The American Way

What does it mean to be a U.S. citizen? Understanding the American psyche.

Ideas, National Security, and America’s Psyche

Thoughts for the Fourth

Kevin Delaney & Mike McConnell at the Aspen Ideas Festival 2013.

In Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, a book he wrote at the end of his life that examines the discrepancies between the need for individual freedom and the demands of society, he says: “It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement—that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life. And yet, in making any general judgment of this sort, we are in danger of forgetting how variegated the human world and its mental life are.”

Whether there is such a thing as a “national psychology” has been debated for a long time. However, if there is a national psychology, then it could be impacted by a few big ideas in foreign and domestic policy and national security—like some of those presented at June’s Aspen Ideas Festival 2013. At a time when democracy is a growing governing system throughout the world, in America there are distinctive currents of political and societal thought that could undermine its fundamental constructs.

The Aspen Ideas festival began with a not too funny or well-developed riff at the welcome event, led by Walter Isaacson (Aspen Institute President and CEO) and David Bradley (owner of Atlantic Media). Bradley joked about how the festival had been sold to the National Security Agency (NSA), and informed us that the badges around our necks would no longer be needed, as drones with face-recognition capacity now surveyed the Institution’s grounds.

This wryness was followed by a push for the Franklin Project, the Institute’s plan to establish a (sort of optional) paid National Service System for young Americans. At last year’s festival Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of US and international forces, called for a mandatory national civilian service. He spent the year developing the idea with the Aspen Institute, and he (and others) sees this program as a way to promote patriotism and greater national unity (like Israel’s, where boys serve three years and girls two). But there are some who view the concept of such a program as a leap into socialism, believing the current growth in the volunteer rate is a healthy sign of a free society in action.

The push for this new National Service System was followed the next day by sessions featuring numerous Booz Allen Hamilton employees contributing in different capacities to stimulate dialogue. This technology and securities services defense contractor—and major corporate sponsor of the Aspen Ideas Festival—has gotten lots of media coverage lately due to former employee Edward Snowden and his leaks about their work on the National Security Agency’s classified PRISM program for mass surveillance. Salon’s David Sirota has pointed out that Booz Allen makes its money off of surveillance states around the world, and that politicians defending a US surveillance state receive major money from Booz Allen and its parent, The Carlyle Group.

Sirota writes, “Simply put, there are huge corporate forces with a vested financial interest in making sure the debate over security is tilted toward the surveillance state and against critics of that surveillance state. In practice, that means when those corporations spend big money on campaign contributions, they aren’t just buying votes for specific private contracts. They are also implicitly pressuring politicians to rhetorically push the discourse in a pro-surveillance, anti-civil liberties direction—that is, in a direction that preserves the larger political assumptions on which the profits of the entire surveillance-industrial complex are based.”

In a session unfavorable to civil liberties, “The Stealth Cyber Threat to America’s Economy, Infrastructure, and Security,” Booz Allen Vice Chairman Mike McConnell (former US Navy Vice Admiral and Director of the National Intelligence) spoke warningly on the threat of cyber espionage and attacks to America’s economy, infrastructure, and security—particularly to its financial system. Interviewer Kevin Delaney, who served as the voice of the frightened public, opened the discussion by asking, “Is the magnitude of cyber threats so great that Americans should lie awake at night in fear?” Since instilling fear requires a big “something” of which we should be very afraid, the answer, of course, was “yes.” McConnell told us that without strategic surveillance to deter acts of cyber-espionage and cyberattacks, subversives could bring about enormous, even catastrophic events. He also pointed out that only a handful of countries besides us are capable of fighting real cyber warfare. 

McConnell insisted that citizens must give up their anonymity in order to make information and communication systems, such as the Internet, safer.

Despite the Institute’s emphasis on its nonpartisan platform for ideas, it was unfortunate there was no one on the panel to challenge McConnell. At the end, he “joked” that if we gave him our resume, he’d have all of our passwords before we left the tent.

America’s welfare, strength and preventive security measures are of paramount concern to most all citizens. However, if we embrace PRISM—with its loss of civil liberties for all and no assurance of increased safety from foreign threats—we abandon, if not extinguish, what has been the most durable and admired aspect of the US: individual freedom and citizen privacy. With such immense access to our private lives, PRISM (and habitual mass surveillance) is a program unworthy of America.

America’s patriotism is directly linked to the pride felt for a system with standards and ethics of individual freedom. If there is a union of American will—a national psychology—it centers on the country being, as Lincoln said, “conceived in liberty,” a political distinction that has fueled the country’s accomplishments from its beginning.

Some of the other sessions at the Aspen Ideas Festival reminded us that there are alternative strategies available in America’s toolbox—most importantly diplomatic solutions. Henry Paulson, chairman of the Paulson Institute at the University of Chicago and former Secretary of the Treasury, acknowledged the seriousness of protecting us, and our intellectual property, from Chinese cyberattacks. But he also shared his wisdom from years spent in China: in order to truly resolve any and all issues with China, we must strengthen our relationship and find common ground with its government and people. In a nutshell, China’s cooperation will come out of friendship and trust, not law.

In another panel on Middle East Policy, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the US needs to cooperate with other countries, but added her own insight into the nation’s psyche: “Americans don’t like the word multilateralism, it has to may syllables and ends with an ism.” But it means “partnerships,” she added, “and it’s something we must work on developing.” In what she calls our “national security toolbox,” she pointed out that our assistance programs are leverage, and what is now called “foreign assistance” should be called “national security support.”

Human history has shown us that there is more than a causal connection between these ideas and a national psyche. Freud points out that we are mental organisms. So if you think about what the national psychology might be, perhaps America’s deepest wish still is to be authentically strong and free, knowing that is the most important thing we have to give the world. For Americans, freedom is our worldview, but in order to remain a democracy, we must strengthen civil liberties at every opportunity.

For more of my thoughts on metadata collection, read my essay on Nautilus.

The American Way