It has been fascinating to observe the reactions to the Edward Snowden whistleblowing, There has clearly been an immediate groundswell of popular support for Snowden among ordinary people who see him as a young person who had the courage of his convictions to risk his entire future to reveal government wrongdoing. There are already over 60,000 signatures on a White House petition calling Snowden a “national hero” and that he “should be immediately issued a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs.” Of course this is not going to happen but it must be encouraging for Snowden to know that so many people support him.
The opposition to Snowden’s actions has also been interesting to observe, especially on the Democratic side. Republicans are torn between wanting to use this as yet another opportunity to criticize president Obama while at the same time not wanting to look as if they are supporting Snowden’s actions and going against the secretive, authoritarian state that they love. Many Democrats have the opposite problem, not wanting to support Snowden because that would imply that they are criticizing their Dear Leader, but at the same time wanting to cling on to the illusion that they are supporters of openness and transparency in government.
As a result, they are treading water and the range of justifications they are giving for their absence of a clear position have been almost comical in their contortions. Josh Marshall has been taking flak from his readers for his equivocation on this issue and has issued a lengthy defense of why he does not approve of the actions of either Bradley Manning or Snowden and does not even consider them deserving of the title of whistleblowers. Marshall provides a revealing insight into the authoritarian mindset:
Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage – choose your verb – the US intelligence apparatus and policieis he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal. I think it’s easy to exaggerate how much damage these disclosures cause. But I don’t buy that there are no consequences. And it goes to the point I was making in an earlier post. Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically – for better or worse – to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?
I don’t have a lot of problem answering that question.
Kevin Drum takes the safer attitude of the knowing but puzzled insider asking “What’s the big deal? Didn’t we already know all this?”
The punditocracy, ever-mindful of their need to stay in the good graces of the establishment if they are to continue having access to the platforms where they spout their banalities, have resorted to laughable levels of argument in their attempt to discredit Snowden and his actions..
The problem for them is that Snowden seems to have given his opponents very little to attack him with. As I said, his decision to reveal himself and his motives was a brilliant move that enabled him to frame the debate and himself and this has caught his critics wrong-footed. Despite the undoubted strenuous efforts to find any dirt on him, he seems to have led a remarkably uneventful, even boring, life. As a result some have resorted to playground name-calling. CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has called him a “clown”, and a “grandiose narcissistic who deserves to be in prison”. A surprising number of people have used the word narcissistic (including Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen who is always wrong and often laughably so) which is an interesting choice and says more about them than about Snowden.
Apart from the incongruity of people whose entire lives seem to be devoted to finding ways to be on TV calling others narcissistic, the word hints at the fact that these people seem to be really offended that someone they consider an absolute nobody in terms of education and social and economic background has done something that has grabbed the attention of the entire nation and upended the world of the ruling class circles in which they feel so comfortable. What they are really saying is: “How dare such insignificant people take upon themselves to make decisions that only people like us are qualified to make?” It seems like they feel that such an enormous act should have been done by a better class of person, not by people with middle and working class backgrounds with little or no formal education, let alone Ivy League degrees and ruling class pedigrees.
A surprising number have focused on Snowden personally, his life and employment, and even his relationship with his girl friend. They have tried to negatively portray his going to Hong Kong (How dare he even suggest that another country may provide greater protection for free speech than the US?) without telling his girl friend what he was up to. But her father, when asked what message he had for him, shot down that line of investigation by saying, “Just wish him good luck and he’s got my love.”
Notable among the media figures who are defending the NSA’s actions are people like Bill Maher, Andrew Sullivan, and others who, as usual, see their task as to defend the authoritarian state as long as Obama is in charge of it. Jonathan Turley describes other efforts to discredit Snowden and points out that senator Al Franken, supposedly a progressive, seems to have decided that it is perfectly fine that he belongs to the privileged class of people who have the right to decide what the public should know and not know, and that we should trust him and the government.
Hamilton Nolan provides an interesting take on this outpouring of media vanity:
You’ll notice a few commonalities between all of these dismissive positions. All of these members of the media, who ostensibly work on the public’s behalf, would prefer to take the completely unverifiable word of a top-secret government agency that nothing is amiss, rather than to see any classified materials leak into the public realm. They fancy themselves able to deduce the motivations and mindset of Edward Snowden based on the thinnest of anecdotes. They all express contempt for the idea that the public has a right to know what its government is up to, unless that knowledge has been specifically approved by government censors.
And they all, in one form or another, express the idea that this stuff is unworthy of our concern because, hey, smart people like them already knew (er, assumed) this stuff was going on. To pay too much attention to it now would therefore undermine their reputation for being savvy. This is the most dangerous idea of all. When the media itself can’t be bothered to get excited about an enormous secret government spying program, we’re all in trouble.
A new Pew survey suggests that a majority of Americans, always easily frightened by the terrorist boogeyman, support the NSA surveillance but the numbers move around in a partisan manner depending on who does the spying, once again revealing the widespread tribal mindset that poisons the nation’s health but benefits politicians and hacks. The punditocracy have seized on the Pew study to suggest that the people share their disdain for Snowden’s actions.
But not so fast. A Rasmussen poll suggests that this support may be somewhat volatile because they find that 59% oppose the government’s secret collection of phone records. And a CBS poll finds that “Seventy-five percent of Americans approve of federal agencies collecting the phone records of people the government suspects of terrorist activity, but a 58 percent majority disapproves of this type of data collection in the case of ordinary Americans.” So it depends a lot on how the question is worded.
Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have laid bare the divide between authoritarians and anti-authoritarians and some people are finding that choice hard to make.