A Lame Analogy in Defense of NSA Surveillance

Steven Newcomb

Upon signing the Declaration of Independence, which led to the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin is said to have quipped, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” His comment characterizes the context of what President Obama called “the dawn of our Republic” in his January 17 speech about massive National Security Administration (NSA) surveillance on the people of the United States and on the rest of the planet.

“At the dawn of our Republic,” said Mr. Obama, “a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the ‘The Sons of Liberty’ was established in Boston.” He continued: “The group’s members included Paul Revere and at night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots.”

Yet the story of Paul Revere involves something called the Revolutionary War because those men whom Obama is calling “Patriots” had decided to engage in an armed revolution against the established British government of King George III. According to the British government at that time, Paul Revere and his compatriots were “terrorists.” That’s why Franklin said that if they didn’t hold it together in their bid for independence they would all hang for sedition.

So, is Mr. Obama’s analogy meant to portray the National Security Agency of the United States as comparable to Paul Revere-style “Patriots” working to overthrow the established government of the United States? If not, then what’s the basis of the comparison? Someone didn’t think this one through very well.

Of any given metaphor it is instructional to ask, “In what sense?” “In what sense is the NSA analogous to Paul Revere and his fellow revolutionaries who were spying on the movements of the British troops? Well, quite frankly, there is no similarity, at least none that I can see. The Obama administration has got this one upside-down, inside-out, and backwards.

Paul Revere was not even part of a formal American government. True, he was somewhat politically active, but he was a talented silversmith and goldsmith, a well-connected Mason, a leader of the Boston Tea Party (which involved dressing as Mohawk Indians and throwing British tea in Boston Harbor), and a strong proponent of American independence from the British Empire. In today’s parlance, he would be considered “a rebel,” a term which the British government used for such men.

Perhaps it is a more apt to think of the NSA as analogous to a British colonial spy-network, keeping everyone in the American colonies under constant surveillance in the name of wanting to keep tabs on those advocating independence from Great Britain. This analogy immediately breaks down, however, because the average “patriotic” person in the United States today is more likely to be advocating an upholding the U.S. Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, rather than a revolutionary overturning of it. And, by the way, the Homeland Security Department has said that one definition of a domestic terrorist is someone who talks a lot about upholding the U.S. Constitution.

President Obama and his speech writers are apparently having a difficult time coming up with sensible analogies in their effort to “sell” a totalitarian surveillance system to the American people. Analogies are critical to the cognitive (mental) process, and people seem to immediately sense whether an analogy “fits” or not. Truly bad (inapt) analogies can be indicative of a cognitive break.

When President Obama said that Paul Revere was part of “The Sons of Liberty” established in Boston, this brought an American Indian connection to mind. The Americans deemed the British government system to be tyrannical with its imposition of onerous taxes and tariffs. The intellectual movers and shakers among the American people borrowed the example of the liberty of the original nations of North America as the basis for arguing that the Colonies needed to unite themselves in a confederacy as a means of liberating themselves from British tyranny.

At that time, the Delaware Confederacy and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, citing two examples, were widely viewed as iconic images of what it meant to live free from tyranny. The great leader and sage Tamanend and his Delaware people were held in high regard as such a model. Ironically, today’s NSA spying on the globe in the name of increased “security” for the American government is more accurately analogous to the tyrannical side of the Obama administration’s Paul Revere analogy.

Whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden (nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize), Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and Bradley (now ‘Chelsea’) Manning are more accurately likened to those who were opposed to British tyranny at the time of the American Revolution. Such men believe that the U.S. government’s surveillance state is a totalitarian abuse of technological prowess. As Smiley Tavis controversially said on NBC’s Meet the Press, on January 19, 2013, “Edward Snowden might be on a postage stamp somewhere down the road” for exposing U.S. government wrongdoing in what many people see amounts to an overturning of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The era of “the surveillance state” is especially relevant for Indigenous Peoples’ rights advocates, particularly those who engage in direct action to protect the health of Original Nations and the ecological integrity of their territories. Those who actively stand up and oppose corporations wreaking havoc through destructive resource extraction practices are likely to be labeled as “extremists” and potential “terrorists” by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

This point was well illustrated by Nafeez Ahmed in his recent article in The Guardian, "Are You Opposed to Fracking? Then You Might Just Be a Terrorist." In actuality, destructive and harmful mineral exploitation projects that contaminate ecosystems vital for life, such as is happening with the Tar Sands in Canada, are forms of terrorism that seems to go unabated. Poisoning the water and air with lethal substances that threaten to give your love ones cancer ought to be regarded as a terroristic act. It is unconscienable for the government, in league with corporate interests, to put Indigenous Peoples' activists under surveillance for opposing the continuing destruction and desecration of Mother Earth such as the Northern Gateway Pipeline project.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Discovery (2008, Fulcrum).











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rezflame's picture
If I'm not mistaken, the President was insinuating that the British Govt were the terrorists, even though they were the so called "established government" at the time. This, in his mind, was what Paul Revere stood for - American Independence. The revolutionists had taken the idea of from our brothers of living free of tyranny. The Presidents' comment would depend on what side of the aisle your on...whether or not you think Snowden actions were patriotic or acts of terrorism. However, I see your point, I also think that the NSA has overstepped their authority.
Two Bears Growling's picture
The more time passes, the more things return to the status quo. When a society is ran by an organization ( government) that becomes so large it again falls into the status of oppressed peoples & a vicious government machine as it were. We are again at this point my friends. The citizens of the USA are angry & with just cause. They are angry because their representatives refuse to listen to those who elected them to those positions within the government to begin with. We have all been sold out to the highest bidders, the huge corporations & their lobbyists. The people are angry because of all the waste in senseless military operations around the world. All the while our very own citizens are hungry, homeless & digging in fast food dumpsters every day & night of the week somewhere in America. ALL while these politicians squabble like grade school children on the playground, accomplishing not one thing of importance other than pass their yearly cost of living increase for their already over-inflated salaries that very few of them even earn! Mr. Obama is glorifying the WRONG group of folks. We need LESS government & MORE freedom my friends. The true patriots are we everyday folks out here all across America who struggle day after day, trying the best we can to feed our families, pay our utilities & other bills of necessity each month. WE, my friends, are the REAL patriots!
Two Bears Growling
nokomis's picture
Good article. As Chris Hedges notes, "Part of the establishment all know how to say the right things but in the end Wall Street and the corporate elite are the ones pulling the strings on these puppets." Under the Obama Administration, we are constantly kept under surveillance, monitored, eased dropped, and the most controlled watched population in human history. It is time to wake up! Keep on writing Steven Newcomb.
curtj's picture
Mr. Newcomb, you have self educated yourself to the policies of colonialism and what it stands for. Why do our leaders refuse to educate themselves to the history of this continent, prior to and after syphilis afflicted famed lost slaver, rapist and mass murderer Columbus began the European policies of theft of Indigenous lands and resources and the genocide of the Indigenous People in order to accomplish the theft and murder.