing about freedom crept back up.
What led to this generation of unusually high focus on security? Was it triggered by the constitutional crisis related to the Alien and Sedition Acts? Did it have something to do with the events leading up to and then following the war of 1812? Was it related to the push westward and increasingly violent conflicts with Native Americans? Was it a combination of these factors, or something else? I’d love to find an historical source that could shed some light on this cultural shift.
The chart below suggests that whatever led to the increased focus on security may have had a parallel, or a common root, in British history. The chart shows the relative frequency of “freedom” and “security” in books, but this time, in books published in Great Britain rather than books published in the USA.
What’s interesting in this chart is that the use of the word “security” in books rose at the same moment in history in Great Britain as it did in the United States. However, the use of the word “freedom” did not drop, as it did in the United States. Furthermore, the security focus remained close to the focus on freedom for 20 more years, into the 1840s, than it did in the United States. There seems to have been a divergence between American and British political culture during the 1820s and 1830s, though the two nations re-established a very similar pattern afterwards.
Whatever caused the temporary loosening of Americans’ focus on freedom above security in the early 1800s, the ngram chart shows that freedom has been dominant over security for most of American history. For a century and a half, this freedom-focused version of the American identity persisted.
All that changed in the 1970s. Let’s zoom in and have a closer look at this time. The following chart shows the relative use of the words “security” and “freedom” in books published in the United States from 1975 to 2008.
If you look at the first chart on this page, you’ll see that, just as in the shift in culture reflected in writing patterns by book authors in the early 1800s, the decline in writing about freedom came first – starting in 1969 or so. It was a few years later that writing about security began to increase – in the late 1970s.
The larger chart averages the results over period of three years, so as to provide a smoother appearance from far away, but the chart for the last generation, which we see above, was produced without this statistical smoothing, so that we can see precisely when the years were that changes in writing patterns took place. We see that something changed in books published in 1979 – a big, annual surge in the use of the word “security”, which went back down in 1980, but was followed by twenty year period in which security and freedom were roughly equivalent in their attention in American books.
This period, from 1980 to the year 2000, saw a vastly different dynamic in the relative power of freedom and security. It had been the pattern for 150 years for security-focused writing to be much lower than freedom-focused writing. In the last two decades of the last century, security and freedom were roughly even. The end of the Cold War didn’t change that pattern. The increasing use of the Internet in the 1990s didn’t change it either. This twenty-year period was comparable to the time in the early 1800s. It wasn’t a change that was relative to the 1960s, either. Compared to the 1940s and 1950s, regarded as very conservative political eras, the 1980s and 1990s had a much stronger focus on security, and a much reduced focus on freedom – at least in the books that were published during the time.
Now, let’s zoom in closer to our particular time, where we’ve seen yet another shift. Our final ngram chart, shown below, shows the period from 1996 to 2008.
The last time that the word “freedom” was used more than “security”, even by just a little bit, was in 1996. Still, in 1997, 1998 and 1999, the two terms remained relatively close, with “security” in greater use, but not by very much. It was in the year 2000, and then 2001, that the rise in security-focus in American books began.
Keep in mind that there’s a bit of a delay in the publication of books. A book published in one year is usually written the year before – if not over a period of a couple of years beforehand. A few books about the terrorism attacks of September 11, 2001 were published that same year, but not very many, and those that were released were a tiny number in comparison to the overall number of books published that year. So, the large uptick in the word “security” in 2001 cannot be completely explained by the terrorist attacks that took place in the 9th month of that year. Certainly, the continued increase in the use of “security” in American books in 2002 and 2003 can be attributed to writing about the terrorist attacks, but something else was already going on in American culture, to diminish freedom and emphasize security, before the Twin Towers were destroyed.
What’s more, we see that the 2001 terrorist attacks came after a generation of historically unusual emphasis on security. Americans had been already living with remarkable diminishment of writing about freedom, and an increase in writing about security, for many years. The stage was already set, and that staging cannot be explained by any attack on American soil. Something else was going on.
Whatever disagreements people may have about the historical causes of our current cultural condition, one thing ought to be clear: The contents of our nation’s books show that we are in a period of emphasis of security over freedom that is unprecedented in the history of the United States of America. Never before has freedom taken such a submissive role to security, and never before has security’s dominance lasted so long.
This inversion in the political culture of the United States is happening at a time when the technology for the creation of a security state has been developed beyond our ancestors’ capacity for imagination. The FISA Amendments Act and the Patriot Act have resulted in the creation of a ubiquitous surveillance system far more powerful than what George Orwell anticipated in 1948. Our telephone communications don’t run by wire much anymore. The very term “wiretap” is out of touch with what’s going on technologically. Our wireless electromagnetic transmissions of financial data, text, images, sound and video are being intercepted, searched and stored by our own government at a rate that was referred to at yesterday’s congressional hearing using words such as “massive”.
If you’re okay with having your personal telephone calls, emails, and family movies searched through and stored in digital archives by your government, without a search warrant ever being issued, then you should be happy with the FISA Amendments Act. You should know, however, that your anti-privacy values are strikingly out of alignment with the tradition of constitutional liberty in the United States.
If you’re bothered by the widespread spying against Americans that’s going on under the FISA Amendments Act, you should know that you’re not alone. Yes, it seems like many Americans today are perfectly happy to have the federal government violate their legal rights, just so long as they’re provided with the feeling of security. You may be out of touch with present day political culture, and its obsession with security, but you are not out of touch with American culture as it has existed for most of the history of our nation. You are in alignment with the values of the Founding Fathers.
Congratulations, if you still value freedom more than security. Having those values, though, isn’t going to be enough. If freedom is to regain its strength as a governing principle in the United States of America, you’re going to have to put your values into action. It’s time for those of us who oppose Big Brother government spying to get together, get organized, and push back the security state that has been growing since the 1980s.
With this in mind, I’ve created a new Facebook page for Americans who oppose the legislation rushing through Congress that would extend the FISA Amendments Act until 2017. Join that group, or if you’re not into Facebook activism, Join the ACLU in its demand that the FISA Amendments Act be radically reformed or be allowed to die.
It’s up to you, because the leadership of both the Republican and Democratic parties is dedicated to expanding, rather than curtailing, security state violations of our constitutional rights. No one’s going to take action for you. Please, get involved now.