The Fictionalized Surveillance State
By Anthony Gregory November 13, 2013
Recent polling conducted by Amy Zegart at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation reveals an unsurprising degree of public uncertainty and confusion regarding the NSA. We should expect that, flooded with news reports, most Americans don’t know the exact contours of the program.
What caught my eye, however, was this little nugget, as reported in The Washington Post:
● A majority of people who in the past year watched at least six spy movies “had favorable views of NSA, but only 34 percent of infrequent spy moviegoers reported favorable views of the agency,” according to the poll.● Forty-four percent of those who watched spy-themed TV shows frequently or occasionally approved of the NSA programs that collected telephone records and Internet data. By comparison, 29 percent of those who rarely watched such shows approved of the surveillance.
Public attitudes toward government spying have correlated to popular cultural trends ever since the 1821 publication of The Spy: A Tale of Neutral Ground, the first American spy novel written by James Fenimore Cooper, the first prominent American novelist. As Brett F. Woods explains in his essay on the novel:
To offset the early nineteenth century perception of spies as ignoble, inglorious creatures, Cooper attempts to portray Birch as an icon of American patriotism appropriate to historical adventure. To accomplish this, one of Cooper’s ploys is to have morally unassailable characters compare Birch favorably to soldiers. Thus the righteous rebel trooper from Virginia, Captain Lawton, praises Birch: “He may be a spy — he must be one…but he has a heart above enmity, and a soul that would honor a gallant soldier” . . . . This passage likens spies to soldiers, a significant new concept proposed by Cooper. When a soldier breaks moral laws by killing he is absolved by his country, and Cooper seeks to place Harvey Birch in this same category… MORE