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The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America, From Slave Passes to the War on Terror

The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America,
From Slave Passes to the War on Terror

by Christian Parenti, (Basic Books, 2003) 273 pp., $24.95 cloth

Review by Scott Christianson

Big Brother is watching. He may not be able to find Osama Bin Laden or identify the Anthrax Attacker, but he sure as hell keeps close track of you and me.

In The Soft Cage, scholar-journalist Christian Parenti surveys the sinister development of surveillance in the US, showing how webs of often-invisible tracking systems have captured members of a "free" society as tightly and completely as Orwell and Huxley warned, and turned our world into more of a totalitarian cage than any of us ever realized.

Those who weren't paranoid before they read this book, may feel a lot more frightened the next time they pick up a cell phone, turn on a computer, shop at a store, use an E-Z pass, or watch cable TV. For some, the prospect of facing a website "cookie" may prove pretty terrifying after you've seen what Parenti has to say.

Parenti holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the London School of Economics and is a visiting fellow at CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis [Editor's Note: Which is distributed by PLN] and sometimes can be heard giving talks on alternative radio.

His libertarian alarm transcends John Ashcroft, but one gets the sense from his writing that the author raced to get his findings into print before it was too late. Lucky for us, he succeeded.

Although Parenti's archaeology isn't exhaustive or over-stated, his breathless exposure of so many invasions of our privacy should make us all wonder where we are headed and what finally will cause the hideous spider to claim us for his lunch.

And while his chilling account points out today's watchdog tactics are simply the latest encroachment in a slow but steady expansion of surveillance undertaken in this country since colonial times, the quickened pace of today's intrusions seems to suggest that we have already been invaded by a Trojan Horse against which our so-called legal and political safeguards are hopelessly outclassed.

The book offers an interesting discussion about the origins of modern policing, photography, Bertillonage and dactyloscopy (fingerprinting), before finally tracing the development of new digital technologies for spying and tracking human beings. The reader is shown how one after another of America's precious freedoms and luxuries, such as the lure of automobile travel and the marvel of rapid package delivery, becomes a leash that binds.

Within this computerized landscape, struggle seems futile, though the author valiantly urges us to stand and fight. "What would it take to wind back the `thousand things' that make up the soft cage?" Parenti asks. As he sees it, "Only sustained protest will compel regulators to tell corporations, police, schools, hospitals, and other institutions that there are limits."

One of the book's central lessons seems to be that America's obsessive war against "them"slaves, criminals, communists, welfare cheats, and terroristshas ultimately worked to establish a machinery of control that menaces everyone, everywhereit is a mentality that threatens the globe.

Yet if history offers any guide, certain populations would seem to be at greater or lesser risk, depending on who's in charge.

In the end, for my taste the author doesn't adequately confront Americans' astonishing apathy and unwillingness to resist authority, or their inability to act according to their own self-interest, instead of blindly succumbing to their own fears and close-mindedness. Lemmings, committed to their own self-destruction, couldn't be more assiduous.

Scott Christianson is a longtime writer about prisons whose latest book is Innocent: Inside Wrongful Conviction Cases (NYU Press, 2004). This review is reprinted with permission from

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