Smears, Spying, Snowden & the State

Before she broke down in tears on national TV apologizing to Mitt Romney for mocking trans-racial adoption, Melissa Harris-Perry used her MSNBC show to attack Edward Snowden for seeking aslyum in other countries rather than staying in the U.S. to face the consequences for his disclosure of the NSA’s mass surveillance practices. Rather than discuss the constitutionality of what the NSA is doing, how it damages our reputation abroad and how it violates basic conceptions of privacy, Harris-Perry did her duty to the establishment to shift the narrative from what Snowden had shared with the world to his traveling around the world.

This sort of thing is sadly still going, and what is tragic is that it is still coming from the “left” media. In an article in The New Republic (later reprinted in the UK’s The New Statesman), Sean Wilentz devotes many paragraphs to personal attacks on Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange, grasping at every straw he can to portray all three men as extremist libertarian nutjobs that no “decent” tweedy liberal (just the sort of demographic TNR aims for) would dare make common cause with. As the article’s title bluntly implies, no self-respecting member of the liberal class should support what these individuals are doing because these individuals hold (or have held in the past) political views that just are not acceptable in the left’s mutual admiration society!

Henry Farrell dissects this obvious hitpiece very well over at Crooked Timber. The bottom line, however, is that it doesn’t matter to me (nor should it matter to anyone) if Snowden wants to privatize Social Security or if Greenwald at one point Ron Paul. The point of what they did was to shine the spotlight on the surveillance state, not on themselves. The fact is we were being kept in the dark about the extent to which the government was spying on us, on allied nations and their leaders, and even Congress did not know that the PATRIOT Act was being used in the way it was. When even the law-makers who crafted the law think it is being used above and beyond the authority it was meant to invest, that means it’s time for the body politic to pause and at least reflect (if not outright reject) what the government is doing. Rather than get distracted by smears and side conversations about whether Edward Snowden is Boris Badenov or if Glenn Greenwald is a “respectable” left-winger, the debate needs to be about whether what the NSA is doing is acceptable and whether Obama’s┬áproposed (and possibly unworkable) reforms are adequate.

Hacks like Mark Ames have argued that Greenwald and Snowden are out to make celebrities of themselves, releasing info on NSA surveillance piecemeal rather than all at once, thereby enchancing their images and creating a cult of cyber-libertarians around themselves. This is risible to me since the main criticism against WikiLeaks and Greenwald for so long was that they weren’t careful enough about disclosing sensitive information, putting American lives at risk (which was and never has been proved). And if Snowden is giving interviews and Greenwald appears frequently on TV, perhaps it is not so much that they want the attention as that someone has to push back against an administration that demonizes them and an access-hungry media that is all too often eager to parrot that administration’s talking points without critical reflection.

I strongly suggest reading this piece by Peter Frase over at Jacobin about how some on the left see defending the state as a knee-jerk reaction, as if all libertarian attacks on the state are the same as neoliberal attacks on the welfare state. Simply put, the national security state and the welfare state are not the same thing, and in fact, the state has been more than happy to go along with the neoliberal program of eroding the latter and strengthening the former — more often than not, to protect private interests rather than to enact policies to aid and protect the helpless and the disadvantaged.