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Man, remember the PATRIOT Act? It seems so quaint now, that little piece of totalitarian legislation rushed through Congress in the wake of the 11 September attacks, though now it’s more like a zombie, because every time it’s about to sunset, Congress reauthorizes it. The little piece of the security state that just won’t die, like a wart that refuses all attempts at removal.
But hey, at least the PATRIOT Act happened right there in public where everyone could see it (and yell about it). Last Friday, “The Guardian” broke the news that the NSA was warrantlessly collecting data from Verizon customers, with nary a note or warning, and the news was startling enough that people in the US actually thought it might be worth reading a newspaper with a head office beyond our borders. They may insist on calling underoos pants, but maybe they've got some actual journalists over there.
That, it turns out, is nothing, as we all know now. I mean, really, Verizon’s listening in on your phone calls? Pffft, that’s small potatoes, am I right? Sure, some dude with a pocket protector is totally reading your sexts or whatever, but I think that’s NBD in the face of the second major scoop “The Guardian” managed to nab this weekend, the one the whole world is talking about: PRISM.
See, a dude named Edward Snowden was working for a government contractor, and he felt a little uncomfortable with this teensy-tiny “surveillance” program his employer was a part of. So he decided to leak information about it to “The Guardian” (which has broken a number of similar important stories recently) and then, wisely, flee to Hong Kong in search of refuge, fully aware that a whistleblowing move this big is the kind of thing the government doesn’t take kindly to.
If you’re expecting an in-depth analysis of PRISM and a discussion of the US security state, you’ve come to the wrong place. Tons of people are writing that material, and they’re doing a great job of discussing what PRISM means, why Snowden chose to leak to a foreign publication rather than a US paper, and the strange culture we live in. Even Daniel Ellsberg has weighed in. I could join the chorus with some thoughts of my own, it's true. But.
Notably, over 50% of the US population actually supports wider surveillance in the United States, viewing it as a social necessity and illustrating that this is really kind of the inevitable consequence of living in the culture we do.
No, what I’m here to talk about is whistling in the dark.
Because let me tell you something: I love whistling in the dark, even though I am actually kind of shit at whistling. I like dark humor, and I like sick and twisted jokes that are wildly inappropriate and sharply incisive at the same time. Sometimes, the only response to something truly awful that you’re enduring is to make fun of it, to turn it into a massive joke.
Because otherwise, you totally shut down. Take “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman,” by Tadeusz Borowski.
It’s a book about the Holocaust.
And yes, Borowski was a concentration camp survivor, which is the only reason it worked. Dark humor tends to be most effective if it's an inside joke; disability jokes made between crips, rape jokes made among rape survivors. Well, PRISM just served the US with the biggest inside joke ever.
Black humor is a coping tool -- and it’s definitely not for everyone. But when it works, it works so beautifully, it can bring tears to your eyes.
The great thing about the Internet is not only that we get access to these vast swaths of data, that once blown, a whistle cannot be unblown, but that globally, we can respond incredibly quickly to events like this, processing them mutually as a society. I remember how it worked when the PATRIOT Act was passed, when most of our processing was done face to face, in little groups, trying to grapple with this huge thing that was going on, when I decorated all the payphones in town with “this phone is tapped” stickers as a little act of defiance.
Now, we have something different. We have social media. We have Twitter, and Facebook, and Tumblr. The dystopia is now, and so are the parody Twitter accounts.
Every time something political or pop cultural blows up, a slew of parody Twitter accounts arises almost immediately, and it's no different now. My personal favorite on Twitter is, naturally, @PRISM_NSA, with Tweets like “Ain't no party like an NSA party 'cause an NSA party is global, invisible, and inescapable,” “BRB. #JK We're always here,” “We always know where Waldo is. We've got some rather shocking photos of him too,” and, of course: “.@EJosephSnowden We just want to discuss your severance package.”
There’s also @Federal_PRISM, which isn’t quite as funny, but does reflect the bold and entrepreneurial spirit of Twitter, where users bite their thumbs at the news instead of succumbing to it in terror. In a way, it’s a reflection of our refusal to back down in the face of things that should be forcing us to knuckle under, and it’s also an indicator of where we may be in times to come.
As Ai Weiwei points out, the security culture of the United States is starting to resemble that of China, where this kind of expression is tracked and cracked down on almost as soon as it emerges. The very fact that we have the freedom to create parody accounts like Obama Is Checking Your Email on Tumblr is a reminder that not only can we whistle in the dark, but we’ll do so defiantly, and we’ll light a cigarette even though it can be seen from the trenches of the opposing side.
Some people are starting to learn that our own government is “the other side,” and black humor is one of many rational responses to that discovery. You could say this is the NSA’s world and we’re just living in it, or you could say that as long as we're still cracking jokes, no one can take the sky from us.