Opinion

The Great Debate

NSA as ‘Big Brother’? Not even close

Reader holding a copy of George Orwell’s 1984, June 9, 2013.  REUTERS/Toby Melville

When the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed details about the National Security Agency collecting phone data from telecommunications companies and U.S. government programs pulling in emails and photographs from internet businesses, suddenly “George Orwell” was leading the news.

The British essayist predicted it all, commentators asserted, and the United States now seems straight out of 1984, Orwell’s novel about a dystopian future. “Big Brother” had arrived.

This is ridiculous.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden might claim that America is under the Big Brother’s glare, but he does not understand what this really means. I grew up in the Soviet Union. I knew Big Brother. This is not even close.

In 1982, for example, when I was in high school in Moscow, I was on the phone with one of my closest friends, talking about how relieved we were that Leonid Brezhnev had finally died, after 18 years of stifling power. Suddenly, there was a metallic click on the line and we heard a dour man’s voice. A KGB functionary, no doubt. “Hang up the phone,” he demanded, “immediately.” We did.

The great paradox of Hobsbawm’s choice

The words “communist” and “socialist” are now used so recklessly in the United States that their meaning has been devalued. But Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian who died Oct. 1, was the real deal.

Born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Hobsbawm used Karl Marx as the inspiration for both his personal politics and his successful transformation of our understanding of history. He was an unabashed and unwavering supporter of communism in theory and practice, who only let his party membership lapse at the final moment, when the Berlin Wall fell.

His singular contribution to the telling of the human story was to reject the traditional method of viewing history through the actions of great men and women, in favor of describing the larger economic and social tides on which leading figures are often mere flotsam. Though history was usually taught through the lives of kings and queens, Hobsbawm demonstrated that economic and social history offered a fuller explanation of why events happened. He also gave prominence to previously ignored political agitators, whose courageous actions obliged leaders to agree to benign reforms.

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