I have always been an idealist. If you look up Pollyanna in the dictionary, you'll probably see my picture.
I've also been naive, at least about some things. It just never occurred to me that people could have a motive other than doing the right thing. And I usually assumed that things were as they appeared, just because that's usually the way I operated, so didn't everybody? And if someone said something, didn't they really mean it?
Then, some years ago, I began to get seriously involved in politics. As in, volunteering for campaigns, activism, donating, and then blogging and writing and building opinion web sites and the whole thing. I made some good friends along the way, and began to ask them for the "insider viewpoint" on events and people.
We had a situation locally where a pro-union bill came before a legislative body, and one elected Democratic official not known for being especially union-friendly came out as a major sponsor. He made some strong comments to the press, garnered lots of favorable attention as a result. I asked one of my more astute friends what was going on, and he reminded me that this elected official was beginning to run for a certain office, and one of his opponents was another Democrat who tried to walk a line between unions and business. My friend noted that the first official was trying to make it so the second one had to take a stand, and either piss off his business supporters or give up any hope of getting union support.
My friend continued, "We're being played." When I asked him if the reality could be that cynical, he said something I've never forgotten:
Bruce, in politics there is usually a stated reason for something, and then there's the real reason. Your job is to keep your eyes open and look around for the real reason. Who benefits? Who gets hurt? Where's the money? Who is meeting, and with whom?So, even as we look at the NSA controversy and other issues and decisions, I think we need to constantly be on the lookout, asking ourselves: Are we being played?
More below the circuitous path.
We recently had a whiplash moment in the Bluegrass, when a tape of a Mitch McConnell strategy session was released to Mother Jones. It generated a brief spate of negative attention for McConnell, only to be superseded by both the McConnell spin ("I'm a victim of Watergate-style tricks!") and the revelation that the tape came from a certain activist previously associated with Progress Kentucky, the PAC working to defeat McConnell.
I won't go through the whole episode -- it is still playing out, and it's painful to realize that McConnell successfully became the victim in it -- but one thing intrigued me along the way. As local media worked their way from person to person to figure out who did the taping, my question was "who put them onto the first person to call?" It wasn't necessarily the obvious person you would start with if you were a reporter. Someone tipped them off, for reasons many of us could speculate about. While most people were focused on the story of the taping, I was wondering what behind-the-scenes figure started the story rolling, and why. In my opinion, the media got played.
Now here we are, with secret documents rolling into the media's hands like manna from heaven, and stories popping one after another. Even as I try to keep up, and try to understand both the law and the rationale, and even as I worry about our 4th Amendment rights, I am also asking myself: "Are we being played?"
Who benefits from these leaks? Could Republicans be behind the leaks in order to discredit Obama just as the immigration debate is starting? Could this be a preemptive strike to get Democrats so disgusted with their own party and administration that they bail on the 2014 election? Or, are there factions within the NSA, or the security system itself, that want to see another group shot down and shut down?
Or let's take another place near and dear to our hearts: Daily Kos itself. Does it ever occur to you that some people posting diaries might be doing it for no good end? Are you sure that story you are reccing is both factual and on point? Or, is it a great story that is sure to get progressives riled up, firing off petitions and contacting their Congress-critter, only to find out that it's a distortion or even a hoax? When you see a story, do you ever stop to think "Who benefits from this?"
Have I become completely cynical? Have I completely bought into my friend's dichotomy between the stated reason and the real reason? No, I have not. I still believe there are good and honest people, in all the branches of our government as well as non-profits and business, who say what they mean and mean what they say. I believe that some leakers and whistleblowers are truly altruistic and idealistic.
But I also have become less naive, less willing to take people and stories at face value. I think it is an attribute we all need to cultivate, both in our dealings here and in activism in general.
As my friend also said,
If you're going to play politics with the big boys, you'd better learn to look around, observe, and put things together -- because they sure are.