Paranoia stikes deep

My title comes from a phrase Stephen Stills used 46 years ago in the lyrics of, “For What it’s Worth,” a song The Buffalo Springfield released in January, 1967.

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

Those lyrics came to mind today around noon, when the dogs started barking. I found a UPS package on the doorstep, lightweight, about 10x8x8, from a local address I didn’t recognize.

“Expecting a package from a place called ‘Copperfield?'” I called to Mary, who was in the other room.

“No,” she yelled back. “Be careful opening it.”

“Honey, if it’s a bomb, being careful won’t help.”

“No,” she said. “I mean that poison.”

“OK,” I called. “I’ll start with the packing slip. That’s probably where they put the ricin.”

It turned out to be the can of black touch-up paint I’d ordered for our wood-burning stove. As you might have guessed, I wasn’t really scared of being blown up, but it was the first thing that came to mind. And why not? “They” consider my phone calls worth logging, and my internet hits, and my credit card use. Those of you with newer high-definition TV’s should realize there is a built-in feature that allows a 3d party to peer into your living room. That’s old news, as in posted at least a year ago, to a collective yawn.

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear

That’s the heart of our problem: what’s happening ain’t exactly or even a little clear, except maybe, “step out of line, the man come and take you away.”

One of the few people in Washington I admire, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent from Vermont, posted a survey on his website. Here are the four questions:

  1. Do you favor or oppose the National Security Agency’s program to monitor online communications in order to protect the nation from terrorist threats?
  2. Is it appropriate for the federal government to collect millions of phone records from American citizens, if doing so could potentially disrupt a terror plot?
  3. Do you think the president should or should not have the power to authorize the National Security Agency to monitor the electronic communications of American citizens without getting warrants?
  4. Do you favor or oppose changing the PATRIOT Act, which allows the government to collect the phone records of American citizens without a warrant?

I haven’t taken the survey yet, because I’m still “Unsure” on two of the questions. I find that upsetting, given that Sanders also posted the text of Amendment IV to the Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Decades ago, H.L. Mencken wrote, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the public alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Right now, I think we are all numb. More precisely, I think this is what psychologists call “learned helplessness.” When a creature perceives that it’s powerless to prevent harmful events, it becomes listless and depressed. Or disgusted with politics. One of these days I expect that listlessness and disgust to erupt as outrage. When and if it does, I don’t think it’s going to be pretty or the stuff of songs – there is too much we have collectively stuffed, and for too long a time.

6 thoughts on “Paranoia stikes deep

  1. I do think many people feel numb, but maybe the rest of us feel not guilty. I hear people talk as though it’s irresponsible to try and stop something that might be of critical help. After all, if a person is not guilty of a crime, to be caught on camera or recordings means nothing.

    I see their point, but I wonder why we don’t have more media voices providing thinking points for alternate answers.


    • I agree that right now, few people feel immediately threatened, as in hiding in plain sight. As in the majority of phone calls are of the “Would you pick up milk on the way home,” variety. My most recent credit card purchase was breakfast at the waffle house. But there does need to be some kind of public discussion, as you say. And I found this quote in Friday’s USA Today: “…as a U.S. senator from Illinois in 2007, Barack Obama blasted President George W. Bush for sweeping surveillance of Americans in the name of battling terrorism – just the sort of justification that Obama officials were making Thursday.” So the government has some explaining to do, but meanwhile, it seems like main street has given up on the notion that government is going to do the right thing.


  2. Perspicacious points, especially the one about learned helplessness. Here in the UK we’re having similar debates about government’s proposed ‘Snooper’s Charter’, especially in light of press revelations about PRISM. (I suppose the fact that I’ve mentioned PRISM will have set alarm bells ringing somewhere…)


    • There will inevitably be mistakes, like in the early days of the Patriot Act, when Senator Edward Kennedy found himself on an airline “no fly” list. Now the data is far more complex so even more subject to mistakes and abuse.

      To say nothing of government credibility taking another huge hit…


    • In this post, as the post on Hometowns, I was fumbling for something I couldn’t quite name or connect. At the moment, I’m reading a stunning book just published in May called: The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer. A whole lot of dots get connected from the 70’s through the present, from interviews with people in many walks of life in many locations.

      I’ll have more to say in a review when I finish this book, but I think the scope of Packer’s reporting and analysis make clear that the changes in the nation over the last four decades are so profound and the solutions so obscure that at this point, being baffled is a reasonable reaction.


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