I was surprised the dominant response to the Ed Snowden leaks in the United States has not been concern at invasion of privacy and the misuse of state power, but anger at the leaker... until I remembered something about US DNA

When I lived in the United States some years ago I was captivated by some of its salty expressions. One was, “His head’s up his arse”. I took it to mean the said person was unaware of his surroundings because of his personal preoccupations. I guess that's the opposite of what's most prized in American mainstream culture – being a regular guy.

I was sometimes startled by the vehemence with which the expression was used and its application to people who I thought were perfectly aware of what was going on, but chose not to be involved. I came to the conclusion that there was a strong social pressure toward engagement and conformity at least in appearance. This pressure was applied from an early age through the school system for example with civics programmes, popularity contests and the like.

I can remember discussing these ideas with a Canadian who told me the citizens of the United States were brain-washed. Although that seemed to be an overstatement I saw his point. I thought it was understandable that a large country with a diverse population required institutional reinforcement of the common ground upon which citizenship is based. Such a process would be supported, consciously or unconsciously, by many of the citizens for the sake of social and political cohesion. Similar trends can be seen in, say, China, Russia and Germany.

So, there was often acceptance and defence of public policies that I thought surprising in a university community among intelligent, critical people. Now I do know in encountering another culture there is a great deal one doesn’t know; one must tread carefully. It may be that there was good reason not to be openly critical of the government apart from the conditioning to which I have referred, or it may be that I simply misread my experience. I might be defensive of my own government in a discussion with a foreigner.

These thoughts have been reignited by the case of Edward Snowden, the young man who has released information about the widespread covert government-sponsored scrutiny of the private transactions of the citizens of many countries. Until I recalled my experience all those years ago, I'd been surprised that the major popular response in the United States seems not to have been concern at invasion of privacy and the assumption of enormous power over its citizenry by the state but anger at the disloyalty of the leaker. I’m sure, in a large country like the United States, both these narratives exist and many others besides, but the major discourse seems to have been about how severe the punishment should be for this young man.

The question as to why he did it is a part of this discourse. Suggestions that he is geeky and not a team player add up to, “His head’s up his arse". And in the US that is a serious accusation. 

Comments (1)

by Andrew P Nichols on July 20, 2013
Andrew P Nichols

If you take the US public's attitude to this affair and compare it with the lack of outrage with NZs role in this and this outrageous piece of legislation that Key is trying to ram through, you'd have to conclude that both of our citizenry are like frogs being boiled. As you know - start with cold water and by the time the frog notices he's being cooked it's too late. The lack of interest in defending freedom is also well described by the Big Yellow Taxi Cab syndrome. "You dont know what you've got till its' gone..." We are heading down the same slope as the Good Germans in the rise of Hitler.

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