Let the Character Assassinations Begin
It comes with the territory obviously, but its predictability doesn’t make it any less ridiculous or frustrating. Jeffrey Toobin and David Brooks have fired the first shots, outlining the many failings of Edward Snowden because armchair psychologizing about a stranger based on a handful of public information is infinitely more interesting and important to them than debating the legitimacy of certain NSA surveillance programs and the secrecy surrounding them.
The New Yorker staff writer contends that Snowden is “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” Whether he thinks he should be incarcerated because he’s so narcissistic, or that’s beside the point, Toobin doesn’t try to make clear.
To support both of these claims, Toobin first argues that Snowden is an ignoramus, because obviously everyone (except maybe Snowden) already knew what the NSA’s mission was and the tools they employ to achieve it. Partly as a result of this naivety, Toobin finds Snowden’s “latter-day conversion” “dubious.” Why? Toobin can’t be bothered to say, other than intimating that he finds the young man’s desire to live in a society that doesn’t intercept communications somewhat frivolous and, perhaps, inauthentic.
Toobin also derides Snowden for “answering to a higher calling” than the federal statutes which prohibited him from legally disclosing the documents he made public. Toobin maintains that “These were legally authorized programs” which is quite different from claiming that something actually is legal in and of itself. Toobin has no grounds then to claim just two sentences later that “he wasn’t blowing the whistle on anything illegal.” Whether this bit of sophistry was intentional, or only resulted from Toobin’s blasé attitude, is hard to tell.
Either way, the real question as Toobin sees it is “whether the government can function when all of its employees (and contractors) can take it upon themselves to sabotage the programs they don’t like. That’s what Snowden has done.” (One wonders if Toobin is of the mind that since Snowden has “sabotaged ” the program it should be discontinued).
One wonders indeed, especially since government officials seem bent on doing just that on a semi-regular basis, torpedoing one another’s projects or negotiations by releasing authorized leaks. Examples of the Obama administration issuing “controlled” leaks is just too ubiquitous to delve into here. Suffice it to say that public officials attempting to “sabotage the programs they don’t like” and bolster the ones they do, is the normal state of affairs to anyone who, in Toobin’s words, is even “marginally attentive.”
Toobin then erects some magical middle ground in which the right kind of leaks happen in the right kind of way for the right kind of reasons. Toobin then employs the type of measured and subtle reasoning for which the New Yorker is all too well known, claiming that some type of (illegal) leaking is “normal, even indispensable” in a free society, while contrasting these “healthy encounters” with the “reckless dumping” that Snowden was involved in. His only evidence attesting to the latter being the Post‘s decision not to make public all of the PRISM slides Snowden provided them with. Yes, Toobin is claiming that Snowden “recklessly” dumped documents which have still been kept quasi-secret.
Toobin then asks something ridiculous, “Snowden’s secrets may wind up in the hands of the Chinese government—which has no commitment at all to free speech or the right to political dissent. And that makes Snowden a hero?” Toobin’s case against Snowden is so thin that he devotes equal time to what secrets Snowden might unwittingly provide the Chinese government with (presumably if they…torture him?) as he does to the actual information he made available to the public in the last week. The only potential harm Toobin is able to discover then lurks somewhere in a future hypothetical which, though it should not be dismissed, is at least beside the point when it comes to the merits of the information which Snowden did intent to make public.
But Toobin ends on a most peculiar note, “Instead, in an act that speaks more to his ego than his conscience, he threw the secrets he knew up in the air—and trusted, somehow, that good would come of it. We all now have to hope that he’s right.”
By all accounts Snowden did not throw a bunch of secret documents out the window of the building he worked in. Indeed, as per his interview, he chose what he released with care, maintaining that some information he had was too sensitive to be released, and so he did now. The very opposite of reckless, at least on the surface. It’s unclear then what bad things will result from Snowden’s actions in Toobin’s mind, other than possible scenario in which Snowden is take up by the Chinese government and tortured, in which case the New Yorker staff writer’s concerns have less to do with Snowden’s ego than with his choice for asylum.
It’s the worst kind of concern-trolling. Not only does Toobin try to have it both ways, arguing on the one hand that Snowden’s leaks are potentially dangerous while also maintaining that they resulted in only the most banal revelations, but he worries about others copying Snowden’s actions without actually be able to show why that would be bad, seeing Toobin himself can’t point to anything bad that has happened as a result of the leaks they’d be copying–only to bad things that could happen if the government where they go to hide tries to torture them.
David Brooks’s assault is far worse, however, if only because it distracts even further from the actuals issues Snowden sought to focus public attention on, focusing it instead on their source–a classic fallacy which Brooks nonetheless goes on to make a column out of.
The first thing Brooks wants his audience to know about Snowden is that he didn’t complete high school or community college (though after raising the issue he fails to mention that Snowden does have a G.E.D.)
Brooks goes on to cite some anecdotal information,
“According to The Washington Post, he has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years. When a neighbor in Hawaii tried to introduce himself, Snowden cut him off and made it clear he wanted no neighborly relationships. He went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and the C.I.A., but he has separated himself from them, too.”
It may surprise Brooks to know that most grown men and women are not “regular presences” around their parents house. In addition, I doubt Snowden is alone in not wanting to foster a relationship with one of his neighbors, especially if he works in U.S. intelligence. And while Brooks may like his colleagues at Yale and the New York Times, it is not uncommon for the rest of us to find the company of our co-workers less than enjoyable. At least Snowden had co-workers though–image if he’d worked from home or was self-employed?! Then we’d know for sure he was a crazy, anti-social recluse.
Brooks uses these three data points to triangulate Snowden into the ominous, “atomization of society,” a place where the “apparently” “growing share of young men in their 20s” are “living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.”
Per the “Brooks Thesis,” a growing strain of libertarianism in young men isn’t due to, say, the continued erosion of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, but is actually the result of people spending too much time on their computers and not enough time doing stuff as part of the various communities in their lives (one wonders what this means for Brooks who, as a writer and metropolitan elite, I suspect has little time to go to PTO meetings, church, or hangout with the extended family).
With his theory in hand, Brooks then collects more evidence to support it, like the fact that Snowden donated to the Ron Paul campaign.
“It’s logical,” decides Brooks in his best Spock voice, “given this background and mind-set, that Snowden would sacrifice his career to expose data mining procedures of the National Security Agency.” What background and mind-set is Brooks referring to? The fact that he doesn’t eat dinner regularly with his mom or volunteer at the local soup kitchen? What’s “his” mindset? That spying on innocent citizens en masse is something which, at the very least, should be publically debated–something the President himself agrees with?
“Even if he has not been able to point to any specific abuses, he was bound to be horrified by the confidentiality endemic to military and intelligence activities. And, of course, he’s right that the procedures he’s unveiled could lend themselves to abuse in the future.”
Brooks even grants the legitimacy of Snowden’s underlying motive, tacitly condoning his actions even if he maintains on the surface some conflictedness about their consequences.
The real issue for Brooks isn’t anything to do with Snowden or NSA surveillance though–it’s a pet project of his in which he decries the “fraying of the social fabric” as people pursue individual self-interest rather than focusing at least equally on the common good.
And for Brooks it is Snowden who is making this problem worse–not a national government that spies in secret, and kills American citizens without due process all the while keeping its legal rationale for doing so classified–not a financial sector that devastated the economy or a private sector that has seen large profits benefit the few while the majority of workers see their own wages stagnate–no, the real issue is a lone weirdo whose leaked documents threaten to make the public even more cynical and distrustful as a result of simply learning the truth about something their government and digital communications providers were doing to them.
According to Brooks, it was Snowden who “betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity,” not Wall Street banks or an administration that has vigorously pursued and prosecuted individuals trying to do just that–be honest about their employer does.
“He made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths,” laments Brooks, all the while ignoring the oaths that the President made to uphold the Constitution, and which Congress men and women made to their constituents.
This is the real stinger though, “He is violating the honor codes of all those who enabled him to rise.” Brooks writes that because he considers Snowden a pity charity case–someone whose success was due to the benevolent mercy of others rather than his own hard work or talent.
Most brazen of all though, “He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more.”
Brooks often leaves me dumb founded–but this nearly struck me unconscious. Rather than criticize the government that tightens its grip, Brooks prefers to attack the integrity of the individual who sought to challenge it by confirming to the public some of the things its government secretly does. It wasn’t the government that betrayed our privacy–it was Snowden who tried to let us all know that’s what it was already doing!
Brooks maintains that the information which Snowden released isn’t really a threat to national security, but verbally berates him for selfishly doing so, and putting his own “preferences” above all else. Like so many others trying to maintain the status quo, Brooks wants to claim that the leaks aren’t a threat, but the person who leaked them and his reasons for doing so, are.
There is a debate to be had over the security state and what balance each of us would like it to strike between preventing terrorist attacks and maintaining some sort of privacy and anonymity. It’s the debate that Edward Snowden wanted to have, the one which Obama agreed to have, but not the one we will have as long as intellectual dilettantes like Toobin and Brooks prefer to self-righteously bully the messenger instead of discussing his message.