The Banality of Condemnation

It seems that the standard media response when whistleblowers come out these days is to twist their images in such a way that no one could ever find them sympathetic figures. It happened to Daniel Ellsberg. It happened to Pfc. B. Manning. And now, it ‘s former Booz Allen Hamilton system administrator Edward Snowden’s turn on the character assassination stage.

Snowden came out on Sunday (the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald) as the person who leaked information about multiple NSA programs to the press. Since then, many commentators have taken it upon themselves to not only question Snowden’s allegiance, but wonder aloud: “Who paid him off?” This task has been taken on most completely by two of journalism’s greatest hacks: New York Times columnist David Brooks and New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin.

Toobin, in his “Daily Comment” piece “Edward Snowden Is No Hero,” infers from the interviews Snowden has granted that he is a “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” Why?

“Any marginally attentive citizen, much less N.S.A. employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications. Perhaps he thought that the N.S.A. operated only outside the United States; in that case, he hadn’t been paying very close attention. […] Any government employee or contractor is warned repeatedly that the unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a crime. But Snowden, apparently, was answering to a higher calling.”

Toobin argues from the mindset that government legality automatically translates into universal morality. Because Snowden knew that leaking his knowledge of what the NSA was up to was illegal and did it anyway, he should be imprisoned for it. This is itself an abhorrent premise to adopt. But Toobin doubles down:

“The American government, and its democracy, are flawed institutions. But our system offers legal options to disgruntled government employees and contractors. They can take advantage of federal whistle-blower laws; they can bring their complaints to Congress; they can try to protest within the institutions where they work. But Snowden did none of this. 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.”

These are, almost word-for-word, the same blind appeals to authority that corporations like Walmart use to quell any thoughts in workers’ minds of doing something as outrageous as going on strike or unionizing. One has to wonder, if Toobin’s career had gone differently and he had ended up as a manager at a Walmart at the center of — for example — the largest class-action sexual discrimination lawsuit in history, whether he would use the same arguments against the women bringing attention to the problem.

But Toobin’s bloviations pale in comparison to the monolith of statism that is David Brooks’s latest column.

Brooks’slegendary ability to deify, rather than defy, authority bears only a slight mention. Last year, he wrote a column calling (no, this is not a joke) for statues of the elite to be erected in town squares nationwide. This time, Brooks takes his art to a new height (or nadir, depending on perspective).

Brooks starts his magnum opus by insulting Snowden’s intelligence; a bad move, considering the position he was in (not to mention the experience he had obtained) when he left Booz Allen Hamilton. Brooks quips, “[He] could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way through community college.”

This is only the beginning of Brooks’ attempts to paint Snowden as immoral because of his supposed lack of family values. He continues:

“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.”

Snowden also had a girlfriend. But besides that, this doesn’t seem like deviant behavior from someone in the intelligence community. Spying is a standoffish profession.

Finally, Brooks brings out the smoking gun: Snowden donated $500 to Republican US Representative Ron Paul ‘s 2012 presidential campaign. According to our favorite gumshoe columnist, that outward manifestation of dangerous libertarian ideals is what really makes Snowden a threat.

And, in a way, he’s right — If not for Snowden’s libertarian tendencies, the state’s sweeping eavesdropping and data collecting programs wouldn’t have been revealed to the public. We’d still be in the dark.

But that isn’t “dangerous.” At least, not in the same ways that David Brooks’ servility is dangerous.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory