The Weakness of Rhetoric

Speculations by Stefan Stenudd

President Obama defended the massive NSA monitoring of digital information, which was revealed a couple of days ago. It was not an easy task, not even with his rhetoric skills. There are limits to the power of rhetoric.

       The major limit of rhetoric is its inability of hiding something without revealing something else. It might even be possible to express in algebra. We're familiar with the expression “If you have said A, you must also say B.” It's also true that if you don't want to say A, you must instead say B, which is usually not better. Simply put: rhetoric is for saying things, not for concealing them.

       It's evident already in Barack Obama's opening remark, as can be seen in the video above:

       “When I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I make: number one to keep the American people safe, and number two to uphold the constitution.”

       That's a terrible example of accidentally saying much more than intended. What he really states by the given order of his priorities, is that he will ignore the constitution when he deems that the safety of the American people demands it. Actually, it's pretty much a confession that it has been done in this case.

       Later in his speech he says:

       “You can't have a 100% security, and also then have a 100% privacy, and zero inconvenience. We're gonna have to make some choices as a society.”

       Well, you can't have a 100% security. No one is safe. The universe itself doesn't allow for it. Hey, we all die at some point. The whole idea of the Constitution is that the fundamental rights of the people should triumph, even at the cost of their own safety.

       That's why we're innocent until proven guilty. That's why we have the right to our privacy. That's why the Constitution limits the power of the government. Theoretically speaking, maximum safety can only be accomplished by maximum confinement.

       Any US government official who regards something – anything – as more important than the Constitution, is abusing the office. The question is how much, but the choice has been made.

       Obama moves on in his speech with a nonsense definition:

       “The programs that have been discussed over the last couple of days in the press are secret in the sense that they are classified.”

       Well, that's secret. Or are there things classified which are not secret? Again, we approach math. In this case set theory. Secret always means some get to know, and some don't. The only significance is who – and most importantly: who gets to decide what's to be kept secret from whom?

       Democracy depends on keeping secrets to a minimum, for the simple reason that if the people is to govern itself, it needs to have the information relevant to do so.

       Sadly, most governments have a tendency to classify things that they believe would meet with the disapproval of the people. That means the governments actively sabotage the basis of democracy, by acting against the will of the people and hiding it.

       “Nobody is listening to your phone calls,” Obama stated firmly in his speech. But later he confessed this to be untrue, when there's a court order to the contrary. Phones are listened to. We all know that. The question is to what extent and with how much of a real legal process in control.

       Regarding monitoring of the Internet and emails, Obama stated:

       “This does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.”

       But what has been revealed about the NSA system indicates the opposite. The monitoring is done on all electronic information exchanged on the Internet and emails passing through accessed media, such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple.

       If all this information is gathered and accessible on an individual level, and the use of it is concealed – then this does mean that all of it is monitored. Most of it may be ignored, but it is accessible and by computer handling anything can be extracted from it – by anyone with access to the system.

       President Obama tries to assure his listeners, by stating about his initial attitude as a newly elected President:

       “I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs.”

       Apart from the fact that it's rhetorically weak to claim a competence instead of proving it by examples and reasoning, he really diluted the word skepticism by adding healthy in front of it. Skepticism is the ability to question – anything and always. But “healthy skepticism” means being skeptic up to a point. It means questioning some things and not other things.

       Since the word healthy is non-descriptive in any context other than medicine, he gives no clue as to what he deemed unnecessary to question. For all we know, it might have been just about everything.

       The most important questions about the NSA monitoring are two: firstly, is the measure in proportion to the threat it's supposed to counter, and secondly, what are the risks and consequences of misuse? If Obama regards it as healthy not to ask these questions, there is not much to his skepticism.

       Unfortunately, it seems he all but ignores those aspects, calling this enormous NSA monitoring a “modest encroachments on privacy.” At least he used the word encroachment, though not without hesitation. In present society, there's nothing modest about concealed government access to all the electronic communication of all its citizens, as well as hundreds of millions of people in other countries.

       “Some other folks may have a different assessment of that,” he added. You bet. And by admitting this, he made the most important statement in his speech. The whole thing is indeed questionable.

       When he ended his speech by welcoming the congress to consider and debate the issue, he confessed to its controversy – maybe even hoped for a change that he is himself unable to openly propagate.


Here's an interesting graph published by Wall Street Journal, showing decisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on requests for customer records at telecom companies:

Rise in Requests

       The court is to safeguard the right of privacy, but it has never denied an application. This alone shows that the safeguard system is not working.

       What the court does instead is an increased re-wording of the requests, which shows that they are increasingly regarded as improper or illegal. The graph indicates that a vast majority of the requests are.

       Any power will be misused. If it's protected by secrecy, the misuse will increase.

Stefan Stenudd
June 10, 2013

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