Walk Like an Egyptian

Back in 1928 the Supreme Court, in Olmstead v. United States, upheld a decision that was not only a boneheaded travesty at the time, but has some pretty horrifying implications for today,  in a time of social unrest against a corrupted and lawless government.  In his sadly prescient dissenting opinion, Justice Brandeis wrote:  (emphases mine)

When the Fourth and Fifth Amendments were adopted, ‘the form that evil had theretofore taken’ had been necessarily simple. Force and violence were then the only means known to man by which a government could directly effect self-incrimination. It could compel the individual to testify-a compulsion effected, if need be, by torture. It could secure possession of his papers and other articles incident to his private life-a seizure effected, if need be, by breaking and entry. Protection against such invasion of ‘the sanctities of a man’s home and the privacies of life’ was provided in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments by specific language.  But ‘time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes.’ Subtler and more far-reaching means of invading privacy have become available to the government. Discovery and invention have made it possible for the government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet.  Moreover, ‘in the application of a Constitution, our contemplation cannot be only of what has been, but of what may be.’ The progress of science in furnishing the government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wire tapping. Ways may some day be developed by which the government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home.

Funny, isn’t it, that it’s today’s right-wing politicians who constantly bloviate about “original intent” even as they routinely act to increase government authority over its citizen’s personal lives?  Brandeis, one of the court’s great liberals, was able to foresee the inevitable, but unfortunately, not stop it.

What makes me think about Brandeis’ dissent today is that to some extent, the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and streaming technology has turned prying eyes back toward oppressive governments all over the world, and unsurprisingly, such governments aren’t exactly flattered by the attention.  Predictably, the embattled Egyptian government shut down the internet when it realized that protesters were using social media to communicate over the heads of state-run media.

Our own media, which isn’t technically state-run, but nonetheless operates as though it were, has taken a universally dim view of protests here at home, just as it cheerleads for for wars and other unpopular government endeavors abroad.  Naturally, this means that one can learn a lot more about what is actually happening by watching viral YouTube videos than the evening news.  Taking a page from Mubarak’s playbook, San Francisco’s BART cut cellphone service to head off protests over the police murder of an unarmed Oaklander, and Oakland police later concocted a ridiculous yarn about “rocks and bottles” to justify its military-style assault on peaceful protesters occupying Ogawa Square, unofficially renamed for murdered Oscar Grant.  Multiple videos and pictures from the scene showed police terrorism at its most gruesome, making a mockery of official lies.

Similarly, the NYPD ambush of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, initially justified on the flimsy grounds that protesters defied police orders to vacate the roadway, was later shown for what it was as dozens of handheld cameras caught the whole thing on tape and blanketed the internet with the truth.  Already, police departments across the country have attempted, so far without success, to get embarrassing video taken down from social media, and individual policemen have been confiscating and destroying cameras long before #Occupy began.

This would be a welcome development, of course, if allowed to continue, but like Brandeis, I think it’s unlikely.  Remember how easily the telecoms were persuaded to violate both the law and their own policies to help the government spy on their customers without warrants?   And later, Congress passed the ironically named “Protect America Act,” making the whole foul conspiracy legal?  At the moment, all that stands between the government pulling a full Mubarak on us is the current unwillingness of social media sites to allow government censorship; is his likely to last?  Already there is talk about disabling technology that could render cell phone cameras inoperative in “emergencies,” which means whatever authorities say it means, under the Red Queen logic that rules our lives.

The #Occupy movement has arisen at a crucial moment when a lot of communication technology exists,  relatively free of government control, but governments must be sorely tempted to change this.

Brandeis saw it coming in 1928.


  1. Ché Pasa says:

    On the flip side of that, I’ve long wondered why our Anonymi/hacker community hasn’t yet pulled the plug on the Wall St. casino — all of which is done electronically, mostly… online. Should be relatively easy to fudge that Scheiß up, né?

    Pervasive surveillance can be turned on its head when everything is done in the open, as is the case (well, in theory) with OWS. It’s (almost) all happening out in the open, outdoors, even. Anyone is free to observe — and report — anything they want. Postings on all the social media are available to anyone at any time.

    If you don’t want to be surveilled, you don’t use the technology that enables such easy surveillance.

    Ahem… as they say. ;->
    What’s this I heard last night about a raid on Occupy Portland? Riot cops, horse police, dozens of arrests? I haven’t found any coherent news about it yet. I realize the MSM doesn’t :do: weekends anymore, but even the New Media has been lax in reporting the haps — and, bluntly, Livestream is not a perfected technology.

    Ah, found something on KGW.

    I look at all these raids as “practice.” Certainly the constant appearance of the RoboRiot police and the horse police at these clearances of the rabble is a… sign of things to come? Conditioning, you might say?

    • cocktailhag says:

      There’s also something up at oregonlive.com. the website of the Oregonian. Fifteen arrests, and peaceful. You see, the occupiers had moved from their parks in downtown to the fancy-schmancy Pearl District, where a lot of local 1%ers live, and that went over like a fart in church. Beauty rest, and all that.
      You’re right about the practice part; every police department has spent lavishly since 9/11 on robo-gear and war toys, and thus are delighted to show it off.
      Taxpayer dollars at work…..

  2. dirigo says:

    “With Socrates Greek taste undergoes a change in favor of dialectics: what is really happening when that happens? It is above all the defeat of a nobler taste; with dialectics the rabble gets on top.
    “Wherever authority is still part of accepted usage and one does not ‘give reasons’ but commands, the dialectician is a kind of buffoon: he is laughed at, he is not taken seriously. – Socrates was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously …
    “One chooses dialectics only when one has no other expedient. One knows that dialectics inspire mistrust, that they are not very convincing. Nothing is easier to expunge than the effect of a dialectician, as is proved by the experience of every speech-making assembly. Dialectics can only be a last-ditch weapon in the hands of those who have no other weapons left.
    “Is Socrates’ irony an expression of revolt? of the resentiment of the rabble? does he, as one of the oppressed, enjoy his own form of ferocity in the knife-thrust of the syllogism? does he revenge himself on the aristocrats he fascinates? – As a dialectician one is in the possession of a pitiless instrument; with its aid one can play the tyrant; one compromises by conquering. The dialectician leaves it to his opponent to demonstrate he is not an idiot; he enrages, he at the same time makes helpless.”
    “But Socrates divined even more. He saw behind his aristocratic Athenians; he grasped that his case, the idiosyncrasy of his case, was already no longer exceptional. The same kind of degeneration was everywhere silently preparing itself: the old Athens was coming to an end. – And Socrates understood that all the world had need of him – his expedient, his cure, his personal art of self-preservation … Everywhere the instincts were in anarchy; everywhere people were but five steps from excess: the monstrous in animo was the universal danger. ‘The instincts want to play the tyrant; we must devise a counter-tyrant who is stronger’ … ”

    … from The Problem of Socrates
    … “Twilight of the Gods”
    … Nietzsche

  3. cocktailhag says:

    That Nietzsche was a pretty smart guy.

  4. michlib says:

    My favorite Supreme of all time. Hacks like Alito, Thomas, Scalia and Roberts are tiny by comparison. Sadly, Brandeis probably wouldn’t get confirmed if nominated today – probably filibustered by Repugnant senators or not nominated by a feckless president. My favorite Brandeis observation – ” You can either have money and power concentrated in the hands of the few, or you can have democracy. You can’t have both.”

    • cocktailhag says:

      Yeah, but even in his heyday, his best work was dissents. He was another in a long line of “premature anti-fascists” like Jessica Mitford, for whom being right unfashionably early was always a lifelong count against them. Kind of like now.