“Pretty Definitive”? Should We Be More Like The English About That?

The Guns of August opens with the parade of European royal pageanty at the1910 funeral of King Edward VII of England.  “In the nine short years of his reign,” according to author Barbara Tuchman, “England‘s splendid isolation had given way, under pressure, to a series of ‘understandings’ or attachments, but not quite alliances–for England dislikes the definitive.”

England may dislike the definitive, but do we Americans?  Our President, Barack Obama, said in his pre-holiday news conference that he would “assess” the state of the surveillance state over the next few weeks, and then make “a pretty definitive statement in January about all of this.”

I doubt that anyone is waiting up for such a statement.  And I doubt that a “pretty definitive statement” to reform the surveillance state will be forthcoming in January.  Surprise me!  But has President Obama not had several months, if not years, to ponder the serious issues involved here?  The giveaway that no big non-cosmetic changes are likely was the President’s repetition of the word “confidence,” as in “give the public more confidence’–that “as technologies change and people [people at the NSA or its designees] can start running algorithms and programs [formerly known as “modest encroachments”] that map out all the information that we’re downloading on a daily basis,” we can all stop worrying and be happy.  What could go wrong?  We can have total information awareness and still give people confidence that we are “taking seriously rule of law and our concerns about privacy and civil liberties.”  What we take “seriously,” by the way, is optional, whereas the expansion–beg pardon, “refinement”– of the national surveillance state does not currently seem optional.

Could I correct my above remarks?  The most definitive statement President Obama is likely to make has very likely already been made.  We, the executive branch, will “refine” our surveillance and big data mining to give you, people, more “confidence,” so that your animal spirits (hat tip to John Maynard Keynes) will not be crushed and you can still shop happily.  But courts and legislatures and the tech companies and other countries will have their say too, in less predictable ways, one can hope.

P.S.  As 2014 approaches, Barbara Tuchman’s book about August 1914 is perennially relevant as a cautionary tale about how a series of blunders and miscalculations can lead to war.


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