Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Just Say No, You Rich Elite Individualist, You (Part 2)

The reliably progressive and liberal blog Lawyers, Guns, and Money, one of my favorite sites (despite only rarely finding anything there which comports with my own religious leftist localism), has bizarrely posted with approval a piece by the Occasionally-Insightful-But-More-Usually-Apologist-For-Anything-in-Chief Will Saletan, defending the TSA's new security policies. His claims are that 1) the body scanners aren't dangerous, 2) having an anonymous TSA agent look at a computer generated image of your nude body does not violate your privacy, and 3) opting-out of the scanners (as I recommend) is a selfish, time-consuming bit of theatrical over-reaction which will only allow the terrorists to win.

I don't have a lot of time this morning, but let me run through this quickly. First, of course the scanners are no more dangerous than the x-rays taken of your mouth when you go to the dentist, which is why they, er, give you a lead shielding apron when they are taken...just like the TSA isn't going to do. Second, if Saletan has such a low opinion of his own bodily integrity that he believes allowing an impersonal, unaccountable machine to produce an untraceable nude image of him for some third person to review, and for him to post like a criminal while doing so, doesn't violate his "privacy," well then, I'm happy for him (I notice that "respect" doesn't seem to come into the equation here). Third, I can only quote a commenter on the aforementioned LGM post: "I fail to see why, just because I think we needed way more outrage than we got about torture, rendition, indefinite detention, and assassination programs than we got, I am supposed to be unhappy that we are now finally getting some outrage at a bad but less damaging aspect of the paranoid security state." And that, my friends, is exactly right.

[Update, 11/23/10, 10:32am, CST: My friend Damon Linker points me to this Matt Ygelsias post, which observes that "public outrage about the indignities [new TSA policies impose]...seems to me to be 80 percent middle class white people not liking the idea of being placed in the subordinate position of a dominance hierarchy, 19 percent about yearning for America to adopt institutionalized racism as the lodestar of our transportation security policy, and maybe one percent about liberty." To which I can only respond, he's probably correct. As I said in my post yesterday, it's undeniable that this protest is emerging from a class-specific context. Folks like me, whose main beef is the pure, inegalitarian lack of respect which these policies normalize (you want to fly, your body is suspect!), probably constitute much less than one percent. But still, in this case, I think elite discontent can be, and should be, greeted as a welcome addition to the argument. Like Matt himself, I think Kevin Drum (and Ezra Klein) are taking their fears a step too far. Yes, making these argument aligns me with the Tea Party and the libertarians. Yes, it can rebound to help the GOP. Yes, so long as we fly on these big, costly, regulated airlines, then the blame for any possible mistake is going to be put at the president's feet, and we may end up with no civil liberties when we fly whatsoever. But the final point remains: this is a step too far. The only way to make that point clear is to not take the step. If Angry White Man dignity is part of what's driving people not to take the step, then at least it's not being taken.]


Matthew Franklin Cooper said...

Sorry, Dr Fox, but I have to disagree with you on this one. According to the FDA, the effective entrance dosage for a fully-grown adult from an airport backscatter scan is 2.4 microrems, which is over 200 times LESS than the entrance dosage you get from a dental X-ray (roughly 500 microrems). Saletan's point that the scanners are safe shouldn't be hand-waved away as you seem to be doing here.

Also, as Dr Etzioni points out in his TNR article on the subject, there is no indication that anyone other than the appropriate authorities is going to be reviewing the scan readouts, which a.) do not attach personal information of any sort to the images, and b.) obscure the faces and naughty bits of those subjected to the scan.

And I cannot disagree more with the anonymous LGM poster you quote here. It ought to be a FAR greater source of shame and humiliation that people haven't spoken out against REAL violations of human dignity by our authorities (Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, torture, &c. an.). As Jon Stewart so aptly said, 'if we amplify everything, then we hear nothing' - by blowing a non-issue like this so far out of proportion, any basis for activism on civil-liberties issues which actually matter for those of us who aren't privileged middle-class Protestant white men (of which labels all but one applies to me, for the record) fades further and further from sight.

Russell Arben Fox said...


I'll accept your correction regarding the safety of the scanners, and that the odds of nude images being leaked is extremely unlikely to either happen or have any sort of immediate personal consequences. But I believe you are misreading the anonymous LGM poster; her point is clearly that serious violations of human dignity should have been greeted with serious protests, but that the absence of such seriousness in how we have allowed the security theater of the war on terror to bowl us over doesn't itself constitute an argument against protesting this particular abuse.

Will getting angry about this issue undermine the possibility of getting angry about much more serious, much more threatening, much more broadly experienced (outside the privileged Protestant middle-class male cohort, that is) issues? I don't think so, but I suppose it could. It could especially go that route if the protests remain, in the minds of those involved, fundamentally wrapped up in protecting their privacy, their rights. That's why I think the libertarian route is dangerous; I think we need to make sure this is about dignity, citizenship, and respect. One way to do that is to frame the choice to accept a pat-down/grope instead of the scanner as a positive choice, not something that's being done for monkey-wrench purposes (though such isn't entirely a bad idea). In accepting the pat down, you're no longer a cog in the security machines; you're now a human being, facing another human being. Even if that human being is feeling my crotch, there's a level of respect there--in the sense of my being face-to-face with another American citizen--which standing in a criminal pose waiting for my photograph does not entail. Or so I hope, anyway.

Matthew Franklin Cooper said...

Dr Fox,

Perhaps I may have misread "Kal's" post, but I have some problems even with this construction of her argument.

I should probably state right off that I'm a student at the University of Pittsburgh, and had the opportunity to hear Dr Carpenter deliver a lecture on human security - actually on a subject very similar to this one. She was applying network theory to the question of why certain human security issues are picked up by well-established advocacy groups and NGOs, and others are not (regardless of the potential damage to human dignity that might result). I'm not sure I agreed entirely with Dr Carpenter's social-constructivist view of the issue presented in the lecture, but she is NOT a troll, particularly not on issues such as this one.

Following from her own position on this (which I am attempting to sound out based on her lectures and her work on LGM), I think it stands to reason that (again contra "Kal") the choice of activist stands one makes does have an impact on the future priorities of the network. I think it could be successfully argued that the dehumanising effect resulting from this kind of libertarian activism (agitating only when 'my' civil liberties are at stake, everyone else be damned) is far greater than that from the scans in the first place.

I absolutely agree that our discussion ought to be about respect and citizenship. I even like your way of framing the argument for 'opting out' as a positive choice - but at the same time I have my doubts that it is the right battle to pick, when there are others far more pressing.

Anonymous said...

With respect to Yglesias's comment, I'm curious what the difference is between "being placed in the subordinate position of a dominance hierarchy" and loss of "liberty." Six one way, half a dozen the other.

Anonymous said...

It's an important and significant distinction--every bit as much as the difference between liberal communitarianism and communitarian liberalism!