Magazine | July 1, 2013, Issue

Big Brothers’ Big Brother

Nothing sums up the demographic that went gung-ho for Obama like this: A Pew Research Center poll said that young people were the least likely to know anything about the NSA/PRISM story, and the most likely “to say they highly value their privacy.” If you told them the scandal’s particulars, they might pause from posting blurry cell-phone photos from Tequila Jello-Shot Nite on Facebook or Instagramming a picture of dinner with a location tag that tells everyone where they were at 7:03 p.m., and say, “Violating my privacy? The government? That’s my job.”

Young liberal voters may be unhappy about snooping, at first. If you believe the primary function of the government is to ensure small-business loans for cartoon Julias who want to hand-craft artisanal same-sex-wedding cake statuettes, then the idea that there are agencies devoted to surveillance and counterespionage is disheartening. But they’re realists: This stuff was always going on, and there’s only so much of the Augean stables the Hercules-in-Chief can shovel in five years, they’d say.

Or would if the educational system hadn’t tossed the classics. Anyway, it’s Bush’s fault. Right after that thing in 2001 with the planes and the buildings, okay, he got his advisers together and said, “Well, this is the perfect opportunity to squander money and credibility on a global scale, so let’s invade a country on trumped-up reasons. But more important, this is the chance to find out whether a guy in Nebraska decides to ‘like’ Doritos on a computer network, and enter it into a vast searchable database, so get on that.”

“Sir, the technology does not exist to capture corn-chip snack preference.”

“Well, invent it, then. Call it Headbook or Faceplace, I don’t care.”

Yes, that was exactly what happened. The party whose philosophical precepts consist of “Don’t tread on me” and “Get your hand out of my pocket” wanted to learn everything about everyone. Good thing there’s another party that wants everyone puréed into a grey slurry of collectivism so someone can stand up for the individual.

This demographic in previous incarnations also insisted that AIDS was Ronald Reagan’s fault, as if he’d personally walked through the Castro district in San Francisco with a bullwhip and forced everyone into bathhouses when he should have been bursting into private bedrooms and separating people with a crowbar before handing out condoms. Republican presidents are the most powerful beings on earth, you see. Democratic presidents are Awesome! when they give everyone health care in defiance of old ’n’ busted paradigms like “economics,” but when it comes to ensuring that the tentacled behemoth in Washington doesn’t wrap a tentacle around your data, your bank account, your political views, your health, well, he’s just one man.

#page#Bottom line for the youth: The only way to solve the problems of big government is to elect its staunchest defenders, over and over again. Because, you know, corporations. Koch Brothers and Big Oil and Walmart. They’re the threat. To which one wants to say: Did any corporation force you to see the recent Star Trek movie?

Well duh, it’s a movie, they can’t. Really! I thought marketing and advertising were so powerful that the individual will melted like cotton candy in a rainstorm. The Koch brothers buy the L.A. Times and force reviewers to give thumbs-up to pro-family movies, and a week later people have blank happy expressions and say “nuclear-family formation may have a positive effect on childhood development” in creepy monotones. I mean, that’s what they want, man. Anyway, no one forced anyone to see the Star Trek movie — yet. You were, however, forced to pay for the Star Trek parody the IRS played at one of their conventions. It was instructive.

1. It answered the question, long posed but never solved, of what the dialogue of Star Trek would sound like if the show had been written and performed by accountants.

2. It demonstrated the shift in national purpose: The opening narration recast the mission “to seek out new life forms” as seeking new tax forms. Yes, there lies the path to national greatness: Just as Rome was remembered not for its roads and aqueducts but for its complex fish-paste tariff structure, America will be recalled for the invention of Form 103-33B, which calculated the maximum deduction for paying an accountant to figure out Form 103-22A.

Of course we are still exploring space, but given the recent revelations it’s possible NASA will admit that the Curiosity probe was sent to Mars to look for evidence Mitt Romney had some extra-planetary bank accounts.

3. It was lousy. But it was a particularly dreary, amateurish thing familiar to anyone who’s encountered anything produced by a government agency. This is why the PRISM slides had the instant snap of authenticity: Only government could produce a slide that ugly, a logo that bad.

You can opt out of Facebook. You can opt out of the entire Internet. You won’t be jailed if you don’t see Star Trek. You have to pay for a Star Trek parody and you will be audited if you join a group that objects to such coercion. Still: The kids are glad they didn’t vote for Romney, because he wouldn’t pay for college or condoms. Just like Dad. What’s so scary about Big Brother, anyway? Your brother was always cool, on your side. Sure, once you found him reading your diary and laughing, but when he saw you were mad he put it down and said he’d never do it again.

You believed him, because he was your big brother. And you loved him.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

The Cincinnati Myth

When news broke that the Internal Revenue Service had, over the course of nearly two years, actively discriminated against conservative groups applying for tax exemption, subjecting them to intrusive questions ...
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One-Party Taxmen

What if I were to tell you that the IRS tea-party-targeting scandal all started with the great 19th-century railroads? Or with the conscience of a largely inconsequential, ornately mustachioed Gilded ...
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Bureaucratic Rot

‘The fish rots from the head down” is a popular saying these days, mostly among people who do not fish and who, apparently, have never met a fish. “The fish rots ...
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The debate over Internet sales taxes, when all distractions are stripped away, isn’t about the Internet or taxes. It is about federalism. Confusion over what federalism means explains the conservative ...


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Men’s Rising Earnings

Assessing the severity of economic problems often requires choosing between different sets of analyses that reach disparate conclusions. While much lip service is paid to “evidence-based policymaking,” all too often ...

Books, Arts & Manners

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Epic of a Nation

From Boethius to Bonhoeffer, many authors have written their most famous books in prison. In rare individuals down the ages, the predicament of incarceration seems to have unleashed great creativity. ...
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Genius for Friendship

Someone should tell the story of this odd couple, because many today would find it hard to believe. Politics often feels like an ideological blood-sport, with pundits mercilessly bludgeoning one ...
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No Green Light

The Bling Ring, the latest film from Sofia Coppola, marks something of a departure for its director. After several movies that have looked at the celebrity lifestyle from the inside ...


The Long View

G-Mail Inbox

GMAIL INBOX Hi! Totally weird coincidence! You and I were in the same homeroom sophomore year! I was the quiet kid in the back? Tyler? Do you remember? Probably not. You were ...
Politics & Policy


HEELS UPON THE TILE When I consider your devoted eyes, devoid of any vice I could reject, alive with avid interest, subtly flecked, and focused on my face with slight surprise, it seems as though ...
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The Thousand Years’ Twilight Victor Davis Hanson has added intriguing and refreshing historical references to the pages of NR for a number of years. As Michael Knox Beran implies at the ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The good news: The NSA doesn’t know you’re reading this. The bad news: The IRS does. ‐ The latest Republican fashion on immigration is to declare broad support for the ...

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