Edward Snowden and the Wolf Who Cried Plant

Naomi Wolf is taking a lot of flak this week from supporters of alleged NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden for her suggestion (via Facebook post) that Snowden may “not be who he purports to be” and that his “emphases seem to serve an intelligence/police state objective, rather than to challenge them.” The upshot, of course, being that perhaps Snowden isn’t blowing a real whistle against the state, but instead disseminating disinformation on the state’s behalf.

One particularly nasty response, from David Lindorff at Counterpunch, charges Wolf with “wild-eyed speculation,” “baseless and libelous accusations” and — oh, the humanity! — “self-promotion and grandstanding.”

On the one hand, I’m not sure that Wolf is really on to anything here. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a whistleblower really is someone who’s seen too much and thinks the world needs to see it too.

On the other hand, I don’t find Wolf’s musings outrageous. A bit paranoid, perhaps, but who can blame her? We’re well past the point where it’s become obvious that yes, they really ARE out to get us.

What’s behind the vitriolic responses to Wolf? In my opinion, two things: Confirmation bias and tunnel vision.

Most of us out here in the wilderness of political dissent have long suspected that the US government’s intelligence collection activities are closer to all-encompassing than the government itself usually admits to. That suspicion isn’t wild speculation — long before Snowden revealed the alleged details of the NSA’s phone and Internet spying, politicians and bureaucratic lobbyists had publicly advocated for and requested exactly those capabilities. Yes, they were shouted down and censured in public  … but that doesn’t mean they didn’t get what they wanted in the government’s hidden “black” budget lines.

Snowden is telling us the one thing everyone loves to hear: That we’ve been right all along. Naturally, we want very much to believe him. That’s called confirmation bias. It doesn’t mean he’s lying. It just means we’re prone to believe him because we want to, rather than because we should.

Most of us out here in the wilderness of political dissent — and yes, this includes me — also often miss the forest for the trees when considering the intent and impact of government statements and admissions. The trees are us activists on the political margins. Our relationship to the state is adversarial, and we naively (and perhaps a bit grandiosely) assume that when the US government addresses matters we care about, it is talking to us. But that’s usually not the case.

Usually, when government addresses matters we care about, it is talking to the forest: The hundreds of millions of Americans who fall into the “mainstream” or “apolitical” (or as we special, beautiful, dissident trees like to sneer, “apathetic”) categories of civic involvement.

How does this tunnel vision affect our assessment of Snowden’s revelations?

Well, the way we trees see it, the government has been “forced” to “admit” that it’s doing nasty, illegal things that concern us and that all right-thinking people (i.e. people who think like us trees) will find outrageous.

But how does “the forest” see it? Being a tree myself, I can only guess, but my guess is that they see it the way they see most displays — even allegedly accidental ones — of government power. That is, they see it as a warning not to step out of line. A warning against discussing things on the Internet or over the phone that Uncle Sugar might not approve of. A warning, to put as fine a point as possible on it, that Big Brother is watching them.

At some point, an emerging police state stops trying to hide or justify its nastiness and starts emphasizing and flaunting that nastiness — although it may do so subtly or indirectly instead of openly. Its minions no longer worry about convincing you they’re right. They’re content to just bully, threaten and scare you into submission.

Wolf’s hypothesis is that the Snowden revelations may be an intentional instance of the latter — perhaps timed to distract attention from the trial of real whistleblower Bradley Manning — rather than an accidental failure of the former. Is she right? I don’t know. But the idea is far from outrageous, and should be taken seriously.

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