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Census Paranoia

June 25th, 2009 · 6 Comments

Look, I realize that because Michelle Bachmann is, in fact, completely round-the-bend cuckoobananas, it’s tempting to mock her when she defends her freakout over the census by alluding to the historical use of census data to help round up Americans of Japanese ancestry for internment in World War II. But I’m not sure why it’s intrinsically risible to bring it up to establish that, in fact, our government has in the past used census information to deprive people of their liberties. TPM’s Eric Kleefeld considers it absurd because “the Japanese internment was a long time ago and we haven’t had such abuses since then.”

Why you want to harp on all that old stuff, Michelle? No one would suggest anything like that in our enlightened modern era! Well, not for Japanese anyway. If you’re Arab or Muslim immigrant, on the other hand, you might be one of the 82,000 the government “registered” and monitored after 9/11, or one of the 5,000 who were subject to “preventative detention.” Nor was it quite such a long time ago that daffy-but-prominent conservative pundit Michelle Malkin wrote a profoundly confused book titled “In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror.” No, of course, if there’s another major terror attack in 2011, it would never even occur to the government to, say, pay a visit to households where there are males under 40 who speak Arabic at home. That’s just crazy talk.

Sadly, the best reason not to fear abuses of personal census data is that it’s probably unnecessary: We know the NSA has been conducting a massive and elaborate data mining program that hunts for complex patterns across telephone and credit card records. Getting coy on your census form isn’t going to throw a wrench in the works at Ft. Meade. Still, I find it extraordinary that at the very sites where, not too long ago, one used to read routinely about these abuses as carried out by a Republican administration, it’s suddenly considered utterly batty to imagine such a thing could happen again—or at least, it’s considered batty for a Republican to imagine it. I wish I were as sure.

Tags: Privacy and Surveillance


       

 

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Doug // Jun 26, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Liberty needs a vigilant defense and having read it only here, the august Ms. Bachmann’s sounds appropriate and worth considering. Plus, if you want to mock her for saying something absurd and meritless, I doubt you need to wait more that a day.

  • 2 JD // Jun 26, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    It seems like you don’t mean to defend Bachman, but what you’ve actually done is assert rational reasons for her paranoia without accepting that none of these may have occurred to her.

    Also, I’ve been following your blog for a while, and I don’t find your closing paragraph up to your usual standards:

    “Still, I find it extraordinary that at the very sites where, not too long ago, one used to read routinely about these abuses as carried out by a Republican administration, it’s suddenly considered utterly batty to imagine such a thing could happen again—or at least, it’s considered batty for a Republican to imagine it. I wish I were as sure.”

    Aren’t you being more than a little glib? The link was to an article detailing government actions that I would like to believe any average American would consider abusive–regardless of party affiliation. You also failed to provide a link to any article on that same site where someone asserts that abuses of the type in the link are now impossible because of a change in administration. I know this “just” a blog, but I’m used to your standard of logic and proof being much higher-than-average.

  • 3 Anon // Jun 26, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    As someone who was paying attention for the last nine years, I can easily imagine a scenario in which, after another major terrorist attack, the US Government, cheered on by the likes of Malkin, decides to intern all or a large portion of American muslims and/or people of Middle Eastern descent. (I can’t imagine it happening in 2011, though, because Obama would still be president. Make it 2013 so that we can get a Republican back in office.)

    I can even imagine a scenario where they use census data to assist in doing that. What I can’t imagine is there being a major terrorist attack, calls for internment, and then the President going on TV and saying, “Sorry, folks, I’d love to throw those people into camps, but we stopped collecting that kind of data on census forms so what can I do.” Access to census records might have made the FBI’s job in making the Custodial Detention Index slightly easier, but if they hadn’t had that, the Alien Registration Act probably would have done the trick. And if it hadn’t, I’m sure they would have done something else. If you’re willing to intern people, you’re willing to do what it takes to figure out who gets interned.

    The idea that a census constitutes any kind step onto the slippery slope towards tyranny is absurd. You might as well complain about the post office. (Watch out, Michelle! They know where you live!)

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Jun 26, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Anon – Sure, that’s where I was going at the end here. I also regard Bachman’s war on the census as crankish — not because the risk of government abusing personal data is low, but because it seems unlikely that in 2009, having those census forms would make much difference.

    JD- Well, put it this way: These are not venues that in general think it’s kooky to be worried about how the government might abuse people’s personal data — indeed, TPM has done some of the best reporting on detention, torture, and surveillance. I don’t think it’s unfair to infer that the derisive tone here is mostly driven by the fact that it’s kooky Republican Bachmann saying it, not the intrinsic kookiness of the concern.

  • 5 rj // Jun 27, 2009 at 1:11 am

    Couldn’t you also argue that the tone isn’t derisive enough insofar as Bachmann’s argument trivializes a serious issue (illegitimate detentions) by free-associating it with a completely unrelated concern (the census)? Kleefeld takes an inappropriate tack her, I agree, but I would endorse much harsher mockery.

  • 6 Bachmann Census Overdrive « Around The Sphere // Jun 28, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    [...] Julian Sanchez: Look, I realize that because Michelle Bachmann is, in fact, completely round-the-bend cuckoobananas, it’s tempting to mock her when she defends her freakout over the census by alluding to the historical use of census data to help round up Americans of Japanese ancestry for internment in World War II. But I’m not sure why it’s intrinsically risible to bring it up to establish that, in fact, our government has in the past used census information to deprive people of their liberties. TPM’s Eric Kleefeld considers it absurd because “the Japanese internment was a long time ago and we haven’t had such abuses since then.” [...]

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