Hochman’s The Listeners (Harvard Univ., Feb.) surveys American attitudes toward wiretapping from the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century through the war on drugs.
How have Americans’ concerns over wiretapping changed over time?
What’s interesting is how much mainstream American attention to wiretaps waxes and wanes. We see from the 19th century onward these moments of heightened concern and alarm, followed by long lulls of complacency and disinterest. As you might expect, it’s in those periods and valleys between peaks of heightened awareness and attention and anxiety, where we really see various entities, from the state to institutions, creeping on individual rights and community concerns.
Do you see parallels between this history and contemporary conversations about national security and electronic surveillance?
I actually find the differences to be more illuminating from a historical perspective. Much of the book is animated by a sense that the present that we live in and take for granted wasn’t inevitable. There are some very discrete moments in the history of wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping where the story could have gone another way. It seems to me that highlighting those differences can denaturalize some of what we have come to accept as orthodoxy, as common sense.
You contend in the book that racism is essentially built into the surveillance state. How so?
The vast majority of wires that are tapped in this country today are done under Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, this massive overhaul of federal law enforcement that comes out of the upheavals in Newark and Detroit during the long hot summer of 1967. That to me was initially surprising, but the more I started looking into the legislative history of that bill, it turned out to make a ton of sense. This law was passed out of racialized panic over America’s streets. It was a law that really emerged with the ascendency of law-and-order ideologies within both the Republican and Democratic parties. Title III, the most controversial and hotly contested provision of the law, was written by John McClellan, one of the staunchest Southern Democrats, who was also known for opposing integration.
I was struck by how many colorful characters are part of this story.
I fell in love very quickly with the characters, from the early crooked stock speculators and gamblers who exploited the wiretap in the 19th century to Soviet spy Judith Coplan and J. Arthur Vaus, a mob wiretapper turned evangelical Christian. The stern academic in me would say “We need to write surveillance from the ground up and work against the institutional biases that erase individuals from the ground,” but the fan of history in me, and the reader in me—these are great stories, and I think the characters propelled me through the research and the writing.