Recently, as protesters gathered outside the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) summit in Montebello, Quebec, to confront US President George W. Bush, Mexican President Felipe Calderón and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Associated Press reported this surreal detail: “Leaders were not able to see the protesters in person, but they could watch the protesters on TV monitors inside the hotel…. Cameramen hired to ensure that demonstrators would be able to pass along their messages to the three leaders sat idly in a tent full of audio and video equipment…. A sign on the outside of the tent said, ‘Our cameras are here today providing your right to be seen and heard. Please let us help you get your message out. Thank You.'”
Yes, it’s true: Like contestants on a reality TV show, protesters at the SPP were invited to vent into video cameras, their rants to be beamed to protest-trons inside the summit enclave. It was security state as infotainment–Big Brother meets, well, Big Brother.
The spokesperson for Prime Minister Harper explained that although protesters were herded into empty fields, the video-link meant that their right to political speech was protected. “Under the law, they need to be seen and heard, and they will be.”
It is an argument with sweeping implications. If videotaping activists meets the legal requirement that dissenting citizens have the right to be seen and heard, what else might fit the bill? How about all the other security cameras that patrolled the summit–the ones filming demonstrators as they got on and off buses and peacefully walked down the street? What about the cellphone calls that were intercepted, the meetings that were infiltrated, the e-mails that were read? According to the new rules set out in Montebello, all of these actions may soon be recast not as infringements on civil liberties but the opposite: proof of our leaders’ commitment to direct, unmediated consultation.
Elections are a crude tool for taking the public temperature–these methods allow constant, exact monitoring of our beliefs. Think of surveillance as the new participatory democracy; of wiretapping as the political equivalent of Total Request Live.
Protesters in Montebello complained that while they were locked out, CEOs from about thirty of the largest corporations in North America–from Wal-Mart to Chevron–were part of the official summit. But perhaps they had it backward: The CEOs had only an hour and fifteen minutes of face time with the leaders. The activists were being “seen and heard” around the clock. So perhaps instead of shouting about police state tactics, they should have said, “Thank you for listening.” (And reading, and watching, and photographing, and data-mining.)
The Montebello “seen and heard” rule also casts the target of the protests in a new light. The SPP is described in the leaders’ final statement as an “ambitious” plan to “keep our borders closed to terrorism yet open to trade.” In other words, a merger of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the homeland security complex–NAFTA with spy planes.