At the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, which can be dated to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, there was much talk in the West of a “peace dividend” on account of the anticipated reduction in military spending. The dividend never amounted to anything as far as average Americans were concerned, particularly since the Gulf War came along a year later, and then through the 1990s the US involved itself in flash points around the globe in its self-appointed role as world police force. In the new century, the so-called War on Terror has preoccupied this country and dragged it into middle eastern quagmires ever since 2001. That peace dividend looks like it’s never going to show up.
Counting minor skirmishes and interventions, America has been in conflict with enemies foreign and domestic for most of its history. Always in the past after a major conflict, the military would draw down its personnel and weaponry and return to a reduced level that was considered the peacetime military norm, even if small conflicts were bound to flare up. Again after World War II, it appeared the armed forces would follow the pattern and draw down, and indeed they did for several years in the late 1940s. But then the Berlin Airlift happened, heightening tensions with the Soviet Union, and more or less beginning the Cold War. Shortly after that came the Korean War. The country has pretty well been on a war footing ever since, a condition President Eisenhower warned against in his 1961 farewell address when he spoke of the military-industrial complex.
From The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1948, an article in the magazine described the trials of a young family making ends meet. Here the father balances the family books while the mother irons clothes. No doubt they juggled income and expenses in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, not billions or trillions.
In a 2012 speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama anticipated a peace dividend from reductions in American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, a dividend he said he would use to pay down the national debt and put Americans back to work repairing and improving infrastructure at home. Like the Cold War peace dividend, the dividend that was supposed to follow from over a decade of middle eastern wars also proved illusory. For one thing, our enormous military spending, larger than the military budgets of the next eight biggest spenders combined, has been done with borrowed money. Claiming a reduction in military spending would yield a dividend from the balance is like a homeowner taking $20 out of the household budget meant for repayment of various debts and calling it a windfall. Not only will the homeowner have to repay the $20 next month, but he or she will have to come up with an additional $20 to make up for the shortfall.
The other thing about this country’s huge military is that some interested parties in the military and in the defense industry like to keep it sky high. That is what Eisenhower was warning us about in 1961. These are people who, while they may not like war exactly – when it comes to actual military service, for instance, a good many of them seem to have other priorities – nonetheless have acquired a taste for the profits and power of the military-industrial complex. They are the friends of Halliburton and Blackwater, and they are in high places. They are the people who will see to it a peace dividend never gets beyond their own sticky fingers into the wallets of the American people who have paid for all their boondoggles.
From Mel Brooks’s 1974 film Blazing Saddles, with Harvey Korman and Robyn Hilton, and Mel Brooks himself as the Governor, this scene could just as well be depicting activities in the modern day Oval Office as in a fictional governor’s office in 1874. Warning: foul language.
There will not be enough money in the federal budget for fixing the nation’s infrastructure, moreover bringing it up to 21st century standards, until the obscene amounts spent on the military-industrial complex are drastically reduced. There will not be enough money for health care, for public education, for Social Security, for fighting climate change by ditching the fossil fuel industry in favor of renewable energy, for doing all the things we want to do to improve our society as a whole, and not merely improve the fortunes of the oligarchy, if we do not come to our senses regarding our budget for interfering around the world and in some unintended ways making it a more dangerous place. Throwing all that borrowed money into the war machine for the past 70 years has bought us a grand house, with a grand mortgage to match, and meanwhile the termites have been busy at the foundations.
So when they continued asking him, he lifted himself up and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him be the first to cast a stone at her.
― John 8:7 (Jubilee Bible 2000)
In any discussion of government surveillance, such as has been revealed by the recent WikiLeaks “Vault 7” release of CIA documents, there are some folks who are apt to pipe up with “Let the government spy on me – I have nothing to hide.” By that they presumably mean for their listeners to understand they are not terrorists, criminals, or perverts, and to drive home their utter lack of impure intentions they will often add a feebly humorous aside about how government agents would fall asleep from the boredom of eavesdropping on them. How reassuring to learn that government flouting of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution is okay because there are some among us who are without sin! Whether these folks realize it or not, their smug pronouncement comes out of them because in their lives the presumption of innocence has always been a given, and therefore government agents would have no interest in their good citizen behavior. It doesn’t seem to occur to them there are others in our culture who, through no fault of their own, are presumed guilty, and there are still others who are just as law abiding as the “nothing to hide” crowd, but may be concerned about hackers and thieves accessing their data, or simply want to be left alone and feel that their affairs are their own and should not be the concern of the government. We can use locks on our doors not only to keep out criminals after all, but nosy neighbors and government snoops as well.
Jesus and the Adulteress; drawing by Rembrandt.
The digital age has changed the game somewhat by introducing new channels of communication and cheap storage for vast quantities of information. The Fourth and Fifth Amendments are no less valid, however, in stating that citizens should be secure in their “effects”; that government officials need warrants; that citizens cannot be compelled to testify against themselves; and that government shall follow due process of law in proceedings against any citizen. Naturally the Founding Fathers did not foresee the age of computers, smartphones, and the internet. They didn’t need to foresee those things, because in looking back on thousands of years of ancient Roman and Greek law and English common law, they were able to extract valid principles which were applicable to the general human condition whatever the particulars of any one era might be. Since their time, we have moved from postal mail and personal messenger to phone calls and telegrams, and now to blog posts and email. Government snooping amounts to the same thing whatever the means of communication, and it is protection from the ends that the Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution.
That much should be obvious, yet the erosion of the Bill of Rights continues bit by bit, often with the excuse that technology has wrought different contingencies in our modern era. There are no different contingencies – what has changed is that the state of emergency appears now to be permanent because it suits the agenda of powerful interests in the military-industrial complex. In the past, the United States government trampled rights for various reasons which seemed sensible to many at the time, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, to the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920, to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Always the advocates of such policies invoked a state of emergency to justify the abuse of state power, but eventually calmer heads and changing circumstances would prevail and the balance would be corrected.
A segment of Eisenhower’s January 17, 1961 farewell address, with commentary.
As long as there are enablers of government snooping who complacently and self-righteously announce to everyone within earshot that they “have nothing to hide,” dislodging the powerful interests invested in the current status quo and restoring a constitutionally correct balance between citizens and government will be a protracted struggle. Those who value the privacy of their communications enough to take measures to protect it, such as by using the Tor internet browser or encrypting their emails, are thereby presumed guilty of possible anti-state, criminal, or sexually deviant enterprises by government snoops and their sanctimonious “nothing to hide” enablers because the very action of taking privacy measures draws scrutiny from those groups and is something they deem an admission of being up to no good. It is as if the Fourth and Fifth Amendments have been turned upside down, and objecting to having snoops looking in the windows of your house and walking in through the front door any time they please is fussy obstructionism, definitely unpatriotic, and possibly prosecutable. The “nothing to hide” folks are unconcerned over these developments, secure as they are in the comforting knowledge of their own innocence, though they may want to keep in a corner of their uncluttered minds the notion that the perception of innocence by those in power can shift capriciously, and so they are well advised to note this paraphrased bit from a poem by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller: They came for the Privacy Advocates, and I did not speak out – Because I had nothing to hide.