Watch List

Posted on 2013 August 26

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I’m on a watch list. I’m sure of it. I’ve done things. Let me explain.

In high school, I visited the Soviet Union. In college, I studied Russian, sympathized with socialists, and helped lead an anti-war sit-in. I splashed protest graffiti on walls. I attended peace marches and a big demonstration at UC Berkeley. The authorities got hold of my name and address. I completed my degree at UC Santa Cruz, one of the most left-wing campuses in America, where I walked in a peace march and just missed getting my skull cracked by a detail of sheriff’s deputies. I must have been on a watch list back then.

The joke is, everything I’ve described is much more innocent than it sounds. I went to Russia only because the annual tour club, having tired of Greece and Italy and France, was headed for the U.S.S.R. the year I became eligible. Then I needed to complete certain curricular requirements in college, and, having tired of high school French, I switched to Russian, in part because I’d already learned some of it overseas. At the sit-in I got to run my mouth and chat up coeds. The graffiti was carefully designed not to hurt any of the buildings: some of it was tempera that washed off, while the rest was painted onto the unfinished concrete of a construction going up on campus. (Oops, it turned out the concrete was the finished surface. We hadn’t heard about the brutalist movement in architecture.)

At the Berkeley event, there were lots of tables manned by eager activists who handed out flyers for their causes. At one table, a tall, handsome man with a mustache — and dark hair rather too short for the times — asked for my name and address so he could send me information about upcoming events. Innocently I complied. Of course nothing ever arrived in my mailbox, and after awhile the nickel dropped and I realized I’d been had: the guy was probably a government agent acquiring data for a watch list. Ah well.

The Santa Cruz march ended badly when a brigade of Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies, on loan to the coastal town, attacked candle-carrying peace marchers on a narrow street with no easy exits. For the deputies, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. In fact, their violent little dragnet snared a couple of prominent city politicians, and the event became an embarrassment for Alameda County and a cause celebre for those who campaigned against police misconduct in America. Fortunately for me, I had left the march early and only later learned of the attack.

Meanwhile, my liberal sympathies were par for the course in college. Someone once said, “If you’re not a socialist at twenty, you have no heart. But if you’re not a capitalist at thirty, you have no brain.” I followed that trajectory as the years flew by, even registering briefly as a Republican, finally to touch down on the island of the libertarians, who are ninety degrees from everyone else and genteelly deplore the rest of the political spectrum, while normal people simply regard them as wingnuts.

But I digress. It’s been my habit of long years to entertain controversial viewpoints from thinkers and philosophers and pundits. To that end, I’ve subscribed to a number of online lists that send me the latest thoughts and ideas of bloggers and scholars. Recently I began to follow a writer who rails against what he considers the moral and cultural decline of the U.S. He’s snarky, acrid, and amusing; his writing is inventive and surprising. I’ve begun to realize that he’s also a white supremacist and a male chauvinist. I don’t agree at all with those positions, and, offended, amused myself by picking apart the blogger’s arguments. Then I decided everybody’s got issues, and continued to enjoy his otherwise interesting viewpoints on American politics and lifestyles. Now, most people wouldn’t put up with beliefs they strongly disagree with just to get to the good stuff. But I’m a philosopher by nature, ecumenical, and don’t want to censor myself just to be politically correct.

Then it hit me: the blogger must be on a watch list! Sure, he obscures or soft-pedals his darker beliefs — writing in a sort of code that everybody understands and no one can use directly against him — but by now the government’s computers must have picked up on his attitude. After all, the links he recommends tend to lead to overtly racist websites. Okay, but how can that hurt me? Well, every subscriber to his blog must also be on the same watch list! That’s how. The authorities have been spying systematically on everything we do online, their computers searching for suspicious keywords and links and associations, tagging for further review anyone deemed dubious.

If they can connect my recent Web activity to my youthful indiscretions, they’ll conclude I’m some sort of a nut case who needs to be monitored.

I wondered briefly whether I should unsubscribe to any tainted lists. Maybe that would help remove the blot on my reputation with the government’s spies. But then I realized that, once you’re on such a list, it’s probably almost impossible to get removed from it. Bureaucracy being what it is, government agents would be loathe to erase any data that might possibly prove useful in the future. So I’m already screwed.

If the crap hits the fan and they start herding people into detention camps, when they get to my name they’ll notice my viewpoints have changed radically over the years, but that those views were each, in turn, rather far off the political beaten path. They’ll decide I’m an unacceptable risk. My goal at that point will be to grab the least-uncomfortable bunk in the camp.

But all I’m doing is reading and writing! What’s the danger in that? Basically I’m a coward who likes to observe the world’s foibles and then write about them from the safety of my living room. In fact, long before we learned we were being spied on, in an excess of caution I’d already begun to edit my emails and Facebook posts, redacting words that might accidentally attract a government computer’s notice. (If you’re at the airport to pick up your friend Jack and he emerges from the airliner, you don’t holler, “Hi Jack!!” Sadly, that’s also true now for online activity.) What’s more, I’m lazy and pessimistic, so these days you’ll never see me at a protest of any kind, right or left.

And I certainly have no faith in revolutions. I watched the Arab Spring turn to winter and remembered grimly that the total number of violent revolutions that morphed into peaceful societies — with human rights and democratic institutions and all that — is approximately one. And that one, the American Revolution, was lucky on so many levels it really shouldn’t have succeeded at all. Still, it became the shining beacon for those who followed. America was the Apple Corporation of nineteenth-century politics, with every other western nation imitating its design. Today we’re more like Microsoft, once mighty, now slowly fading as a source of inspiration. We’ve grown fat and lazy, resting on our laurels, sitting in the easy chairs of our privileged balcony above the rest of the world, disregarding the energetic efforts of competing countries scrambling to climb past us. Maybe we can stall them awhile longer. But the future is rising toward us like a fire from the lower floors.

…Where was I? Oh, yes: I’ve learned to admire the Framers and their achievements; I’m proud of America’s success; I’m worried it’ll slide into obscurity by mistreating its own founding principles. But I’ve also come to feel absolutely zero desire to stir up anything. America is a land of enfranchised citizens; it’s their country and I have just one vote. All my youthful idealism made no difference to the world, and nowadays I don’t even agree with my younger self about politics. If ever I was, I’m certainly not today a nuisance to anyone. I’m merely eccentric in my reading habits.

But so what? It’s too late, no matter how I’ve mellowed or changed my views. Once I’m on the watch list, I’m on it forever.

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Posted in: Politics