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Set off a Roman candle for ‘the anti-authoritarian instinct’ — and Edward Snowden!

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It’s July 4, birthday of the American revolution, and two Ivy League historians, Steve Walt and David Bromwich, are celebrating the man in the transit lounge at the Moscow airport, Edward Snowden.

Walt writes that the founding fathers (sorry about that) would approve, because they broke the law, too, to a higher end:

isn’t it also possible that they would have seen in him a kindred spirit — someone who took an irrevocable step on a matter of principle? In particular, they might have seen in him a man who recognized the natural tendency of governments to extend their control over citizens, usually in the name of national security.

Let us not forget that the Founding Fathers repeatedly warned about the dangers of standing armies, which they rightly understood to be a perennial threat to liberty. Or that James Madison famously warned that no nation can remain free in a state of perpetual warfare, a sentiment that Barack Obama recently quoted but does not seem to have fully taken to heart. The Founders also gave Americans the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they understood that defending individual privacy against the grasp of government authority is an essential human right as well as an important safeguard of freedom.

…the Snowden affair reminds us that large and well-funded government bureaucracies have a powerful tendency to expand, to hide their activities behind walls of secrecy, and to depend on a cowed and co-opted populace to look the other way.

Snowden may have broken the law, but so did the Founding Fathers when they issued that famous declaration 237 years ago. They did so in defiance of a powerful empire, just as Snowden did. The world is better off that they chose to defy the laws of their time, and Snowden’s idealistic act may leave us better off too. I suspect Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of those revolutionaries might have understood.

And here is Bromwich in the London Review of Books, on how deeply engraved authoritarianism now is in our culture.

Snowden had looked for ways of serving his country in the grim months after September 2001 (he would have been 18 then). He joined the army, hoping to be taken on in special forces, but broke both legs in a training accident and then dropped out, disaffected with an anti-Arab racism in the mood which took him by surprise. He had never finished high school but had no difficulty passing the test for a diploma equivalent. Since his computer skills were prodigious and easily recognised, he was an obvious candidate for well-paying security work in the IT industry, and, by his mid-twenties, had worked his way to the highest clearance for analysing secret data. At the same time he was educating himself in the disagreeable facts of America’s War on Terror, and the moral and legal implications of the national security state. He was pressed by larger doubts the more he learned. … In conversations with friends over the last few years, he made no effort to hide the trouble of conscience that gnawed at him. It also seems to be true – though in the interview he doesn’t clearly formulate the point – that even as he went to work and made use of his privileged access, he felt a degree of remorse at the superiority he enjoyed over ordinary citizens, any of whom might be subject to exposure at any moment by the eye of the government he worked for. The remorse (if this surmise is correct) came not from a suspicion that he didn’t deserve the privilege, but from the conviction that no one deserved it….

We, in America, now support a class of guardians who pass unchallenged through a revolving door that at once separates and connects government and the vast security apparatus that has sprung up in the last 12 years. The cabinet officers and agency heads and company heads ‘move on’ but stay the same, from NSA to CIA or from NSA to Booz Allen Hamilton; and to the serious players, this seems a meritocracy without reproach and without peril….. Nothing like this system was anticipated or could possibly have been admired by the framers of the constitutional democracies of the United States and Europe. The system, as Snowden plainly recognised, is incompatible with ‘the democratic model,’ and can only be practised or accepted by people who have given up on every element of liberal democracy except the ideas of common defence and general welfare…

What was most strange – but predictable once you thought about it – was how far the reactions cut across political lines. This was not a test of Democrat against Republican, or welfare-state liberal versus big-business conservative. Rather it was an infallible marker of the anti-authoritarian instinct against the authoritarian. What was distressing and impossible to predict was the evidence of the way the last few years have worn deep channels of authoritarian acceptance in the mind of the liberal establishment. Every public figure who is psychologically identified with the ways of power in America has condemned Snowden as a traitor, or deplored his actions as merely those of a criminal, someone about whom the judgment ‘he must be prosecuted’ obviates any further judgment and any need for thought.

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16 Responses

  1. seafoid
    July 4, 2013, 11:05 am

    Philip Stephens in the FT complements Bromwich’s observation about the reaction of the establishment

  2. seanmcbride
    July 4, 2013, 11:17 am

    For “American Founding Fathers” I often use “American Founding Visionaries” — to avoid any rebukes about political incorrectness. Visionaries of the highest order is what they were.

    One wonders if Stephen Walt, from a career standpoint, worries about getting on the wrong side of the military-industrial-intelligence-security complex. He’s already crossed the Israel lobby, and the Israel lobby is largely synonymous with the military-industrial-intelligence-security complex, so perhaps he figures, what the hell — I’ve already burned my bridges.

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka
      July 4, 2013, 12:49 pm

      “Visionaries of the highest order is what they were.”

      Meh. Some were visionaries, many weren’t. For most Americans, the Revolution did nothing but replace a group of rich white men in charge from far away with a group of rich white men in charge from up close.

    • libra
      July 4, 2013, 8:36 pm

      seanmcbride: For “American Founding Fathers” I often use “American Founding Visionaries” — to avoid any rebukes about political incorrectness. Visionaries of the highest order is what they were.

      Maybe they were great visionaries Sean, but I bet they didn’t envision an America where the term “Father” would be a term of rebuke. Nor that any American male would so cravenly cave in to such a rebuke or the mere prospect of one.

  3. Citizen
    July 4, 2013, 11:22 am

    Goering gave the answer at Nuremberg. He said democracies were easy to control, all you had to do was instill fear in them, fear of some boggie man out to get them. Unlike Pearl Harbor, a direct military strike on an American military base, where the emminent threat spoke for itself beyond reasonable doubt, the Reichstag Fire and the 9/11 attack were much more ambiguous. They were both a signal to be interpreted, not a punch in the face by an aerial fist clearly marked with The Rising Sun insignia.

    Well, in both the case of the Reichstag Fire and 9/11, that signal was interpreted, and in both cases the (intentionally kept) ignorant were given their boogy-men. The 9/11 Commission Report was a great treason, ignoring the stated specific motives given by the attackers, attributing it to generic “foreign policy,” to which our elected leaders added: “our lifestyle.”

    I hear no groundswell of support from Dick and Jane for Snowden. They never head of Niemoller. Most never even heard of the Pentagon Papers, and, besides, although our young men are legally required to register for the military draft, there’s no penalty for not doing so–unless the young man goes looking for, say, a Pell Grant. Our body bags are shipped home in utter privacy, free from the collusive press eye. Only the tiny percent of military familes suffer, for which they earn a respectful “Thank you for your service” by rare happenstance encounter. Obama’s military has banned the Guardian from all its computers accessible by our troops. Don’t wanna give our dumb cannon fodder any access to Snowden or Greenwald.

    Not a single undeclared war the US has been engaged in, since at least Korea, has been a net benefit to the average American, but they’ve been a great boon to the elite. When real austerity comes to America, on the heels of sequestration, there will a peasant uprising, but the elite have been preparing for this, both the quantity of bullets our government has purchased, and the militarization of our local police, and the data base covering us all Snowden has evidenced, will be used against our late-blooming average Americans. Drones small as flies will be in the air outside their windows.

  4. tommy
    July 4, 2013, 12:05 pm

    Too many liberals stayed in instead of dropping out. They are willing to embrace a protective authoritarianism as long as it is administered by a Democrat.

    • annie
      July 4, 2013, 12:29 pm

      too many liberals co-opted by the neoliberals.

      • libra
        July 4, 2013, 1:50 pm

        And too many conservatives co-opted by the neoconservatives.

  5. piotr
    July 4, 2013, 1:51 pm

    There is a strange hyper-activity in the hunt of Snowden. It is absolutely routine that different countries have different views on criminality and arrest warrants issued in one are disregarded in another. To use a well know example, check “Roman Polanski”. It is equally routine to view “treason” as a local crime, again we can check “Jonathan Pollard”. Suppose that Pollard would evade his arrest and manage to reach the territory of Israel. Nobody would expect him to be extradited to USA for something which is legal in Israel (passing some secrets to appropriate Israeli autorities). Snowden did not abuse teenage girls or pass secrets of military nature. Why he is so much more of an irritant?

    The government of France knows something about that. Disclosure made by Snowden undermined the trust the French had in American government and now the demand time to reconsider key trade negotiations. Deep in the concomitant psychological trauma they lashed at the President of Bolivia who could harbor Snowden on his official plane (although it was searched already by equally traumatized Austrians? timeline is unclear). Now the French are twisted in a pretzel and say sorry to Bolivians and all Latin Americans.

    What is happening? We know that even most famously good natured individuals can be very, very peeved. “Luke 12:10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” What kind of “Holy Spirit” was offended by Snowden?

    Someone described this unpardonable offense as follows: making the government look bad, and in the most aggravated case, ridiculous. The French republic demurely protected her secret parts from the prying eyes, but now Snowden says that in fact it allowed American voyeurs to bug its consulate and to paw over millions of e-mails and phone calls. To cite a graphic novel: “I am ruined! Now nobody will marry me!”.

  6. Les
    July 4, 2013, 4:23 pm

    Anti-authoritarian is clearly not an instinct appreciated by our presstitutes.

  7. Xpat
    July 4, 2013, 6:58 pm

    Thank you for this, Phil. I was just about to leave for the extended family bbq when I read this post. I was not looking forward to bad, all American food, patriotic music on the boombox, people dressed in red white and blue and everybody being polite and avoiding real conversation. Your post gave me something positive to celebrate.

  8. American
    July 4, 2013, 8:24 pm

    Happy Birthday Founders…..(sorry we’ve let things get so fucked up)

    “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people” – John Adams – Second President – 1797 – 1801


    “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.

    ‘It should be the highest ambition of every American to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unborn.

    -= letter to the Legislature of Pennsylvania, September 5, 1789

    ‘My ardent desire is, and my aim has been… to comply strictly with all our engagements foreign and domestic; but to keep the U States free from political connections with every other Country. To see that they may be independent of all, and under the influence of none. In a word, I want an American character, that the powers of Europe may be convinced we act for ourselves and not for others; this, in my judgment, is the only way to be respected abroad and happy at home.

    -= letter to Patrick Henry, October 9, 1775

    ‘The best and only safe road to honor, glory, and true dignity is justice.

    -= letter to Marquis de Lafayette, September 30, 1779


    ‘When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.”

    “An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens….

    ‘Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

    ‘Born in other countries, yet believing you could be happy in this, our laws acknowledge, as they should do, your right to join us in society, conforming, as I doubt not you will do, to our established rules. That these rules shall be as equal as prudential considerations will admit, will certainly be the aim of our legislatures, general and particular.

    ‘Cherish, therefore, the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, Judges, and Governors, shall all become wolves.

    ‘When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.

    ‘When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty

    ‘On every unauthoritative exercise of power by the legislature must the people rise in rebellion or their silence be construed into a surrender of that power to them? If so, how many rebellions should we have had already?.

    ‘In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes

    ‘Foreign influence is truly the Grecian horse to a republic. We cannot be too careful to exclude its influence.

  9. Inanna
    July 4, 2013, 8:44 pm

    I wonder what Snowden’s July 4th celebration is like.

    Thanks for this Phil.

  10. PilgrimSoul
    July 5, 2013, 2:33 pm

    I’ve gotten used to watching commentaries at MSNBC, and am a great fan of Alex Wagner and Joy Reid, and many others: they to some extent struck me as a group of extremely bright young progressives, restoring to some extent my faith in young liberals. But as soon as the Snowden thing broke, you could see them all pulling back. They are clearly parsing their words very carefully, because they’re all at the start of their careers, and getting fired from MSNBC (accompanied by some kind of public legal fight) would be a career-breaker. If you got fired from MSNBC you’d have to go to satellite radio, and in a year or two nobody would remember your name.

    Some at MSNBC, like Lawrence O’Donnell, went after Snowden very aggressively, using the most idiotic kind of classism and personal attacks. (For example, he constantly reiterated the fact that Snowden was a high school dropout, making me proud that I am a middle school dropout). Joy Reid also seemed to perceive Snowden’s revelations as an attack on the Obama administration. Rachel Maddow, as always, was very clever about not taking any kind of overt position. One doesn’t know if MSNBC President Phil Griffin has actually sent the memo, but everybody seems to be tiptoeing around the real issues involved very carefully. Only Chris Hayes and a couple of other guests were able to deal with the issues, although I think perhaps Glenn Greenwald may have been asked in as a guest a few times.

    MSNBC is really missing the presence of Phil Donahue and Keith Olbermann, because they were authentic progressives–which is precisely why they were fired. Both came from an authentic and powerful constituency. Donahue spoke for the liberal antiwar constituency with a solid base among women, and Keith Olbermann was simply funny as hell taking potshots at authority figures, and was especially good at making fun of the kind of feckless patriarchy represented by Bill O’Reilly. Both were real, both spoke with a real voice, and both saw and hated the growing authoritarianism in our country.

    I wish AJ America would hire them, but it will probably be too busy establishing its bona fides as the news agency that will someday send CNN out of business. AJ may decide to shy away from commentary because of the incredible anti-Arabism that prevails in this country.

    Conclusion: there’s probably a better way to express and tap into the deep vein of anti-authoritarianism that has always existed in the US, but we haven’t found it yet. One point that really needs to be made more often, something that the Snowden episode reveals very clearly, is the desperation of the US elite to kill or bag Snowden, and the utter contempt with which they treat leaders in Latin America. Also encouraging is the manner in which the best minds in Latin America now realize the necessity of strategically and publicly opposing Tio Sam and his greed-blinded corporate upper class, when it is necessary to do so. I hope Equador takes Snowden in. Phil Agee would be proud.

    • philweiss
      July 5, 2013, 3:45 pm

      Well put. The journalistic priests have fled on this question, and are waffling. That makes mainstream folks who stand up for him all the more impressive

    • kalithea
      July 6, 2013, 2:04 am

      KO PD at AJ? You mean the news network owned by Qatar’s monarchy? The same individuals funding the destruction of Syria?

      There are not many news outlets you can trust these days and not many journalists either. Corruption, propaganda and deception are everywhere these days.

      You know what so-called Liberals are calling real Liberals these days: Leftists. It’s the new derogatory term for anyone that thumbs their nose at American authoritarianism and imperialism, and the U.S. is all that and worse.

      By the way, the latest news is that Venezuela and Nicaragua have offered Snowden asylum but Iceland copped out. Now, how to get Snowden on a plane out of Moscow…without Obama downing it and everyone on board.

      Who would have thunk that South American countries would show Europe what backbone looks like? Europe quivers when the U.S. threatens . It’s shameful that countries like France, Spain and Portugal cowered to Obama’s bidding. Ugh!

      The U.S. is the world’s bully and the ugly American got even uglier.

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