In the wake of Kim Dotcom’s Moment of Truth, and the stern talking-to Snowden gave New Zealand Prime Minister John Key in Glenn Greenwald’s blog, let’s put aside the disquieting implications of timing NSA leaks to increase political leverage for a wealthy crony. Instead, let’s reflect on Snowden’s latest patronizing and deeply wrong lesson in How Democracy Works. The following is from his portion of MOT, which happened today in New Zealand:
it’s collecting the communications of every man, woman, and child in the country of New Zealand, and you know, maybe, the people of New Zealand think that’s appropriate, maybe they think they want to sacrifice a certain measure of their liberty and say, it’s ok, if the government watches me. I’m concerned about terrorism; I’m concerned about foreign threats.
We can have people in every country make that decision because that’s what democracy is about. That’s what self-government is about, but that decision doesn’t belong to John Key or officials in the GCSB, making these decisions behind closed doors, without public debate, without public consent. That decision, belongs exclusively to the people of that country. [interrupted by applause] and I think it’s wrong of him, I think it’s wrong of any politician, to take away the people’s seat at the table of government…
[later in the vid] It doesn’t matter, necessarily, if there’s mass surveillance in New Zealand if the people say they want it…
Uh, no. Sorry Ed. This is not “what democracy is about”, or if it is, fuck democracy. Even if you concede the starry-eyed notion that the citizens of any country have a “seat at the table of government”, such that they can ratify or reject what their spy agencies do, that does not rightfully empower an acquiescent majority to vote away freedom from constant and pervasive government surveillance any more than people can, in the spirit of “self-government”, nullify the right to criticize the President or to go to church. This is some basic shit here, so it’s truly depressing that the audience, joined by Glenn Greenwald and Kim Dotcom, interrupted Snowden to applaud this nonsense.
This is among the things that is so bothersome about the Snowden spectacle. Alongside the now laborious variations on what is essentially the same story, there has been an endless stream of infantilizing, deeply conservative lessons in the proper way to blow whistles; on the necessity, and essential good intentions, of the Intelligence Community; and about this “debate” out of which we will ultimately decide whether we want basic human rights or not.
Lest people think I’m nitpicking, Snowden has expressed the political philosophy quoted above before. From an article about Snowden in the New York Times:
“So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision,” he said.
From the Guardian interview that introduced him:
The public needs to decide whether these policies are right or wrong.
If Snowden is going to continue to teach this lesson, can we advance a grade? Let’s allow for argument’s sake that it’s entirely fine for people to waive their own rights and those of their dissenting neighbors. By what means does Snowden propose we register our consent? Do we get to vote on this? Or is our consent inferred from not toppling the government when it predictably makes things worse instead of better?
Snowden’s political philosophy illustrates a problem with whistleblowers: they’re the kind of people who get into the sort of deep, dark places from which whistles customarily get blown. Places that are uniquely attractive to patriots, ultra-conformists, imperialists and sociopaths. Ellsberg was deep inside the war bureaucracy after hanging out in Vietnam with his mentor, notorious psychopath Edward Lansdale and other thugs. Manning was an Army Intelligence Analyst in Iraq. John Kirakou had spent a decade in the CIA before blowing the whistle on torture. Snowden has spent his entire working life in various arms of the security apparatus. I appreciate their service to the truth, but with all due respect, these are not my kind of people.
Unless they significantly repudiate their past lives, some residue of what took them into Empire’s belly is going to stick. This would be fine, were some of them not also inclined to offer opinions on how the world should work, and their admirers exceptionally inclined to take them seriously because of their heroic deeds. Far from repudiating the NSA entirely, Snowden insists he’s still working for it. From what we’ve seen so far, his only beef with the country’s gigantic security apparatus is bulk data collection conducted by that single agency. And even that’s ok if “the people”, through some unspecified means, “consent.” That makes the debate we’re having extremely circumscribed, as well as exhaustingly insipid.
Snowden’s friend Greenwald appears to ratify Snowden’s doctrine in full, and adds a weird, reactionary principle of his own, to the effect that one can’t object to anything Snowden (or Greenwald) says or does until one has blown a whistle oneself. This credentialing of opinion-having is preposterous under any conditions, equivalent to insisting Greenwald hold high office before criticizing the president. But for over a year now, Greenwald has belittled, smeared and straw manned anyone who objects to any part of their doctrine or methods from the left. In light of how conservative this doctrine is, and the weightiness Snowden’s stature gives it, attempts to stifle discussion are uniquely pernicious. As the leaks now morph into strategically timed campaign fodder in another country’s election, debate on the underlying politics seems more warranted than ever.
Here’s the video. The remarks quoted above are around 1:09:24.
Leak Keeper Doctrine further enunciated. I wonder how far right is too far: