The art of listening in

In a way, British philosopher and political thinker Jeremy Bentham shared the fate of Epicurus and the Cynics of ancient Greece. These days, epicureanism and cynicism are not really identified with noble concepts or demanding life principles. The former is rather more associated with the hedonistic eat-drink-and-be-merry mantra while the latter has come to resemble self-serving amoralism.

The misinterpretation has buried the important Epicurean ideas on “Ataraxia,” that lucid state of robust tranquillity, and on freedom from superstition. Similarly, it has downplayed the otherwise admirable consistency between the Cynics’ rule book and frugal lifestyle.

Bentham, the father of Utilitarianism, has also suffered from a similar misinterpretation. Over time, his name has been almost exclusively – and always negatively – associated with the Panopticon, his 1791 plans on the model prison. His declared aim though was to improve the rehabilitation system which he considered to be inhuman.

The term Panopticon, a place where everything is visible at all times, has come to signify the global village as this has been transformed by the lust for observation among the world’s intelligence services, i.e. the political elites. The habit, of course, is stronger among the famed intelligence services of the world’s powerful nations and those who aspire to outpower them. With the aid of rapid technological progress and noble excuses like patriotism or the fight against terror, spies are able to tap millions of phone or online conversations at the same time. Everything works to their advantage – even the passion for publicity that makes people expose their secrets to the digital world.

Few were really surprised by revelations that the US is systematically seizing vast amounts of phone and web data – compromising the security of the United Nations, the European Council and a number of embassies – leaked by former CIA analyst Edward Snowden. The reason we were not surprised was experience, not some soft spot for conspiracy theories. After all, we were privileged enough to know that former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and half of his conservative cabinet were tapped between June 2004 and March 2005. Giorgos Voulgarakis was then public order minister. When the scandal came to light in 2006, he showed journalists a diagram of those being tapped. Now, at peace with his conscience, Voulgarakis can at best look for an invitation from some or other TV panel to offer his expertise on the issue.

It is not known who was behind Greece’s tapping scandal. This time, the bugs were made and planted by the US. President Barack Obama must come up with a decent apology soon or he may well see his presidency hurt by the scandal – a scandal that did not start out as an Obama-gate, but may well turn into one.

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