While barbecuing with some buddies on a mild August evening not long ago, I found myself discussing the National Security Agency.
“Why should we care about government-sanctioned internet surveillance?” my friend asked. “It’s not like you or I have anything to hide.”
It was a good question, a difficult question, but one that I felt missed the point entirely. And so, about three or four beers deep, I launched head-first into an anti-NSA tangent — one that was admittedly less original opinion and more a regurgitation of what I had seen others in “my camp” repeat all summer.
What I said — what I believe — is that the government’s bulk data collection of innocent citizens is not only immoral, it’s un-American. Each and every one of us has a right to privacy, and voluntarily forfeiting that right by handing out our personal information to sites such as Facebook is far different than allowing unregulated supervision by shadowy agencies of the government. As we attempt to reconcile our long-held ideas of justice with the expansive new world of the web, our generation carries a responsibility to oversee this negotiation. By idly standing by as the government implements massive data-mining programs such as PRISM, we’re allowing a precedent to be set that will almost certainly be abused in the future.
As my rant came to a close, I awaited the unanimous chorus of support from my five friends at the table. We all read “1984” in high school and lean pretty far to the left on the political spectrum, so surely we would see eye-to-eye on this issue of basic personal freedom. Yet, to my great discouragement, the approval never came. Instead, the six of us spent the next 30 minutes bickering over the very points I thought we’d all agree on.
In the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s dragnet surveillance programs, I suspect this same rant has derailed countless otherwise pleasant summer barbecues. In truth, it’s a debate that most of the world has wrestled with since 9/11: What freedoms are we willing to give up in the name of security? What makes this debate unlike most others is that the opposing sides aren’t separated by conventional party lines.
In my head, I was railing against the construction of an Orwellian surveillance state, but — to those within earshot — it sounded a lot like overused conservative vitriol: baseless claims of “un-Americanism,” less-than-rousing calls to deregulate Big Government and hyperbolic dread of a slippery slope.
The uncurbed growth of the NSA will have huge implications for the future of our country. I strongly believe in a lot of things though, so I’m willing to entertain the idea that I could be totally wrong. What may be more important, however, is what the current discourse on national security reflects about partisanship. Is this an example of unregulated government that conservatives will surely take exception to, or is it the same excessive use of the Patriot Act that so many liberals criticized President Bush for only a few years ago? The answer to that question depends on your personal beliefs. But perhaps more urgently, does the question matter at all?
I suspect there was a time when party identification wasn’t a rigid identity, when government think tanks and vote-garnering cue-givers didn’t dictate the views of those who can’t find the time to stay perpetually informed. I also suspect that the intense polarization of our country isn’t only a consequence of excessively partisan rhetoric, but a cause of it. To put it in less abstract terms, Republican Sen. Rand Paul is so intent on illegalizing abortion and keeping gays out of the military that the notion of agreeing with him about anything is completely foreign to me — this despite the fact that his push for NSA reform and transparency is one that I wholeheartedly agree with.
Call me narrow-minded, quixotic or in need of some Republican friends — spoiler, I’m all three of these things — but holding a stance that may align more with the Tea Party than President Barack Obama seems almost traitorous. As I find myself more at odds with Obama by the day, this feeling of arbitrary loyalty to the often-disappointing Democratic Party is a major cause for concern.
Somewhere amid my fervent distaste for the GOP, I managed to forget that every issue doesn’t fit snugly on one side of a political binary. The problem isn’t that I couldn’t reach a consensus with those who share my liberal vantage point. The problem is that it doesn’t happen more often.
Jake Offenhartz can be reached at email@example.com.