Don’t blame me, David Brooks said it first!
Eric C and I consider the weekly commentary of Shields and Brooks, New York Times columnist David Brooks and syndicated columnist Mark Shields, each week on the PBS Newshour a must listen. (Partisans beware, they spend a lot of time agreeing and complimenting each other.)
But I have to respond to what David Brooks said on the 26th. Discussing the defeat of the NSA meta-data collection House amendment, Mark Shields brought up the American government’s addiction to secrecy. Brooks defended NSA employees, saying they mostly try to do good, and they are a bunch of bright people to boot. He defended the NSA program by quoting Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution on why America keeps secrets.
“...the government should have some secrecy for the same reason middle-aged people should wear clothes.You don't want to see all that stuff.”
Brooks has actually made this exact point on the show before, and he’s absolutely right: nobody wants to see middle aged people naked. Middle-aged bodies are wrinkly, overweight and gross.
You know what isn’t gross? Hot, healthy, tanned, young bodies. Everybody the world over, from time immemorial, wants to see hot, young people naked. It’s why Playboy, Maxim and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition exist. It’s why Venus de Milo and David don’t have any clothes on. It’s why celebrities do nude scenes in movies. It’s why strip clubs exist.
Flipping Brooks’ analogy on its head, he isn’t arguing for government secrecy; he’s making an argument for more transparency. If Americans don’t like what they see when America (at least America’s national security apparatus) does a strip show, they should change what they see, not add more clothes.
Of course, Brooks could defend the age argument. He could say, “Well, America isn’t young anymore, and people don’t like looking at old people naked.” Not hot old people! Jennifer Aniston graced the covers of GQ nude at the age of 40.
This analogy only works because Brooks is skeptical of government transparency. He believes that over the last forty years, as journalists have dug deeper into the workings of government and transparency activists have won little battles, America’s trust in government has eroded. As he said on the show, “I think, as we pass more transparency legislation, trust in government has gotten worse.”
I completely agree. Americans would have much more trust in government if the government kept more and more secrets. This would mean, though, that government malfeasance, abuse, negligence and criminality would go on unreported, but Americans could keep their trust strong (and their heads buried in the sand). The biggest breach of trust by a politician in the last fifty years--and probably American history--was President Nixon stealing elections, literally using the power of the presidency to take an election. Obviously, Americans lost some faith in government.
But it isn’t their fault; it’s Nixon’s and every other corrupt or incompetent politician’s fault. Americans rightfully want more transparency and more anti-corruption efforts to ensure politicians work for the people, and not the other way around.
Honestly, Brooks couldn’t have chosen a worse week to make this argument. America saw more of the NSA’s naughty bits than the NSA ever wanted...and lots of Americans concluded the NSA should go on a diet. It also showed that, yes, transparency weakens trust in government...but only after the director of the NSA and the NSA public affairs office lied to the public. When asked, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”, the director of the NSA told America and Congress, “No sir…not wittingly.” He then legally escaped perjury charges because the NSA defines “collection” and “surveillance” in ways that defy common decency. (Read this Slate article for more.)
To double down on the lies, the NSA then says the programs averted 50 terror attacks. On deeper probing, journalists and Congress narrowed this number down to 1, a single attack. The NSA also says its analysts never investigate Americans inappropriately, yet last summer a rogue FBI agent took down the director of the CIA because a friend asked him to investigate a person she didn't like.
The problem isn’t that America doesn’t want transparency. Americans want to trust politicians when they say, “Trust us”. When you pull away the clothes to find out you can’t/shouldn’t/couldn’t trust them, well, that damages the relationship. The solution is less secrecy and more transparency, not the other way around.