I was naturally pleased to hear the New York Times had sent a reporter to cover the panel on “Freedom and the Panopticon” I moderated at the PEN World Voices Festival this weekend—but my jaw dropped a little at this bizarre paragraph in the writeup by the Times’ Larry Rohter:
The panel’s moderator was Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Washington-based Cato Institute, a libertarian advocacy organization whose donors include some of the country’s biggest corporations. His opening remarks and subsequent questions focused on the emergence of “the surveillance state,” largely glossing over the role that corporations play in the creation and maintenance of schemes of surveillance, and so it fell to other participants, like Catherine Crump of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Scottish science fiction novelist Ken MacLeod and Ms. Adamesteanu, to bring corporations into the discussion.
So first, I have to ask: Which specific “country’s biggest corporations” are those, exactly? Was there some research behind that insinuation, or are we just sort of ad libbing here? Because last I checked, corporate contributions were a little under 2% of Cato’s annual budget, as I could’ve told the reporter if he’d bothered to walk up after the panel and ask. Offhand, I don’t know whether we get any money from the companies most involved in collecting personal data—I try to ignore funding precisely to avoid any possible subconscious influence—but I’m betting the reporter didn’t bother to check. The authors on the panel, of course, are published by corporations, and need their books sold at Amazon and other large retail outlets, which probably makes them a good deal more financially dependent on corporate goodwill than I am, but this oddly didn’t provoke any speculative tangents about why they failed to go after Amazon by name.
Second, do we really need to start fabricating ulterior motives to explain why a researcher who specializes on national security spying, in an introduction that was primarily about literary metaphors, might focus on government surveillance when selecting examples? With a panel consisting of a lawyer who sues the government for a living, two novelists who lived in and wrote about communist surveillance states, and a science fiction writer whose latest book was centrally about government monitoring of the citizenry? Really? This is a big mystery that can only be unraveled by following the money? I guess I could have explicitly cashed out my remarks on the inadequacy of Orwell’s metaphor in the modern context by preempting what Catherine had planned to say about the explosion of private data gathering—which I agreed with completely, for what it’s worth—but it was, you know, a panel.
I’ll link my prepared remarks when they’re up at PEN, at which point readers can judge for themselves, but I’m pretty confident that they wouldn’t have inspired any commentary if they’d been delivered verbatim by someone from the ACLU. This is just a reporter injecting a glaringly irrelevant aside for the purpose of taking a cheap potshot at a think tank he obviously doesn’t care for. Which I normally try to be a little more Zen about, but geez, is it really such a psychological impossibility for some people to type the words “Cato Institute,” in any context, for any reason, without ginning up some horseshit pretext to editorialize?