The Summer Hit Of 2013: Magna Carta Holy Grail? Unh-unh, It Was “Magna Quaestio Est De Mendacio”

Without a doubt, it was Edward Snowden who really got lucky this summer (nice try, Daft Punk) with his monster hit “Magna Quaestio Est De Mendacio.” Jay-Z or no Jay Z, the great tune of summer 2013 was all about the great problem of lying, which has long transcended musical genres.

Augustine wrote two treatises on the topic of lies, De Mendacio and Contra Mendacio. He preferred the later treatise Against Lying, but decided to let On Lying remain “in print” as well, though in the Retractations Augustine wrote late in life he found De Mendacio “obscure, and intricate, and altogether troublesome.” In the first paragraph of the treatise itself he warns the reader that the way will be “very full of dark corners… (with) many cavern-like windings” as Augustine takes up the cases for as well as against lying, which he defines as “speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” I am not ready today to follow Augustine down that rabbit hole. I am only ready to say that I believe it is bad for the future of a democratic republic with representative government and consent of the governed to focus too much on suppressing whistleblowing (or, if you prefer, leaking for ostensibly altruistic reasons) while at the same time conniving to make informed debate about surveillance and privacy rights too difficult.

It is vexing and troubling to judge, regarding government surveillance, how security and liberty ought to be balanced–or whether that is a false and foolish either/or, as Franklin warned. It is also hard to say to what extent we are well served to keep applying Churchill’s dictum that “in wartime truth is so precious that she should be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” It is easy to imagine the “interests” (regardless of what President Obama said August 9) that the millions employed by or profiting from the national security state have in stopping terror attacks and also in releasing or even, heaven forbid, leaking information selectively to make sure their gravy train is perpetual.

I am skeptical that the latest story about the NSA overstepping its bounds thousands of times is, in itself, as big a deal as some in Congress and the media say. But I take Senators Wyden and Udall seriously when they say the latest revelations are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, on the NSA acting out of legal and constitutional bounds (which two things are not identical).

What tune will be top of the chart this fall?


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