What do Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise and NSA director Keith Alexander have in common?
(a) Both boldly go where no man has gone before.
(b) One is a fictional character, and the other likes to imagine he is that fictional character on “Star Trek.”
(c) Their command centers – one designed for a TV series and movies, the other for Army Intelligence – were at one time identical.
The answer, unfortunately, is all of the above.
Glenn Greenwald, the investigative reporter and former constitutional attorney who broke the Snowden NSA story, tells us that when Alexander was running the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, he constructed a meticulous duplicate of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise to serve as the control center, replete with a captain’s chair, a gigantic TV monitor on the forward wall and doors that make a “whooshing” sound when they slide open and closed.
Lest we have any doubts about Alexander’s intentions, he called the hub of his operations the “Information Dominance Center,” a name that is, of course, completely consistent with his “collect it all” approach that has been unmasked by the Snowden revelations about the shocking and illegal scope of the NSA’s activities.
The Shadow Side of American Democracy
It is deeply distressing that Alexander has been allowed to go to such scandalous lengths in pursuit of his collect-it-all policy, and to do so, until recently, in secret. He is, presumably, acting at the behest of other forces such as the military, the unitary presidency, the banking system and the corporations that increasingly practice unfettered dominance (not democracy) in our society.
This is the shadow side of American democracy; it has been with us from our founding. On the one hand, we have striven to honor human rights. On the other hand, we have pursued a path of dominance and hostility toward the rights and lives of others. Seen in psycho-historical terms, Alexander is part of the tradition of dominance, and clearly he is proud of it.
Manifest Destiny in the Digital Age
Where this story becomes truly bizarre is in the “Star Trek” décor that so excites Alexander and his Congressional overseers. This is reminiscent of George W. Bush acting like a cowboy – and it was acting, for not only was he not a cowboy, but the kind of cowboy he was pretending to be was the mythic cowboy of the Old West, a character that never really existed.
Step back for a moment and look at what we have here: a recent president acting as though he were a fictional “cowboy” and an NSA director, a lieutenant general, acting as though he is a fictional “Star Trek” captain (albeit sans that character’s famously high moral character).
It is one thing for these men to have such fantasies about themselves and to nurture these fantasies well into adulthood; that alone should give us pause.
What should give us greater pause is that we live in a society in which they are able to act out their fantasies on taxpayer dollars as reputed public servants.
Alexander’s fantasy of being a starship captain firing illegal, but highly effective digital photon torpedoes at innocent citizens and foreign heads of state is inherently farcical and self-parodying, but we cannot laugh because it is deadly serious: Those torpedoes are being aimed at privacy and civil rights throughout the world.
Alexander’s “Star Trek”-themed control center has enabled lawmakers and other officials to sit in the “captain’s” chair – as though they are going on a theme-park ride – and pretend they are Jean-Luc Picard. This act of cartoon-like complicity simultaneously conveys an utter lack of sociopolitical or historical perspective, while also revealing that these be-suited and uniformed men cannot resist their ego- and testosterone-driven fantasies of power.
The NSA Is More Like the Borg Than Captain Picard
The ironic and tragic twist is that, in the world of Star Trek, the NSA under Alexander far more resembles the Borg than the Enterprise under Captain Picard.The Borg – a race of cybernetic drones, more machine than human – are the deadly enemy of Picard and all of humanity. The signature declaration of the Borg eerily echoes the “collect-it-all” mentality and modus operandi of Alexander’s NSA:
“We are the [NSA]. Lower your shields and surrender your [freedoms]. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”
In direct contradiction, the character of Captain Picard tells us: “No being is so important that he can usurp the rights of another,” and, “The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged.”
Speaking Truth to Power
This brings us to comedian Russell Brand and his recent deconstruction of the GQ awards (mentioned in a footnote by Greenwald). These awards are another cartoonish event attended by people who – like the Picard wannabes – are living the good life of the 1% and who don’t appear to realize or care that their gilt cage is constructed from a system that ignores the poverty and exploitation of their fellow human beings. Brand appeared to receive an “Oracle Award,” and then had the temerity to point out, among other things, that sponsor Hugo Boss sold uniforms to the Nazis. Brand has written about his experience in The Guardian.
Russell Brand did function as something of an “oracle” when offering his trenchant perspective at the GQ event:
We witness that there is a relationship between government, media and industry that is evident even at this most spurious and superficial level. These three institutions support one another. We know that however cool a media outlet may purport to be, their primary loyalty is to their corporate backers. We know also that you cannot criticise the corporate backers openly without censorship and subsequent manipulation of this information.
This comedian has provided a more honest and accurate description of how our corrupt political and economic system works than any of the two-dimensional corporate media talking heads we have heard in (at least) the past five years. How very, very sad, and how dangerous for us all, that a comedian is more astute and politically relevant than a generation of drone-like “reporters.”
We should be grateful to Brand, Greenwald and Snowden for speaking truth to power. We need a lot more of that these days.
Despite what the Borg and the NSA may believe, resistance is not futile.