David Simon's Worst Idea: Caving to the NSA as a Communal Sacrifice

Arguing that minorities have long been subject to the surveillance state, he bristles at opposing it now that everyone is a target.


For David Simon, creator of The Wire, the NSA surveillance scandal is one of those rare moments "when the rest of America finally understands something, and comes to resent and acknowledge that which black and brown America has internalized and tolerated for generations."

So begins a disjointed tirade* that seems to posit that America's inadequate reaction to the drug war should affect the degree to which we object to the national-security state. "What poor and working-class communities routinely endure within the very constitutional construct of our drug war makes the wails of indignation over this NSA data-mining astonishing and embarrassing to me," he writes (though the wails of indignation are often coming from organizations like the ACLU that have complained for decades about the drug war).

Amazingly, Simon proceeds to treat opposition to the NSA's actions as if it is evidence of selfishness. "If you are libertarian," he writes (naming the group most supportive of ending the drug war), "well hey, there's never an act of communal sacrifice or societal aspiration that rises above the requisite contempt for collective governance and shared responsibility. For them, this issue is tailor-made." The NSA issue is tailor-made for libertarians; but not because they're selfish.

Says Simon:

As Mr. Mooney would declare: "America, it's your nigger wake-up call."

Yes, I'm going there. Because the other America, the part that has kicked up and anted its required share of privacy and government intrusion for our crime suppression efforts, they've been there a long time now. Those arguing about scope are saying, in a backhanded way, that thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, can have their data collected for weeks or months on end because they happened to use a string of North Avenue payphones, because they have the geographic misfortune to live where they do. And it's the same thing when it's tens of thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, using a westside cell tower and having their phone data captured. That's cool, too. That's law and order, and constitutionally sound law and order, at that. But wait: Now, for the sake of another common societal goal -- in this case, counter-terror operations -- when it's time for all Americans to ante in with the same, exact legal intrusion, the white folks, the middle-class, the affluent go righteously, batshit, Patrick-Henry quoting crazy? Really? Where have you fellas been the last thirty fucking years?

He goes on:

I can't help but look at the actual affront to individual Americans that this data pile in Utah demands, compare it to what America routinely requires of its own underclass and working class, and marvel at our national capacity for indifference when someone else is carrying the weight.

And finally:

This, too, is why I won't climb the barricade where Mr. Maciej thinks I ought ... to do so only at those places where the cost is to one America, and not the other, is to assure that only one part of our country will continue to sacrifice, and that the rest of our nation will remain inert while real affronts to civil liberties continue. The drug war has gone on for as long as it has in complete failure of its stated goals because of who it targeted -- and who it did not. And at every point when ordinary, middle-class or affluent Americans are given a chance to disassociate from the struggle of others -- whenever and wherever they are given a buyout from the real costs of maintaining a policy or upholding a societal value -- they take the free pass and run.

Knowing what I know about how tolerant we are in America about allowing those without political capital -- our poor, our minorities, our most vulnerable citizens -- to shoulder the full weight of our security and crime suppression costs, I pay attention when other folks -- upon being asked to endure the most modest inclusion of their personal information in a data base to be used for a collective and legal purpose -- suddenly declare that it is un-American for such a thing to be attempted, regardless of the goal.

In this narrative, our most vulnerable citizens have long been made to live in a police state, and now that everyone else is being asked to do so, they're selfishly unwilling to endure their share, even though it's modest -- merely the collection of data on all of their digital communications! Since I write a good deal about the evil of the drug war and the way the civil liberties of the most vulnerable Americans are violated, I won't dwell on restating my agreements with Simon here, except to say that many Americans really do ignore core liberties until they're affected. The conditions in our prisons are perhaps the best example of all, and a national disgrace.

Those agreements aside: The idea that opposition to the NSA's surveillance is rooted in selfishness is utterly groundless**, a point I won't dwell on only because there's an even more important one to be made. I'll put it in the form of a question for David Simon: If the NSA abuses its authority in a way that would have been impossible or much harder without the controversial data gathering, do you imagine that the victims are going to be wealthy, ruling-class white people who went to the same colleges as the folks who staff the White House and donate to Senate campaigns? Or is it perhaps more likely that political dissidents, those who betray the ruling class, and especially "the most vulnerable Americans" will (as ever) be disproportionately subject to abuses? Is there any particular ethnic minority you can think of that might fear the abusive potential of a pervasive, terrorism focused surveillance state more than most? If not, try looking at what the NYPD has done with its mini-surveillance state apparatus.

The most vulnerable citizens are, yes, most vulnerable to NSA policies with great potential for abuse. So forgive me if I bristle at that part of your reluctance to oppose the NSA that's grounded in the fact that the American masses didn't meet your standards (or mine!) on the drug war. I find that part of your reasoning vindictive, irrational, and likely to harm some of the categories of citizens you profess to want to help most.

UPDATE: David Simon and I have been debating this post over in the comments section of his Web site. He argued, in a new post, that by taking issue with a small part of what he wrote, rather than the whole, I misrepresented his argument by omission. After due reflection, I vehemently disagree -- see his comments section for the full back and forth -- but I am happy to add more information here, both so that he feels he's been treated fairly, and just in case I am mistaken.

(Always possible! But in this case, I don't think so.)

In that spirit, I asked Simon if the following update would be accurate:

David Simon doesn't, in fact, think that the public's inadequate reaction to drug war abuses should factor into or diminish anyone's willingness to oppose the NSA's recently revealed surveillance programs.

After his response, I still can't tell if that is his real position or not (I do think that position is contradicted by what he wrote in his piece, but also that his piece is, at times, in tension with itself).

The best I can do for Simon is to quote the response that he did offer:

For you to say, David Simon actually made a series of specific legal and ethical arguments in support of the NSA phone metadata program, noting that the same level of intrusion has long been acceptable in other law enforcement endeavors to courts and public opinion both -- that would address what you carefully avoided. As to what David Simon thinks the public's inadequate reaction to drug war abuses should do, you could, instead of putting your words in my mouth, say that Simon thinks it is indicative of a societal hypocrisy so fundamental that he won't take seriously the sudden concern over the legal use of such data in this context, or get exercised about claims of a real civil liberties affront with regard to this NSA program, when legal intrusions elsewhere are, in fact, more aggressive. But wait, that would be saying what I said, fully contextualized. And if you do that, your essay won't stand on its own legs. It falls on its ass at the premise.

Really, we do indeed have a basic disagreement, and in saying what you think is fair, you've convinced me, Mr. Friedersdorf. I can't take your purposes sincerely, and I can't take this process seriously. You are protective of a performance that I simply can't hold in high regard.

I hope that is more clarifying for readers than it was for me. Also, non-regular readers should note that, prior to this post, I had already excerpted and addressed other part's of Simon's argument.

* The best way to describe his approach, for fans of The Wire, is to say that he's written this particular critique of NSA opponents as if he possesses all the insights, charm, and pathologies of Jimmy McNulty, for better and mostly worse. The most objectionable part, journalistically speaking, is the utter failure to identify the actual people with whom he is arguing (save one). He makes sweep generalizations about liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and all the people raising a ruckus about what the NSA is doing. The web discipline of inserting links that offer examples of characterizations would prove difficult in this essay.

** An Atlantic commenter summed it up well:

I'm not particularly worried that the state will exercise its coercive power against me in an adverse way. I am absolutely 100% confident that it will exercise its coercive power against someone, and that when it does so, it will do so in my name insomuch as I'm an American citizen. I am 100% confident that from time to time, and mostly unintentionally,the state will kill, jail, arrest, detain, and/or SWAT-ify people that never posed a threat to anyone.

I don't see why I have to be worried about being personally a victim of the state to think the state shouldn't make victims. There's a lot of things I'm not personally worried about happening to me, for various reasons, that I still think are bad.