‘Spying on Democracy’ weighed down by the facts of the trade

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When attempting to provide an unbiased outlook on the United States government and its politics, where does one begin? For Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild and author of “Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance,” the investigation hinges on its undisclosed facts.

Boghosian’s debut book begins with a foreword by Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine and author of numerous books with related titles such as “Money and Class in America” and “The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay.” Lapham appropriately opens “Spying on Democracy” in a manner that emphasizes the focal point of the book — “an American government so frightened by its own citizens that it classifies them as probable enemies.”

Lapham sums up “Spying on Democracy” and its arguments in the lengthy foreword, asserting that in the United States today, “impolitic opinions come to be confused with treason” and “civil liberties (are) regarded as so much toxic waste.” In drenching the opening pages of “Spying on Democracy” with pointed political commentary highly critical of the U.S. government and sympathetic toward progressive reforms, Lapham sets the stage for Boghosian’s like-minded perspective.

The book presents a comprehensive list of surveillance forces, devices and tactics employed by various security and policing agencies for the United States to use against its own citizens in the past 50 years. Numerous surveillance acts — such as undercover police infiltrations into environmental, animal and social justice groups in which officers pose as members and later expose their real identities and make arrests — have violated the civil rights and liberties outlined in the First Amendment such as freedom of speech and association. In the course of the book, Boghosian also cites numerous instances of government and police-supported Islamophobia and discrimination that targets Muslims, anti-war activists and anarchists.

Boghosian presents a view in staunch opposition to capitalism and corporate-government intermingling. While the examples of financial corruption and government censorship shock readers all on their own, Boghosian sometimes pushes her own opinions as facts. For example, she makes the claim that Citibank took credit for the public bike share operations in Manhattan that were, in her opinion, actually initiated by the grassroots movement Critical Mass. She claims that the grassroots movement’s road-blockade protests and activism were what got politicians and executives in Manhattan thinking about initiating bicycle-based transportation programs. While it may possess a degree of truth, “Spying on Democracy” presents this opinion as a fact, which may mislead readers.

Aside from the assertion that corporations are taking the credit for grassroots initiatives, Boghosian herself argues little else in the body of the text. In its entirety, “Spying on Democracy” is more a book of facts about U.S. surveillance tactics that have been enacted, modified and admonished within the past 50 years than it is a book of political philosophy or opinion. While the author peppers in some of her own critique, the book still reads like a historical trove of acts, laws, court cases and citizen rights infringements, sorted by topic in each chapter. The assumption that these facts will speak for themselves holds true, however, in their deliverance of countless appalling legal violations. Boghosian refrains from overburdening the reader with opinions or propaganda that might distract from the bare bones of evidenced corruption.

Despite its constant citation of dates, laws and acts, there is an attempt to maintain a semblance of narrative flow throughout the text. Amid examples of corporate and governmental corruption targeting the unconstitutional collection of private information without permission, there is an insistence at the end of the book for both collective and individual action.

Boghosian closes with a sudden call to action, trying to shift toward a positive note but ultimately failing to do so, hindered by the dark shadow of an exposed surveillance history that lurks behind. In her closing words, she urges Americans to “declare allegiance to all who dare to defend their rights and freedoms by exercising them,” because “all who resist are the custodians of democracy.”

Kate Irwin covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].