This, so Barack Obama used to say in his stump speech of 2008, “is not who we are”, and the thousands who ecstatically cheered that slightly glib line instinctively knew what he meant. “This” was shorthand for George W Bush, and for those oppressively dark and fetid corners of government activity with which his name was synonymous: Guantanamo Bay, drones, the surveillance powers granted to the state by the Patriot Act, and the other measures taken in response to the atrocities of 9/11.So how did that turn out for you, Mr. Norman?
As for the “we”, in its royal or imperial usage that of course meant “I, Obama”, but it also referred to the wide-eyed disciples who worshipped him as a deus ex machina, floating down from his Illinois Olympus to cast healing sunlight on all those dirty little nooks and crevices, and allow America to call herself the land of the free without inviting sardonic smirks.
Five years on, Guantanamo Bay survives, the teenage computer gamers of the US military guide ever more drones to deliver remote control destruction, and we now learn that the government’s use of electronic surveillance is so wide-ranging that the default adjective of Orwellian barely seems adequate.Having experienced the epiphany, Norman senses the conquest:
There is no form of communication or online activity – phone calls, emails, web page visits, Skype, social networks, and so on – that the National Security Agency, under its Prism programme, may not follow as and when the fancy takes. It can track users’ activities in real time. Assuming it has the technical capability remotely to activate lap top cameras, the age of the telescreen has arrived.
The tension between a centre-Left politician’s core beliefs and the expedient demands of power inevitably leads to something snapping, and almost invariably it is the liberal principles espoused as a candidate. There is no denying the disappointment of this inveterate Kool-Aid guzzler. Obama has proved neither a bad president nor a bad man, but simply all too human. No president ever elected, least of all that bellicose Cold Warrior John F Kennedy, would have overridden the apocalyptic warnings, and reversed his predecessor’s policies. Yet he encouraged us to view him as superhuman with the grandiose talk of pushing back the rising seas, and fuelled his insurgent campaign with high octane promises to curtail surveillance that has dramatically increased on his watch.You know what his moment calls for?
“To all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world,” he declared in his victory speech in November 2008, “a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.” Many of us blubbed at that along with the Rev Jessie Jackson, staring tearfully up at the dais in Chicago Park, and will feel foolish for the naivety today.
I remember watching that speech in November, 2008, and the naivete that was on display. It was obvious that we'd reach this moment. Norman explains why and yet clings to his desire to give his hero a pass, all in two paragraphs!
There was a time, and not so long ago, when the internet was held up as the great bringer of freedom – a tidal wave of democratisation that would sweep away the creeping dominion of states by empowering their peoples with unfettered access to information and the freely expressed thoughts of one another. And there was a time, even less long ago, when Barack Obama was idolised as the great redeemer of liberties that had become compromised under the wretched aegis of Mr Bush.Emphasis mine. You see, it wasn't really his fault. Blame the grave voices. I'll bet they found a way to pipe in the voice of Dick Cheney subliminally. There's a response to this notion, courtesy of another fellow who had learned the ways of Chicagoans:
The demise of both fantasies is easily understood. It is a fact of life that every form of technology will be used to its maximum capacity, for both good and for ill, by those with the power to do so. And it is an equally certain fact of political life that all leaders, however noble their initial intentions, will be spooked out of their wits by the doom-laden warnings of their intelligence advisers. No doubt Obama had barely planted his bum in the Oval Office chair before a succession of grave voices assured their young and inexperienced new president that closing Guantanamo, restricting or abandoning the use of drones, and jettisoning surveillance would guarantee a sequence of calamities on the scale of 9/11.
Yes, they are who we thought they were. Let 'em off the hook if you'd like.