18 September 2013
Dissent against the 'free world'
In a Nation magazine commentary entirely sympathetic toward the whistleblower Edward Snowden and acclaiming him as a modern-day dissident in the honorable 20th century tradition, Jonathan Schell makes what may prove a rhetorical faux pas. Lamenting the circumstances that forced Snowden to seek asylum in Russia, Schell observes, first, that "almost no fully democratic country would have him," and then "Only in unfree countries was Edward Snowden welcome." What's wrong with these observations? I don't mean to argue that Russia is a "free" country, although that's more up to local standards than some would accept. Rather, I question Schell's own resort, after he's concisely summarized the totalitarian potential of the U.S. surveillance regime, to "democratic" and "free" as labels for the U.S., its allies and clients. By that I don't mean to say that the U.S. is "unfree," either. What I mean to say is that Schell's vocabulary hasn't caught up with his critical thinking. He notes how the Obama administration has been quick to reject any characterization of Snowden as a "dissident." Schell recalls how that word became identified during the Cold War with those who opposed the "totalitarian" tyranny of the Soviet Bloc. He goes on to identify the "ambition to control the entire globe" as a "totalitarian tendency" facilitated by the scope of U.S. surveillance, and reminds us that the U.S. employs its power, presumably in the name of "freedom," at the expense of the personal privacy many deem essential to freedom. There are words for that sense of freedom that justifies trampling on the freedom of others, but "freedom" isn't really adequate to the purpose. During the Cold War, the canonization of Soviet Bloc dissidents underscored the common American belief that the Cold War was a struggle in defense of freedom against a global tyrannical threat. That thinking influences the perception that Snowden has somehow surrendered the moral status of a dissident by accepting asylum in Russia -- that by doing so he somehow aids and comforts the supposed tyrant Putin. All too many Americans -- though the number seems to have dwindled in the last decade -- still believe that their country's main interest in the world is the preservation of freedom, and that any blow to American power prestige imperils freedom worldwide. These people really are on to something, but as I suggested earlier, their vocabulary isn't quite right. Jonathan Schell would make his own meaning clearer if he would put aside the free/unfree dichotomy, while reserving the right to denounce tyranny wherever he sees it. It might make more sense to identify the American cause, from the Cold War to the present day, with the particular form of freedom called privilege, opposed but not conceptually opposite to the agendas behind other forces in the world. That would make more clear exactly what people like Snowden and his sympathizers are dissenting against