Friday, June 14, 2013

Why Snowden is the Greatest American of the last decade

Courtesy Business Insider

"It is proper to take alarm at the first experiments on our liberties...The freemen of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much, soon to forget it..." 
- James Madison

Most Americans who haven't actually bothered to read the founding documents of their own country have a tendency to forget the lessons in civics and philosophy behind them. These are the people who, if you ask them, will tell you that the first words of the Declaration of Independence are "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." etc, etc.

They're also very often the same ones who will say that Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked information about the American government's extensive illegal wire-tapping activities to the media, is a traitor and probably deserves whatever punishment he might have headed his way. After all, he signed a contract. He broke it, he deserves what's coming to him. David Brooks' piece in the New York Times is a fairly common example of such thinking.

More "o"s in the "no" make the disagreement more intellectually rigorous

Of course, a brief glance at the actual text of the Declaration reveals it actually begins on a slightly different note. It says:

"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

Compare this with the reasoning given by Edward Snowden for revealing his identity, when Glenn Greewald asked why he went the opposite direction of most leakers who do their best to keep their identity hidden:

"I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government, that is a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy, and if you do that in secret, consistently, as the government does, when it wants to benefit from a secret action that it took, it'll kind of give its officials a mandate to go 'hey, tell the press about this thing and that thing till the public is on our side.' But they rarely if ever do that when an abuse occurs. That falls to individual citizens."
The full 12-minute interview is worth watching:

 The nuance and forward acceptance of the consequences of his actions flies directly in face of all the silly accusations about Snowden not considering the consequences of his actions, or not knowing what he was doing. Virtually all of David Brooks' list of allegations in his piece commit the fallacy of mixing up the horse and the cart, but when he lays down accusations such as, "He [Snowden] betrayed the cause of open government," and, "He betrayed the Constitution." it's a rather audacious claim, to put it mildly. We could call it chutzpah defined. By extension, such a claim would indict the drafters of the Declaration of Independence (who's sedition was far more severe than the mere dissemination of secret information), as essentially anti-Freedom. Don't mind what the government's doing, look at this asshole! That's the real, important information!

Brooks explains that he betrayed the Constitution, privacy, and the cause of open government (horrible crimes, apparently?) because "if the federal security agencies can't do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods." Presumably the other kind of eavesdropping the government isn't supposed to be doing in the first place. Brooks claims that Snowden's actions will rock the boat, as it were, and cause the government to crack down on everybody. If the government is some kind of monster on a chain, one that we'd best not provoke, shouldn't we be tightening the chain, rather than punishing people who point this out?

Were Brooks' allegations a bit more catchy and concise, they would make excellent additions to the normal trio of doublespeak: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. Something like "courageous and loving self-sacrifice that preserves freedom is cowardly, hateful, selfishness that destroys freedom." Or maybe just invert Orwell's original: "slavery is freedom."

It is interesting to see people who will praise and laud the founding fathers on command--men who were militantly treasonous against their country--come out so opposed to, or worse, ambivalent about Edward Snowden's actions. Obviously, the analogy isn't precise, but in both cases we have a small group of educated men noticing that the government has more power than it should if we are to live in a free republic, and who put their own life on the line; out of line with a safe, comfortable lifestyle (the founding fathers were overwhelmingly rich land-owners while Snowden was a well-paid government contractor living in Hawaii), and in line with their principles, which happen to be in line with the free society he was charged with protecting.

Acting on principle alone isn't a good thing in itself, of course; we can act on bad principles, like subverting our government, disobeying orders or violating contracts. Surely these are bad principles?

Certainly, as is lying, yet virtually no one will go with Kant to the extreme of saying that it would be morally permissible, let alone ethical, to tell the truth to a Nazi soldier at the door who asks if you happen to be hiding any Jews in the basement. This thought experiment doesn't prove that lying is no longer a good principle, but merely that it isn't the highest ethical principle when we prioritize our values in this situation. Protecting innocent life is more important than honesty. So is protecting free society and the Constitution a higher priority than a comparatively petty government contract.

For the slaves of circular legal swamps, it's worth remembering that all military persons are required to take an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States (not its secrets) from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Contractors may or may not have to say or sign something similar; if they did than they would have mutually exclusive obligations, at least to the literal-minded among us. Even if they didn't, they would still have a duty as a citizen to do the same. The old phrase "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance" is not a platitude; it's a lesson that, as a species, we've learned from experience. As generations die away and new ones spring up under the protection of a free society, the failure to really internalize and understand this lesson can lead to a society that gives lip-service to the people who made their society possible, but without knowing why, or how. And without being able to recognize the face of what these founders were fighting against, or of those heretical patriot's modern-day equivalents. Faces like Edward Snowden's.

Speaking of faces, here's another one I'd recommend learning. Jeremy Scahill began working on his most recent book "Dirty Wars" long before the NSA incident with Snowden. This is an excerpt from an interview with ReasonTV:

The full interview is available here. More than anything else, Scahill shows the dangers of what an uncontrolled government can do. We already have the advantage of knowing what an industrial, technologically-advanced tyranny can look like. What Scahill reveals is that we're on that path. That's where we're headed, as Edward Snowden has demonstrated in more ways than one.

We face a choice in prioritization here, just as Snowden did, and the stakes aren't that much lower, though it might feel that way for the moment. Snowden chose his obligation to the Constitution and the principles of free society over short term peace of staying quiet and merely "doing his job." His worry was that the greater American public wouldn't grasp how serious of a choice this is, not for him, but for everyone else:

"The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see  in the media all of these disclosures, they'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves power, unilaterally, to create greater control over American society and global society, but they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things, to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interest."

Indeed. This seems to be the centennial problem. Our geographic predecessors learned the answer to this lesson of apathy in time, some fast, some slow. We'll have to learn it ourselves eventually, at least I hope so, and the sooner the better.

To ensure that the horse I've beaten is, in fact, dead, I'll link one more video featuring Philip Zimbardo speaking on the psychology of evil. The political implications on obedience to authority (apathy) and its converse trait, heroism, are profound. A hint: the very juxtaposition of "hero" and "obedience" as opposites should tell you something about how a free society ought to function.

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