The Fictionalized Surveillance State



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.

Spies were further elevated in a slew of American novels in the late nineteenth century, and became central heroes in the English-speaking world in the twentieth century thanks largely to films such as those in the James Bond franchise. Whereas in early American history, government spying faced a largely negative public perception, the professionalized modern spying of our era has been glorified in the vast bulk of TV and movies featuring government agents using their omniscient technological gizmos to apprehend the bad guy just in the nick of time. The post-Cold Era saw a return of skepticism toward the surveillance state, especially in such films as Enemy of the State, in which the NSA is portrayed as nefarious. Since 9/11, most of the current has gone the other way.

I’m unsure whether people who favor spying are more likely to enjoy spy movies or those who watch spy movies are more likely to become comfortable with surveillance. But the correlation between a spy culture in the mass media and public support for spying seems significant. Since the problem is cultural so must be the solution. I propose that when watching any show in which the government is the hero, it is fine to root for the given protagonist, but simply recognize it is fiction. In the movies, government spies save us from terrorists hiding under our beds with their all-seeing eyes, just as men donning bat suits fight homicidal clowns in the streets and soldiers in giant robotic suits clash with interdimensional aquatic monsters over the future of humanity.

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