The Common Good
September-October 2013

Be nice. They're listening (and taking notes).

by Ed Spivey Jr. | September-October 2013

If you have something to hide, hide it better.

SINCE WE NOW know the federal government has been monitoring our every move for years—recording our telephone calls, reading our emails, trying to friend us on Facebook (“you have 295,984,457 mutual friends!”)—I wanted to clarify a few personal remarks that may have been misconstrued by NSA computers; computers which, I might add, are doing a heckuva job.

Illustration by Ken Davis

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When I emailed a friend that I thought I “killed” at a recent gathering, I meant that I was particularly amusing that evening. I was not bragging about some heinous crime, which I would never commit anyway because, frankly, that’s not where the laughs are.

But “killed” looks bad in cyberspace, even though it’s something comedians want to do, as opposed to “bombed,” which is the opposite of “killed,” although NSA computers probably recognize a certain similarity between the two and automatically alert law enforcement officials. But again, the word “bombed” is a comedy concept meaning, variously, “wishing you were dead as an audience sits silently in judgment,” or for me, who entertains mainly in the homes of friends, “wishing you were dead, because people are laughing about you in the kitchen.”

But living in a free society means we shouldn’t have to watch what we say to avoid the unwanted curiosity of federal authorities. Heck, I get into enough trouble just trying to cheer up taciturn gatherings. (“Hey, is this a party or a funeral, hah hah?! What? Oh, sorry, I didn’t notice the flowers. Yes, he’ll be missed.”) On second thought, maybe a few days of secret CIA interrogation might do me some good. (“Were you under instructions from al Qaeda when you embarrassed your host by juggling the dinner rolls? Are there other social events you plan to terrorize or disrupt in the near future?”)

TO MORE EFFECTIVELY reduce the risk of government scrutiny—short of becoming less of a social embarrassment whenever two or more are gathered (okay, forget that one)—it might be good to limit your exposure on the internet.

For example, I’m not LinkedIn. I do not Tweet or Tumble. I’m not LivingSocial (I don’t approve of adjectives posing as adverbs). I receive no Groupons, mainly because I thought it had something to do with building human pyramids, and I don’t want to end up on the bottom. And I only check Facebook when it gets really angry. (“You have notifications pending, dimwit. Don’t make us tell you again.”)

In short, I try to keep a low profile so that Big Brother doesn’t notice me, even though I’m sympathetic to his situation. Fact is, I’m a big brother, too. But unlike the NSA (Nosey Scary Administration), when I used to rifle through my younger brother’s belongings, looking for things of interest, I did so with the utmost respect for his privacy. Not that I was likely to find anything, since the 12 year difference in age left little promise for finding usable items. (G.I. Joe was SO not cool. If you can change outfits, it’s a doll, okay!?) And after I was finished, I made sure nobody else messed with his stuff, because I was his big brother after all. It was a matter of principle.

Maybe President Obama shared the same benevolent interest in the private lives of Americans when he defended the NSA’s eavesdropping. He made it clear he didn’t much appreciate the leaks, or the leaker Edward Snowden, who is currently only leaking into a small puddle near his shoes as he sits nervously in some disclosed location.

But Obama did say he was happy to “start a conversation” about secrecy and national security, because civil discourse should always be encouraged. And it helps that the government is such a good listener.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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