At 9pm last night I turned on HBO to watch Citizenfour. On Sunday the documentary won an Academy Award, and rightly so for the reasons Conor Freidersdorf outlines in his Atlantic piece. And coming on the heels that presidential hopeful Jeb Bush doesn’t even “understand the debate” about the invasive, blanket mass surveillance Edward Snowden revealed indicates how fundamentally important this subject is to the character of the nation.
Citizenfour is tightly packed with meaningful moments, but there’s one in particular that stood out to me. At a conference in Brussels an attorney comments that we’ve increasingly come to use the word “privacy” when in the past we would use the terms “liberty” or “freedom” as fundamental parts of a meaningful experience of civic life. And often in the same breath we conclude “privacy is dead.” This isn’t pragmatism, but the cynicism of people who’ve given up or never really believed in the notion of Constitutional self-rule.
I realize I’m not really adding anything of substance to the conversation with this post, but I believe it’s important to however meagerly put it on the record where we stand in relation to state power and the state’s relationship to the citizen. The scope of our illegal surveillance is so vast it’s almost impossible to convey its problematic nature in a compact way.
At heart, our illegal surveillance systems aren’t simply clever betrayals of Constitutional oaths and protections. They’re also betray an important aspect of the American character, and compromise our ability to model respectable constitutional governance to our neighbor nations. This is to say nothing of the corrosive effects of surveillance on civic life and the popular conception of liberty, which Citizenfour directly raises.
We can’t create a better world without being better people. I hope in whatever small way I can help participate in civic and familial life to contribute to a future with a better generation of better people than those who recklessly and shamelessly deny even the notion that their undermining of the Constitution is worth debate.