It’s difficult not to have a surreal feeling watching the world go by in the shadow of the growing monolith of Obama Administration scandals. Some of the government actions that have come to light would have been universally understood as signs of encroaching tyranny just a few years ago. The disbelief you once had that a society could willingly stroll to a totalitarian condition? You’re watching it happen.
And many of you either don’t care or are excusing it.
Do I need to list the examples? Well, given that the people with whom our society tasks the dissemination of current events are leaders among those who don’t care or are excusing it I suppose I do have to offer a sampling. There’s: the IRS’s targeting of grassroots conservative groups, the peculiar harmony of other federal agencies’ joining in, including the EPA, the Department of Justice’s sweeping up Associated Press phone records, the DoJ’s treating a journalist as if his job were espionage, the State Department and the entire Obama Administration’s actively lying to the American people about the deadly attack on our embassy in Benghazi during a campaign, the National Security Agency’s collecting millions of Americans’ phone records, the NSA’s grabbing access to wide swaths of Internet data, the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ using her office to solicit donations for an ObamaCare-aligned nonprofit, Obama Administration officials’ creating secret email accounts and even false identities (who go on to receive government service awards), the DoJ’s Fast and Furious gun-running scheme, its refusal to prosecute Black Panther members for voter intimidation, and then, of course, the misleading and false statements to Congress by both Attorney General Eric Holder and IRS officials.
The list goes on, but that’ll do for now.
There are basically four categories of scandals, on that list, and their nature helps explain how a society allows itself to slip into darkness, so to speak. In order of escalating concern:
- Secrecy and deception: Both secret email accounts and misleading Congress (as well as, arguably, a federal judge, in Holder’s case) indicate a desire to do things of which the public might not approve if it becomes aware. In isolation, such actions have the feel of venal sins, wrong but excusable in the context of a political environment. The lies about Benghazi are not in any sense venal; they are illustrative, however, of the way in which supporters of the administration use the politically charged environment as an excuse: the opposition gave us no choice.
- Misdeeds in the service of policies: With Fast and Furious and the ObamaCare solicitations, we see government agents misusing their offices in order to advance specific policies that their political supporters like (gun control and socialized healthcare, respectively). The difficulty, here, is that many of those who’ve moved into the sectors of society charged with informing everybody else (in education and especially the media) agree with the promoted policies. The ends start to justify the means and are seen as mere indiscretions born of a desire for justice. Of course, one might reasonably have expected a body count like that of Fast and Furious to break through the gauze.
- Surveillance: The various spying and surveillance controversies are characterized by their creepiness. Nobody likes the idea that government officials are tracking our every move. But in the age of Facebook and YouTube, there’s a higher tolerance, and in the era of high-tech wizardry, there’s a feeling of inevitability. In that context, well, the line between what people present willingly to the world online and what they’d like to keep private is not so clear, and after all, what would the government gain from watching me? In the old cliché of creeping law enforcement: If you don’t do anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Right?
- Targeting of enemies: Unless you happen to stick your head up in opposition to the ruling regime. In order to further the policy objectives, an administration has to be reelected. That requires a loose hand when allies break the rules (e.g., the Black Panthers) and an outright assault to intimidate and drain the resources of the opposition (e.g., the Tea Party). Those who truly believe in a free society that offers its citizens control over their government and a fair political process through which to work out differences ought to object strenuously to this behavior no matter their political affiliation. But when the policy objectives ostensibly being advanced are in ideological harmony with the supposed truth-tellers and watchdogs in the schools and media, well, how much room do people really need for politics? After all, the Tea Partiers chose to become politically active, didn’t they? And they’re wrong and potentially destructive in their underlying beliefs, aren’t they?
That’s where we are, right now, and it’s difficult to see what additional revelations could conceivably act as cold water on those who like the general policy direction of the Obama Administration. Once we’ve imagined new fine print on the social contract that equates political activity with consent to be targeted by the multi-trillion-dollar, spy-agencied, and heavily armed federal government, there aren’t many thresholds left to cross.
Maybe if the government starts targeting people for reasons that aren’t immediately political… but everything can be presented as political. Maybe if the administration turns on “the good guys”… but it won’t, unless it can present them as another species of “bad guys.” Maybe if the policy direction reverses… but it won’t, and where it goes awry, it will be excused for a variety of reasons.
What’s left after that? Locking up political prisoners? I’m not so confident. Killing people? We can be sure that the government won’t do that until it can create plausible justifications, for war or security.
The paranoid conspiracy theorist has become a staple of the popular imagination, and the cultural message has clearly been don’t be like this guy. Last month, President Obama played on that theme when he told a graduating college class:
Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny’s always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, and creative, and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.
In keeping with his style, Obama’s statement is vicious to his opponents and dishonest to his audience. Those voices that he wishes to silence are not saying that humanity cannot be trusted with self-governance. What we’re saying is that vigilance is the price of freedom. If we are to continue the American experiment, we must be ever watchful of the boundaries that the Founders drew in the sand, and we must be sufficiently self-aware to recognize that, being human, we’re inclined to reject voices with which we disagree when they’re warning us of very real dangers presented by those with whom we agree.