In 1928, a campaign slogan for presidential candidate Herbert Hoover promised "a chicken in every pot." However, Hoover's memorable promise of prosperity preceded the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression. The U.S. rushed headlong into the worst economic and social downturn in American history and continued spiraling downward until FDR told the nation in his inaugural address of 1933, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He defined fear as "the nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Here is an excerpt from that famous address that echoes on granite walls of the East Portico of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Issues move in and out of fashion, and today terrorism and security have become all the rage—arguably trumping our new economic disaster—and here we are again, with a nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert our society and our world into an enlightened, efficient, and sustainable one.
Our response to this state of affairs? Barack Obama was elected president and is currently being compared to FDR, though it remains to be seen just what he will do. He hasn't said anything about a chicken for every pot, but he also hasn't said anything about one of the most notable new installments of the last eight years: unchecked surveillance. Instead of a chicken in every pot, we have a fox guarding every henhouse.
Like it or not, no one escapes the eagle and all-seeing eye of the sly fox (formerly known as Big Brother) who quietly slipped into the global barnyard, set up a base of operations, and made himself at home during the last few years. Though he had been here for decades, only after Br'er Fox was firmly in place did his presence become widely known. That revelation was met by a lot of public huffing, puffing and enormous constitutional outrage, but so far has been countered by no effective restraint (reinstatement of FISA) or eviction. Ubiquitous, this invasive predator is everywhere at once, and there's no indication he's going away. A fox guarding every henhouse has effectively rendered quaint, to borrow an unfortunate expression, the very idea of civil liberties and a once-treasured right to privacy.
Who are these foxes, anyhow? And who is in the henhouse?
Along with countless law enforcement personnel, we have the ultra-secret NSA—or as some call it, No Such Agency—that tracks and coordinates every electronic communication and transaction on a 24/7 basis and has done so for years. Universal surveillance of this magnitude puts everyone in the henhouse, even the foxes themselves. But really, how ultra-secret could it be if information about warrentless wiretapping and other such invasions of privacy are broadcast for all to see on TV?
Author James Bamford, formerly of the CIA and ABC News, writes and speaks prolifically about the capabilities of the NSA. Bamford was interviewed Oct. 19 on C-Span's "Book TV" about his current book, "The Shadow Factory," about the ultra-secret NSA foxes who are guarding chickens in henhouses everywhere.
If all this invasion of privacy seems just too Big Brotherish and potentially dystopian beyond even Orwell's imagination, take heart. Believe it or not, even though we may all be chickens, we are all foxes too. There are literally millions of bloggers, photographers and citizen journalists who are out on the streets or sequestered in their coops scouring the Internet, watching every move, inconsistency, illegality or misstep of the foxes. In a society where everyone is watching, photographing, recording, writing and blogging about everyone else, that makes every chicken a fox, doesn't it? Someone else may be creating reality, but people are taking note, and when it's published on the Internet, it also becomes ubiquitous. Foxes become chickens become foxes become chickens.
How does a photographer participate in this Synecdochean game of identity exchange between foxes and chickens? What is the law? YouTube posted a composite video on the subject of photographers' rights and the law in the UK that includes clips from fake-but-informative news station FKN, Current.com and Darren Pollard. Click on the image to see Rajesh Thind's "You Can't Picture This," a brief guide for street photographers.
The question of photographers' rights is increasingly coming under scrutiny, and is important to professionals and amateurs alike. Everyone is subject to being observed, but everyone is also a potential observer. This may be the concept of co-evolution at its best. The more we observe, the more we understand; the more we are observed, the more we grow. Understanding and growth sound pretty good. It doesn't have to be a negative feedback system; in fact, it could be quite positive, barring a suspension of Newton's Third Law: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," which seems to be true both physically and metaphysically. To help keep things in balance, here are articles outlining the Rights of Photographers in our somewhat Brave New World. Click on the photos to view legalities, left to right, specific to the U.S., UK, and Australia.
Last but not least, if you haven't seen it, go see the film "The Lives of Others" (Das Leben der Anderen), a drama about lives affected by the stated goal of Stasi, the East German secret police: "To know everything." In a wonderfully microcosmic tale involving two people over time, the powerful fox in this story changes places with the chicken he so oppressively guards. Read about the film and watch the trailer here.