Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Writers Invite Increased Surveillance of Their Work

“Surveillance Leaves Writers Wary,” read the headline (NYT, 11/11/13) It’s an innocent enough statement and one that almost precludes further examination. This is precisely the kind of article that begs the equivalent of prolepsis in conversation. One can easily anticipate the follow up which would have to do with sincere sounding authors worrying about whether the NSA is intruding into their poems, their essays, their short stories and their novels. And sure enough the article had to do with an on line survey of 528 PEN members. The Times piece went on to state “The findings show that writers consider freedom of expression under threat in the United States with 73 per cent of respondents saying they have ‘never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today.’” The problem is that when a writer is given too much privacy he runs the danger of having his works fade into oblivion. What the survey doesn’t deal with is all the writers who aren’t in PEN and who might take NSA surveillance as the less of the evils. Sure it’s bad having the government snooping down your neck, but what’s worse for the writer who hasn’t been able to publish enough to get accepted into PEN, is getting no attention at all. This also ties into the famed public relations koan that “no publicity is bad publicity.” But let’s play out a worst possible scenario. Let’s say you’re a writer and you’re doing a latter day Our Man in Havana—the famed Carol Reed movie based upon the Graham Greene novel, where a would be spy uses drawings of vacuum cleaners as the model for enemy encampments. And let’s say the NSA calls you in for an interview. Well, by George you’ve got it made in the shade. It’s a PR bonanza. Not only are you a victim whose freedoms being jeopardized, but your narrative obviously has enough plausibility to give Homeland Security pause. Before you know it you’re on CNN with publishers banging on your door. No for the average writer the headline should more aptly read, “Writers Invite Increased Surveillance of Their Work.”

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