In a statement on Monday, US Senator Al Franken (Democrat) said that he favors more transparency in national surveillance, but “I have a high level of confidence that it is used to protect us.” In a desperately needed and profoundly brilliant essay by the long time (Republican) columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks elaborates on the issues at stake, warning the public of the extremes to which individualism has drifted in our society.
Of course, how you see the case depends on what you bring to the seeing. Many would differ from Brooks and want to compare this case to that of Daniel Ellsberg and the release of the Pentagon Papers. But there is a key difference of much significance. As Time’s Adam Cohen notes, the Pentagon Papers revealed that the government had ramped up the war in Vietnam and lied to Congress and the public about it, which is clearly wrong. But in Snowden’s case, it’s still unclear whether the NSA’s spying was in fact legal and if what Snowden did was simply leak classified information because he objects to how the government has chosen to defend national security. If the surveillance was legal, Snowden could still look like a conscientious objector, breaking the law because of his own moral imperatives, but he might not look like a whistle-blower.Furthermore, it’s a well known fact that such cases, especially with lack of clarity on the legalities, are exceptionally difficult for government to prosecute. So when the noise is all over, the case may be nothing more than sound and fury..
In contrast to Ellsberg and his ilk, there are other more serious societal issues at risk here. Thus, my emphasis is focused upon those issues and some of what I view as tragic changes in our society.
Brooks says this about the NSA leaker, Edward Snowden: “Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends (that’s putting it mildly) of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.”
Brooks argues that those who live a life unshaped by the “mediating” institutions of civil society can become the solitary, naked individual,” facing a “gigantic and menacing state.” But, writes Brooks, Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.
Thankfully, these distinct, individualistic strands of libertarianism are not blossoming everywhere. Just this past weekend I had the very good fortune to attend my grandson’s high school graduation from one of those fabled Massachusetts college-prep academies. With 87 graduates in his class (25% receiving tuition aid and the other 75% from families in the top 1%), the headmaster had a few words to say about each of the students. He delivered a glorious paean to what was once called “noblesse oblige,” updated to praise for the students’ collaborative approach to reality, their actions of justice and compassion and achievement which do not ignore their classmates and society at large. Reflecting on that ceremony sets the actions of Ed Snowden apart, calling attention to his failure to respond to “mediating” societal organizations and any of the social realities of community. Their consequence is inevitably destructive.
Making everything worse
Snowden, makes things far worse for his generation. Snowden has, as Brooks writes, rejected not only any basic level of trust and cooperation, but he has also rejected any human respect for institutions and common procedures. With powerful pieces of psychological evidence, Brooks make the problem real, emphasizing the many different aspects of betrayal in which Snowden has engaged.
. . . He betrayed honesty and integrity. . . .
. . . He betrayed his friends. . . .
. . . He betrayed the cause of open government. . . .
. . . He betrayed the privacy of us all. . . .
. . . He betrayed the Constitution. . . .
If you skim through the hundreds of comments in response to Brooks’ column, you will see that not everyone agrees with me or with Brooks. Indeed, the anti-government idiocracy, the Guardian newspaper and those who are wailing Jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of US big data collection are noticeably silent about one thing. They don’t know of any actual abuse from the data collection.
But there’s no question that Snowden was completely oblivious to his betrayals and toward the damage he has done. So I’m personally delighted with Brooks’ polemic, a much needed education for all of us.
Flickr photo: by DonkeyHotey