Opinion newsletter: Did Snowden save Americans from 'surveillance state' oppression?

Good morning. I'm Paul Thornton, The Times' letters editor. It's Saturday morning, June 6, and in the spirit of L.A.'s once-in-a-century "reverse spring," let's look in reverse at the last week in Opinion.


Living in a surveillance state is still a new reality for most Americans. Perhaps that's the reason for the relatively muted debate over Edward Snowden's leaks in 2013 and the resultant reforms to the National Security Agency's data collection program passed last week by the Senate.

In a Times Op-Ed piece, Ariel Dorfman -- who lived for years under dictator Augusto Pinochet's regime in Chile -- warned of the more insidious effects of prolonged mass surveillance on a society, including changes in the way people interact with one another that persist even after a transition to democracy:

What are the deep, long-term effects of clandestine surveillance on a country? The current debates in Congress regarding the renewal -- or modification -- of the Patriot Act offer an occasion to hold an open discussion that is long overdue.

My own experience may be relevant to that discussion.

It was on Sept. 12, 1973, the day after a military coup overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile, that I started to understand that language was also a victim when massive state spying permeates a hitherto free nation.

That Wednesday happened to be my wife Angélica's birthday, and the only gift I could offer her was the news that I had not been killed in the coup. Not an easy gift to deliver. The only phone available was at a small bungalow a few blocks from the house where I had been stranded with other militants. The new junta had issued a 48-hour curfew the day before and anyone venturing out could be summarily executed. This was a threat to be taken seriously. The military had bombed the presidential palace and announced the death of President Salvador Allende, and was hunting down his followers. They would torture and kill thousands of people in the ensuing weeks.

Even so, I crossed those dangerous streets and called my wife. Not only because she needed comforting but because I did. I needed her to anchor me to something real and foundational, proof that not everything had been shattered by the ongoing nightmare of violence. The conversation, however, troubled me. Only a few days before, we would have liberally shared our thoughts and openly talked about our friends. Now trepidation haunted our every word. Not knowing who might be listening, each phrase was guarded, cautious, obscure, full of allusions and double meanings. “I heard Amanda's father is in the hospital,” Angélica said, relaying that the singer and political activist Victor Jara had been arrested. “In intensive care?” I asked, wondering if they'd killed him. “The doctors won't say,” she replied. And so it went.

It was a first lesson in how to handle the fear and threat of arrest during the next 17 years of dictatorship. We used indirection and obliqueness, which became so prevalent in everyday communication that people ended up internalizing the censor, training their minds not to think what they dared not say publicly. Privacy is an illusion when the government knows everything about you and tomorrow may bring that government violently into your life.

Later, I watched this poisoning of my country from exile. It was worsened by the widening gap between those of us who had fled and were free to speak and write, and those who had remained behind and were subject to invisible eyes and ears and to all too visible guns. Some later joined us abroad, after they had pushed the limits of what was permissible and paid the price.

Oscar Castro staged a play in Santiago in which a captain goes down with his ship promising better days. The secret police, decoding that last scene as a reference to Allende, arrested, tortured and expelled the playwright from the country. They also “disappeared” his mother and brother-in-law. Guillermo Núñez, one of Chile's eminent painters, was imprisoned in a concentration camp. After his release, he mounted an exhibition of cages — birds and poems and shoes like those in a Van Gogh painting, locked behind bars. He was arrested again, tortured again and ultimately banished. His ordeal served as a warning to any who would test the timid codes of expression.

As the years passed, the people of Chile were able to break down the manifold barriers and lies erected by the regime and find the courage and cunning to get rid of the dictatorship. But the damage to our psyche and our tongue, to our art and literature, to our vocabulary, lingered on. It endures today in hidden recesses of our minds and hearts, polluting and twisting the way we address one another.

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If you think the Senate's approval of NSA surveillance reform means Snowden deserves leniency, think again. The Times' editorial board says Snowden deserves credit for changes made to the program -- and to strand trial on charges that he violated the Espionage Act. L.A. Times

Meghan Daum's column last week on college feminists drew a few harsh rebuttals, and she noticed. In response to her critics (examples of whom can be found here, here and here), Daum decries what she calls the "Jezebel Effect" -- a chilling of critical conversation about college rape out of fear of being ripped apart in social media. L.A. Times

Is it safe to have sex without goggles? Not in California, apparently. Applying a workplace safety law that requires porn performers to wear goggles during some scenes shows the extent to which regulators will go to protect adult film actors from any risk -- because, you know, it’s sex we're talking about. L.A. Times

When it comes to water, no one wants to end up like California. Things have gotten so bad here, the Golden State is becoming a cautionary tale elsewhere. The Oregonian

About that Chinese democratization everyone was talking about last decade: It hasn't happened yet, and every indication is that it won't. Beijing is clamping down hard on dissent, giving activists there little hope that economic liberalization will bring about societal liberalization. L.A. Times

Some low-wage workers don't want to be covered by L.A.'s new pay ordinance, and labor leaders are crassly indifferent to their plight. Homeboy Industries, which runs a crucial job-training program for former gang members, says it will have to cut back under the new minimum wage law unless it receives a partial exemption. Its plea has fallen on some pretty deaf ears in City Hall. L.A. Times

The Times' Opinion section has no electronic surveillance program, so if you want your feedback to be known, you'll have to send it to us. Send comments, criticism and anything else you'd like to say to improve this newsletter to Paul.Thornton@latimes.com.


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