The false dichotomy between oblivion and paranoia

Let’s begin by stipulating that Glenn Beck is paranoid.

But there’s an old joke that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean “they” aren’t out to get you. And in that context, an article appearing in Salon today seems particularly bizarre. Jillian Rayfield writes, “As Kyle Mantyla from Right Wing Watch explains, Beck apparently believes there is an ‘all-encompassing government surveillance apparatus in operation that records literally every email, phone conversation, and electronic communication and stores them all in a massive database in Utah,’ which he discussed for the bulk of his Wednesday show.”[1]

That three-letter agencies have sought such an apparatus has been established beyond a reasonable doubt in both alternative and mainstream media, including in the publication, Salon, for which Rayfield writes. The program is no longer called “Total Information Awareness,” but in its current incarnation, is code-named “Ragtime.” And the National Security Agency is building an enormous facility in Bluffdale, Utah, presumably to accommodate the data being accumulated.[2]

We may indeed question Beck’s association of domestic spying with the Internal Revenue Service. But Beck is here expressing a more extreme form of the narrative—a partial truth—being peddled on the right, that the I.R.S. targeted “Tea Party” groups for additional scrutiny when they applied for 501(c)(4) nonprofit status, a status the I.R.S. should not be granting to any political groups, who often seek the status in order to protect the anonymity of their donors, and which the Service in fact denied to left-wing groups.[3] But the I.R.S. is quite possibly the government’s least popular agency. It makes too easy a scapegoat for a group of people—yes, conservatives—who feel bullied by just about everybody except by capitalists and by themselves, and who have arguably never healed from a sense of isolation in the post-World War II era.[4]

There is, however, an aspect of that conservative narrative that is relevant, that is, that the I.R.S. is a symptom of an overly large government. Unfortunately, for conservatives, this is yet another opportunity to attack the New Deal, to attack Obamacare, and to poke at the Obama administration generally, which they do at every opportunity anyway, even in the name of improving the economy, even when to do so clearly harms the economy and harms the public.[5] That this may be yet another attempt to make the rich richer, at the expense of the poor and middle class, undermines the conservative argument. Neoliberals and other conservatives are, as I have previously said of capitalist libertarians, entirely too anxious to shrink or eliminate coercive political hierarchy while doing absolutely nothing about coercive economic hierarchy. Indeed, the editors at Investors’ Business Daily make it apparent that they see a contest as exclusively between big government and the individual;[6] their thinking clearly does not encompass corporations as a force in our system of social organization.

Indeed, if there is any doubt that the I.R.S. scandal is not so much an outrage as it is an opportunity to advance preexisting agendas, Steven Greenhut, a capitalist libertarian of the sort that claims to rise above partisanship, puts it to rest:

And boy do they favor programs. Despite the partisan rancor and the pretense of “big debates” about the size of government, the Democrats and Republicans have no interest in trimming, let alone slashing, anything of substance. Democratic leaders are particularly infuriating as they blame any tragedy on sequester “cuts,” but Republicans are no more given to trimming entitlement programs – plus they still want the defense budget to grow.

Conservative think tanks even echo the tactics of liberals by complaining that modest cuts in the military budget amounts to an assault on our nation’s ability to protect itself. As the Heritage Foundation opined, “President Obama’s overall budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2014 and beyond is all but certain to result in the continued application of sequestration to the defense account, which will lead to defense spending levels that are too low to permit the military to protect U.S. vital national interests.”[7]

There is a style of interpersonal engagement known as an “ambush.” Basically, this involves a style of listening to another, that is not so much about listening as it is waiting for them to verbally walk in to a trap that the putative listener has waiting. When they do so, the trap snaps shut, and the ‘listener’ blasts away, responding only to a portion of what the speaker said and reducing that speaker to rubble. In interpersonal communication, this is not considered a constructive form of engagement. But when the goal is simply to advance a particular agenda, regardless of what anyone else has to say, this is certainly one tactic which is too often employed. And it is certainly what we are seeing now.

But instead, Rayfield chose to make an obviously absurd claim, suggesting that a belief in pervasive domestic surveillance is right wingnut paranoia. I do not know her motivations. She writes for Salon which, even as it appears to be deteriorating, partnering with other alternative media just to obtain content, is a site of conflict between those progressives who blindly defend Obama, who accord him what Jonathan Turley today aptly calls an “iconic status,”[8] and those who are appalled by his record. I suspect that Rayfield here aligns with the former.

I am still trying to understand why Obama continues to be viewed as transformative when it is so apparent that, having embraced and extended so many of his predecessor’s policies,[9] and having negotiated with the right in the way that he has,[10] he is a conservative enabler of right wingnuttery. Is it simply because he is a generation younger than his predecessor and because he is black? Is it because he sometimes, especially when he wants the progressive vote, says progressive things? To the extent this is true, progressives are as blind as their right wingnut opponents.

  1. [1]Jillian Rayfield, “Beck was seemingly referring to government surveillance of Americans,” Salon, May 22, 2013,
  2. [2]James Bamford, “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say),” Wired< March 15, 2012,; Joe Conason, It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril In The Age of Bush (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2007).; Democracy Now!, “Exposed: Inside the NSA’s Largest and Most Expansive Secret Domestic Spy Center in Bluffdale, Utah,” March 21, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “National Security Agency Whistleblower William Binney on Growing State Surveillance,” April 20, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “NSA Whistleblower Thomas Drake Prevails Against Charges in Unprecedented Obama Admin Crackdown,” March 21, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “Part 2: Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack on Obama Administration Crackdown on Whistleblowers,” March 21, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “‘We Don’t Live in a Free Country’: Jacob Appelbaum on Being Target of Widespread Gov’t Surveillance,” April 20, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “Whistleblower: The NSA Is Lying–U.S. Government Has Copies of Most of Your Emails,” April 20, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “Targeted Hacker Jacob Appelbaum on CISPA, Surveillance and the ‘Militarization of Cyberspace’,” April 26, 2012,; Conor Friedersdorf, “Why Do Liberals Keep Sanitizing the Obama Story?” Atlantic, November 22, 2011,; Ryan Gallagher, “Details Revealed on Secret U.S. ‘Ragtime’ Domestic Surveillance Program,” Slate, February 28, 2013,; Glenn Greenwald, “Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the US government?” Guardian, March 4, 2013,; Jane Mayer, “Is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state?” New Yorker, May 23, 2011,; Bill Quigley, “Twenty Examples of the Obama Administration’s Assault on Domestic Civil Liberties,” Truthout, December 7, 2011,; Steven Rosenfeld, “How Obama Became a Civil Libertarian’s Nightmare,” Alternet, April 18, 2012,; David K. Shipler, “Liberals let Obama get away with un-American actions,” Salon, November 3, 2012,; WashingtonsBlog, “Americans Are The Most Spied On People In World History,” December 5, 2012,; Naomi Wolf, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007).
  3. [3]Julie Bykowicz & Jonathan D. Salant, “IRS Sent Same Letter to Democrats That Fed Tea Party Row,” Bloomberg, May 15, 2013,; Juliet Eilperin, “IRS targeted groups critical of government, documents from agency probe show,” Washington Post, May 12, 2013,; David Grant, “Tea party investigation: Is the problem the IRS or the tax code?” Christian Science Monitor, May 15, 2013,; Kevin G. Hall and David Lightman, “In IRS scandal, why is any political group exempt from taxes?” McClatchy, May 16, 2013,; Michael Hiltzik, “The real IRS scandal,” Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2013,,0,1622097.column; Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas, “The good reasons for the IRS’s dumb mistake,” Washington Post, May 13, 2013,; Alec MacGillis, “The Real Scandal Behind the IRS Controversy: It wasn’t the agency’s targeting of conservative groups, but which of those groups it targeted,” New Republic, May 13, 2013,; Stephen Ohlemacher, “IRS apologizes for inappropriately targeting conservative political groups in 2012 election,” Washington Post, May 10, 2013,; Melanie Sloan, “The Real Problem at the IRS,” Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, May 15, 2013,; Steven Rattner, “Behind the I.R.S. Mess: A Campaign-Finance Scandal,” New York Times, May 16, 2013,; Sean Sullivan, “What is a 501(c)(4), anyway?” Washington Post, May 13, 2013,
  4. [4]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  5. [5]Suzanne Daley, “Spain Recoils as Its Hungry Forage Trash Bins for a Next Meal,” New York Times, September 24, 2012,; Apostolis Fotiadis, “Greek State on Life Support,” InterPress Service, October 10, 2012,; Steve Forbes, “Only Answer To IRS And Other Big Government Scandals: Really Small Government,” Forbes, May 22, 2013,; Investors’ Business Daily, “IRS Scandal Is Opportunity To Reduce Big Government,” May 20, 2013,; John Quiggin, “Austerity Has Been Tested, and It Failed,” Chronicle of Higher Education< May 20, 2013,; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “How Austerity Kills,” New York Times, May 12, 2013,; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “Paul Krugman’s right: Austerity kills,” Salon, May 19, 2013,; Giles Tremlett, “Portuguese death rate rise linked to pain of austerity programme,” Guardian, March 19, 2012,
  6. [6]Investors’ Business Daily, “IRS Scandal Is Opportunity To Reduce Big Government.”
  7. [7]Steven Greenhut, “IRS Scandal Highlights the Dangers of Big Government,” Reason, May 24, 2013,
  8. [8]Jonathan Turley, “Obama Orders Holder To Investigate . . . Holder?” May 24, 2013,
  9. [9]Glenn Greenwald, “Repulsive Progressive Hypocrisy,” Salon, February 8, 2012,; Andrew O’Hehir, “Guantánamo: It’s Obama’s disgrace now,” Salon, May 4, 2013,; Matt Stoller, “The progressive case against Obama,” Salon, October 27, 2012,; Matt Stoller, “Why is the left defending Obama?” Salon, November 3, 2012,; Joan Walsh, “Are liberals national security hypocrites?” Salon, June 21, 2012,
  10. [10]Matt Bai, “Will Obama Agree to Entitlement Cuts? He Already Has,” New York Times, November 13, 2012,; Peter Baker, “View From the Left: Obama ‘Kept Giving Stuff Away’,” New York Times, January 1, 2013,; Maureen Dowd, “Bottoms Up, Lame Duck,” New York Times, April 30, 2013,; Paul Krugman, “Conceder In Chief?” New York Times, December 31, 2012,; Rick Perlstein, “Our Obama Bargain,” Nation, January 16, 2013,

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