In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden revelations about government surveillance, the national mass media are in their element: a highly controversial issue framed as national security vs. individual liberty, a dramatic figure to focus personal scrutiny and condemnation on (Snowden), the public as stakeholder, and government officials falling in line to reassure the public that our rights are secure. Trust us, they declare.
What is, and will continue to be, missing from the mass media debate, however, is the connection between government surveillance and the larger imperative of maintaining a system both at home and abroad designed to maximize corporate profits. Those who argue for a vastly more democratic system –notably the left— continue to be excluded from the mass media’s “legitimate” debate
For the last twelve years, this same government, backed by leaders of both political parties and a chorus of cheerleaders on the right, has carried on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a military intervention in Libya, and deadly Drone attacks in a number of sovereign nations including the U.S. ally Pakistan.
These attacks have been carried out as part of the same “anti-terror” campaign used to justify the government’s spying on its own citizens. Yet they have repeatedly aroused public fury among the civilian populations in the target nations while simultaneously destabilizing their societies.
Over the years, hostility towards the U. S. has grown exponentially around the world. Terrorist groups have capitalized on both the hostility towards the U.S. and the destabilization of these nations. In this way, U.S. militarism abroad feeds the “need” for electronic surveillance at home.
The “unintended consequences” of U.S. military aggression –always presented as a “defense of freedom”— includes “blowback” attacks on Americans (notably, 9/11), as the late political scientist and one time CIA analyst, Chalmers Johnson, has argued in three heavily documented books. The mass media are complicit in this dynamic, since they have consistently failed to challenge government propaganda used to mobilize public support for these and other interventions.
So, that’s one aspect of the missing bigger picture: government surveillance is a function of an American empire that is both counter-productive and on the wrong side of history –to say nothing of being immoral. However, there’s more.
Using data from sources like the National Priorities Project (www.costofwar.com) and state budget deficits around the nation (www.cbpp.org), economist Michael Zweig has documented how American taxpayers spent more than enough in 2011 on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to prevent all state budget deficits in the U. S. that same year. 2011 was a key year in the spread of right wing attacks that used these deficits to target our public schools, the health and mental health needs of millions of citizens, to say nothing of bridges, roads and other infrastructure needs. This sorry saga continues.
Furthermore, the tax cuts promoted at both federal and state levels over the years have not only greatly exacerbated the budget “crises” at federal, state, and local levels, they have overwhelmingly benefited the richest 1% of the population –without delivering the job growth that officials in both parties claim will reduce unemployment and produce a better life for working people.
The reality is the opposite. As economist William Tabb has noted, from 1973 to 2006 (the year before the latest economic crisis and Wall Street bailout), real wages grew by less than 1 percent, even though economic productivity grew by 80% –meaning the “gains from the work we do went almost exclusively to capital .” From 2009-2011, 88% of national income growth went into corporate profits, while a mere 1% went into wages. 93% of all income gains in 2010 went to the top 1% of Americans.
Vast inequality, increasing personal debt, eroding public institutions, and government surveillance –all are connected to the American militarism that generates “national security” threats at the same time that it allegedly addresses them. So, too, is the dangerous ecological erosion we all face; even International Monetary Fund economistshave suggested that inequality and unsustainable growth are “two sides of the same coin.”
Yet this picture is invisible in the mass media, the source of most Americans’ news. Making connections like these for others to see is one of the most formidable tasks facing the left.
However, not surprisingly, the people –here and around the world—are waking up and beginning to confront the system they live under. Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the anti-austerity protests are likely only the beginning of a global movement for a better, more democratic world. Also, not surprisingly, most of these people likely view Edward Snowden as a hero.
Ted (Edward P.) Morgan is professor of political science at Lehigh University and the author, most recently, of What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy.