Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Let Us Make a Name"


Naming is a faulty business, and not just because words are arbitrary signifiers.  When it comes to naming, the intelligence community – a phrase every bit as ironic if not purely oxymoronic as military intelligence – proceeds as if it were Locke’s lunatic doppelganger.  They are not so different from that other bunch of lunatics who sought to “make a name” for themselves on the ancient plains of Shinar.  The idea of a surveillance state, which converts the whole of society into a virtual panopticon, is not just a threat to the democratic values outlined in the Constitution and purportedly embodied by the State it envisions; it is the pursuit of self annihilation.  Stellar Wind and Prism – odd misnomers, if you think about it – ought to be renamed Babel, because the same impulses drive them as drove the building of that all seeing Tower in the sky.  If democracy is to have any value, it must be opposed to all types of absolutism, and thus the totalizing impulse behind any quest for knowledge must be viewed with mistrust.  Omniscience always involves omnipotence as its evil twin.  The Knowledge of Good and Evil is a curse not because knowledge in itself is bad, but because it makes us conscious of our own limitations while tempting us to exceed them, though we know that the one thing differentiating us from God, whom we fashion in our image, is that the human condition is defined by error rather than infallibility.  It is this dilemma that rules our days in the valley of shadows.  What Christians call Original Sin is really just Error.  Knowledge comes to us through error, we learn gropingly, and for that reason we must never become too sure of ourselves or confide too much in the partial and partisan understanding we have of things.  The Greeks called that particular sin Hubris.

     Very often this transgression of limits is heroic, as when Prometheus brought us fire, or Copernicus toppled the whole edifice of human thought built on the Ptolemaic scheme of the universe.  The artist above all, as Nietzsche argued, transgresses the limits of the known through the power of the imagination.  Such transgressions are necessary but costly. They tear up our world by its roots (hence it is figured as an expulsion from the garden).  The loss of that provisional unity afforded by the glue of consensual belief, time and again, is often interpreted as a reiteration of the Fall, an agony of sweat and blood and tears.  Ages of change are ages of anxiety.  But that loss is our salvation, for the only truth that makes life tolerable and fruitful is a subtle matter of multiple perspectives and polyphony, of irony and paradox.  To the extent that truth is the property of no single ideology, institution, or tyrant, it is a very democratic force, and like the ideal democracy it is a delicate balance of competing ideas whose value lies partly in their opposition.  It is a tension rather than a uniformity.

     Some trespasses are necessary in order that other more tyrannical and overreaching ones be avoided.

     That the builders of Babel should be scattered and confounded by the proliferation of tongues is not a tragedy but a great lesson in the virtue of humility.  The truth is, we are better off in our fallen condition because it gives scope to the range of multiple desires and aspirations that animate us, while preserving us from the sin of hubris.  Seen from this perspective, doubt and uncertainty are not signs merely of ignorance or blindness; they are the ground of our imaginative exploration of the world and the impetus for creative, rather than destructive, endeavors.

     Where the government and its intelligence institutions err is in their belief that, like the Pope, they cannot err, that they guard against error, and that they do so by scrupulously adhering to legal limits and the principles of due process.  Yet a secret court of law is a contradiction in terms; FISA cannot be a democratic institution.  When authority assumes the mantle of rectitude, its subjects are wise to see past the Emperor’s clothes.  Inevitably, such surveillance not only defines good and bad, right and wrong, licit and illicit, in a unilateral and thus virtually absolute manner, but it seeks to create a totalizing yet exclusionary edifice in which certain values unquestionably prevail over others, and the fundamental nourishing values of the spirit go begging.  That is a tower of Babel for our times.  Its entire structure is at odds with the wayward human spirit.

     Lawrence Krauss once famously stated that “every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand.  It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust.”  A stellar wind, therefore, is one that spreads the elements like seed on the fertile ground of space.  It is an odd name for a surveillance program, which, to the contrary, works against the free propagation of animating ideas.  Prism, likewise, is a curious name, since it refers to an object that refracts light and manifests the multiplicity of light waves.  No, I recommend that the spooks give their program a name that jives with the hubristic, self aggrandizing, and fantastic nature of the enterprise, one that implies the folly of its towering ambition and misbegotten goals.  One that heralds its inevitable doom.