The Snowden revelations that the National Security Agency was scooping up hundreds of millions of American cell phone records that show who they call and where they are was met with a big yawn in official Washington, D.C. If you are a feudal lord, you want to know what the peasants are up to. The revelation of the Tempora program whereby the NSA and its partner, the British GCHQ, attached sniffers to trans-Atlantic fiber optic cables as they came up into the UK and scooped up billions of actual emails and telephone records (not just metadata as lazy journalists keep maintaining), didn’t even produce a yawn. No one in official Washington or in the US press seems even to know about or understand this program.
Then Brazilian President Dilma Roussef was outraged to discover that her personal communications were monitored by the NSA. Moreover, the US was clearly engaged in massive industrial espionage on the Brazilian energy sector. She canceled a state trip to Washington. She denounced the NSA at the United Nations. She threatened to create a Brazilian internet harder for the US to treat as a hacking playground. But President Roussef couldn’t get off page 17 of the newspapers (or of Google News).
But the news that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone was monitored by the NSA has finally made waves in Washington. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who vocally defended mass electronic surveillance of the American public and who wants to introduce legislation regularizing it, professes to find the Merkel tap unseemly. The courtier press in Washington said that she complained about spying on friendly countries. That is not true. She objected to monitoring friendly “presidents and prime ministers.” Unless, that is, there were an emergency of some sort. The US is always ultimately unconstrained. Feinstein’s comportment has raised questions about privilege and corruption.
This reaction shows the class and racial hierarchies that dominate thinking in Washington. It is all right to spy on ordinary American citizens in obvious contravention of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Because there is a Governmental Class that is typically wealthy and which, despite professing to be elected by and to represent the people, actually thinks of itself as lords over the people. Then there are the teeming hordes of the global South, and their leaders with unpronounceable names, who are also fair game.
But the German Chancellor is a European white person, a peer of the politicians in Washington, and it is not gentlemanly or ladylike to spy on their persons. (German industry or ordinary German citizens would be a different matter).
There is something almost medieval about the chivalry of Feinstein’s sentiments. The honor of another Lady or Parfait Knight must be upheld, if they are from another civilized kingdom. But the peasants, and the nobles of the pagans, are unworthy and may be trod underfoot.
Once you understand this class and racial code, American policy toward the Palestinians, whom Washington has repeatedly helped screw over, becomes perfectly understandable. Palestinians are the ultimate global South peasants, rendered stateless by Israeli and American policy (not so important since the standing of states in the global South isn’t much recognized).
But it should be remembered that working and middle class Americans don’t fall much higher in the hierarchy of worthiness than the other peasants. In a feudal system, there are no citizens, and the peasants have no real rights. There are subjects, who may at most be treated graciously by their overlords, but who may also be treated harshly if the Governmental Class is in a bad mood or feels threatened.
The NSA finally went too far. It treated an elite white member of the Governmental Class as a peasant, and for that must be mildly disciplined.
As for the rest of us, the message from Senator Feinstein is to move along, there is nothing to see here; and when so instructed, we are expected to bend over and assume the position. That Bill of Rights business was just a kind of dark joke.