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The American Way of Manners

Posted on Dec 2, 2013
David C. Foster (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Col. Manners and Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

The Pakistanis are a more complex matter.  Still, had Iran taken their approach and openly espoused a nuclear program—and (almost openly) its proliferation—the world might not have been happy, but a “threat,” no.  The Iranians, however, had the temerity, the gall, the chutzpah to launch a nuclear program, refuse to shut it down, claim they weren’t building a bomb, and then—despite a two-decade drumbeat of Israeli and American predictions that such a bomb was on the horizon—not build it.  What functioning international system could stand up to such prevarication or plan on the basis of it?  It represents an extreme form of impoliteness and no one, not even a “progressive from Pittsburgh,” should claim that it isn’t a “threat” to the whole system of international nuclear etiquette and manners built up since 1945.  It is nothing less than a existential threat to the American way of manners.


Col. Manners


Dear Col. Manners,

In a recent New York Times piece by James Risen and Laura Poitras, I noted that the National Security Agency is not satisfied simply to scoop up most global communications.  Its top officials dream of expanding their surveillance and have launched a four-year plan that should chill anyone to the bones.  The reporters describe the agency’s long-term goal as “being able to collect virtually everything available in the digital world.” Or as one of the NSA’s programs, Treasure Map, puts it: “any device, anywhere, all the time.”

I couldn’t help thinking of the villain in your typical James Bond film who, having trussed 007 up as preparation for a hideous fate, promptly offers him an elaborate description of his plans for global conquest.  Doesn’t this strike you as overreach of a major sort, Col. Manners?  Is there no value at all to global privacy anymore?

Sleepless (with worry) in Seattle

Dear Sleepless,

I understand where you’re coming from, but you’ve got the wrong angle on this one.  It’s neither a global nor a personal nightmare and it’s nothing to lose sleep over. The NSA story is, in truth, an incarnation of what’s best in the American pioneering spirit, whether in Silicon Valley or Fort Meade, Maryland.  Historically, we as a people have always been restless, inspired by the urge to see around the next bend in the river, by the belief that there might be gold over the next set of hills.  It’s what’s led us to change the world.

Think of the NSA’s tale, then, as a modern incarnation of an American spirit of Manifest Destiny.  That agency’s officials are driven by a dream: that there’s surveillance gold just beyond the horizon; in, that is, Germany, whether the chancellor’s office or anybody’s home or, for that matter, Afghanistan, Burma, China, or San Diego.  That urge is both pioneering and heartwarmingly inclusive.  No one is to be left out of the NSA’s dream for a better-overheard world.  

It’s true that beyond those unexplored digital hills there may sometimes only be fool’s gold, but the urge is commendably in the American frontier spirit; and the only casualty—privacy—is (assuming you have nothing to hide) all in your mind and completely chimerical. 

Yours manifestly,

Col. Manners

Tom Engelhardt (who lent Colonel Manners a hand) is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars—The Untold Story.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt


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