30 January 2014

Are whistleblowers enemies of liberalism?

As a contributing editor to The New Republic, the historian Sean Wilentz has carved a niche for himself as a forceful apologist for centrist liberalism as practiced by the Democratic party. I've credited him with propounding a "Neo-Lincolnist" doctrine that presents Old Abe as a role model for an idealist politics that doesn't eschew horse-trading and arm-twisting when it can further liberal ideals. He regularly chides those whose idea of politics is too rhetorical or exclusively deliberative, arguing that sometimes it takes more than speeches, though it should never take violence, to make people do what you want. In the current issue Wilentz goes after the leakers and whistleblowers -- or most of them -- who've embarrassed the NSA and the Obama administration, while castigating those liberals who support their work. His polemic is two-pronged. He contends that the fears raised by the leakers are mostly unjustified, and at the same time goes after the leakers McCarthy style. That is, he hopes to make the leakers odious in the eyes of right-minded (or is that center-minded?) TNR readers by suggesting their guilt by association with bad guys, bad ideas, etc.  Focusing specifically on Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Snowden's journalist ally Glenn Greenwald -- he's curiously silent on Bradley Manning, perhaps because Manning's gender issues make an ad hominem attack too risky -- Wilentz argues that "the leakers despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it." Thus he attempts to demonstrate that Snowden is a virtual gun nut who only turned against the NSA after Obama's election; that Snowden and Greenwald are far too admiring of Ron Paul, mention of whom justifies a litany of all the dubious ideas, however relevant to the issues at hand, associated with Paul; that Snowden, Greenwald and Assange can all be labeled as "libertarian paranoids," and that Assange in particular is an arch-individualist distrustful of institutional authority, yet all seem to get along well with the arch-authoritarian Vladimir Putin. The three leakers "reside in a peculiar corner of the political forest, where the far left meets the far right, often but not always under the rubric of libertarianism," Wilentz writes of Greenwald in particular, yet their leaks have only aided and comforted enemies of liberty around the world.

What's left of Wilentz's defense of the NSA after we toss out all the ad hominem stuff? He concedes that Snowden's leaks "have revealed worrisome excesses," but that Snowden showed bad faith by not addressing them in the correct way. His problem, common to the leakers, is that he thinks it "impossible ... to reform this clandestine Leviathan from the inside" and seeks to "spin the meaning of the documents they have released to confirm their animating belief that the United States is an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions." According to Wilentz, the leakers haven't proven their case. While the NSA is "in need of major reform," Wilentz argues that it "has acted far more responsibly than the claims made by the leakers and publicized by the press." He believes that the leakers' libertarian paranoia has blown their revelations out of proportion in their own eyes. Their paranoia -- if you concede the label -- has no place in a liberal democracy.

The leakers and their supporters would never hand the state modern surveillance powers, even if they came wrapped in all sorts of rules and regulations that would constrain their abuse. They are right to worry, but wrong --even paranoid -- to distrust democratic governments in this way. Surveillance and secrecy will never be attractive features of a democratic government, but they are not inimical to it, either. This the leakers will never understand.

For "democratic," read "representative" and it makes more sense. The problem with the leakers, in Wilentz's eyes, is that they seem unwilling to delegate to any representative "modern surveillance powers. "Democratic" government, however, depends on this delegation as an act of faith by the citizenry. By tarring the leakers as libertarians, Wilentz wants to suggest that the real problem isn't that they don't trust government with certain powers, but that they don't trust government at all, such distrust being inimical to liberal representative democracy. But their relations with Russia suggest to Wilentz that only the real enemies of democracy, the authoritarians, benefit from the leakers' compulsive distrust of democracy in America. What Wilentz can't take seriously is the leakers' implicit assumption that American hegemony is a greater threat to the world than the power of any authoritarian state, that such hegemony is the ultimate authoritarianism that belies all boasts of liberty at home. If the leakers want to say that, we can debate it, but Wilentz isn't interested in that debate. He seems convinced that American power can never be a bad thing -- as long as Democrats wield that power, I suppose -- and he reads almost like a neocon as he waxes Russophobic, arguing in effect that to be against the U.S. on any point is to be against liberty (despite one's libertarian pretensions) and for tyranny. On on level, I can see where he's coming from. A lot of today's distrust of complex systems is irrational and ill-informed, and for Wilentz the leakers fit that profile. It's one thing for him to argue that the leakers' own evidence fails to prove their case; each of us can test that premise on our own. It's another to suggest that citizens have a duty to trust their government with modern surveillance powers. I'm sure Wilentz doesn't see this as a blind trust or an absolute duty, but when the subject is a permit for secret activity, there seems to be more ground for enduring skepticism than Wilentz would concede. And when his argument for trust closes out a threefold hatchet job on the leakers that one might expect to read in a Russian newspaper, it doesn't quite turn out as trustworthy as Wilentz might hope.


Anonymous said...

So I'd have to guess Wilentz doesn't support the Constitution. The government should NEVER have a "right" to spy, en masse, on it's own citizens without writ or warrant. I believe that is, to an extent, stipulated in our Constitution.

Samuel Wilson said...

Wilentz writes that "many of the Snowden documents released thus far have had nothing whatsoever to do with domestic surveillance" and insists, as I quoted, that the government "is not recklessly spying on its citizens." But it's fair to ask whether he has domestic spying in mind when he says surveillance is "not inimical" to democracy.

Anonymous said...

"many of the Snowden documents released thus far have had nothing whatsoever to do with domestic surveillance"
Which would infer that some do.

"is not recklessly spying on its citizens."
How, exactly, does Mr. Wilentz define the word "recklessly", I wonder?

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