Big Brother’s Liberal Friends

October 30, 2014 Topic: Domestic PoliticsSecurity Region: United States

Big Brother’s Liberal Friends

Sean Wilentz, George Packer and Michael Kinsley are a dismal advertisement for the current state of mainstream liberal thought in America. They have systematically misrepresented and misunderstood Edward Snowden and the NSA.


IT IS strange that the Obama administration has so avidly continued many of the national-security policies that the George W. Bush administration endorsed. The White House has sidelined the key recommendations of its own advisers about how to curtail the overreach of the National Security Agency (NSA). It has failed to prosecute those responsible for torture, on the principle that bygones should be bygones, extending a courtesy to high officials that it has notably declined to provide to leakers like Chelsea Manning. The result is a remarkable degree of continuity between the two administrations.

Yet this does not disconcert much of the liberal media elite. Many writers who used to focus on bashing Bush for his transgressions now direct their energies against those who are sounding alarms about the pervasiveness of the national-security state. Others, despite their liberal affectations, have perhaps always been enthusiasts for a strong security state. Over the last fifteen months, the columns and op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post have bulged with the compressed flatulence of commentators intent on dismissing warnings about encroachments on civil liberties. Indeed, in recent months soi-disant liberal intellectuals such as Sean Wilentz, George Packer and Michael Kinsley have employed the Edward Snowden affair to mount a fresh series of attacks. They claim that Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and those associated with them neither respect democracy nor understand political responsibility.


These claims rest on willful misreading, quote clipping and the systematic evasion of crucial questions. Yet their problems go deeper than sloppy practice and shoddy logic. For one thing, Wilentz, Packer and Kinsley are all veterans of the Clinton-era battles between liberals and the Left. Wilentz in particular poses as a latter-day Arthur Schlesinger, shuttling backwards and forwards between his academic duties and his political fealties. As for Packer, he has championed a muscular liberalism, pugnacious in the fight against moral purists at home and political Islam abroad. And Kinsley, a veteran of the wars over neoliberalism, has always been a contrarian with a talent for repackaging the common wisdom of the establishment as something edgy and counterintuitive.

Each has manacled himself to an intellectual identity forged in decades-old combat with the Left. Each, as a result, is apparently incapable of understanding the actual challenge that Greenwald and Snowden pose to American politics.

National-security liberals like Wilentz and Packer believe that America should be, and much of the time is, a defender of liberty both at home and abroad. A strong America secures liberties at home against America’s enemies, while promoting those liberties internationally, often through military interventions. This leads them to argue for deference to the political institutions that propagate liberalism in both spheres. Kinsley does not express a coherent political philosophy so much as straightforward horror at the idea that rabble-rousers might decide what national-security information gets published.

Snowden and his companions have shown that national-security liberals’ arguments for deference rest on false assumptions. The truth is that not only are America’s overseas interventions problematic by themselves, but they are also increasingly undermining domestic liberties. Intelligence efforts that are supposed to be focused abroad turn out to have sweeping domestic consequences. It’s impossible to distinguish intelligence data on domestic and foreign actors. Security officials in various countries can work together across borders to circumvent and undermine domestic protections, actively helping each other to remake laws that restrict their freedom of operation. And at home, officials can use these new arrangements to work around and undermine civil rights. This commingling of domestic and international politics is complex and poorly understood. It helps explain why national-security liberals have such difficulty in comprehending—let alone refuting—Snowden’s and Greenwald’s arguments.


THREE SPECIFIC articles have played a central role in the liberal counterattack against Snowden and Greenwald. In January, Wilentz wrote a lengthy essay for the New Republic, lumping Snowden and Greenwald together with Julian Assange as purveyors of “paranoid libertarianism.” In its June issue, the British magazine Prospect published an article by Packer, which cited Wilentz in support of the claim that Greenwald and Snowden were Manicheans and zealots. That same month, Kinsley’s review of Greenwald’s recent book, No Place to Hide, appeared in the New York Times Book Review, denouncing Snowden as a romantic with a martyr complex, Assange as a narcissist and Greenwald as a revolutionary wannabe.

Each of these pieces filters Snowden and Greenwald through a different distorting lens. Wilentz likes to think of himself as a muscular New Deal Democrat, protecting the legacy of liberalism (and, not incidentally, the politics of Clintonism) from both the Left and Right. On the one side, he has spent decades battling New Left historians who are suspicious of U.S. power. On the other, he has defended an ideal of Jacksonian democracy against the American Right’s fear of the state. Hence, it is unsurprising that Wilentz should view Greenwald and Snowden—the one a left-wing skeptic of American foreign policy, the other a libertarian skeptic of the state—with unabashed horror. What is rather startling, given Wilentz’s prominence as a writer and historian, is the absence of a coherent argument to structure and discipline his detestation.

To begin with, Wilentz claims that the paranoid libertarians’ true agenda has largely been ignored by the media. The “leakers despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it,” he writes. He treats Greenwald’s claim that the NSA and the U.S. government more broadly are deliberately destroying privacy as compelling evidence that the leakers have given up on reform from the inside, and are intentionally attacking something “much larger,” by “showing that the federal government has spun out of control” and “destroying the public’s faith in their government’s capacity to spy aggressively on our enemies while also protecting the privacy of its citizens.” Wilentz apparently sees Greenwald and Snowden, quite literally, as enemies of the state. By attacking the NSA, they are undermining faith in the federal government and hence, Wilentz intimates, in liberalism itself.

The greater part of Wilentz’s essay is an exhibition of horribles from the past lives and careers of Greenwald, Snowden and Assange. Unfortunate statements are excavated from their native circumstances for dissection and display. Reconstructed personal philosophies are eviscerated, stuffed and carefully posed in lifelike dioramas. Dubious assertions and intimations of guilt-by-association add color, if not quite verisimilitude, to the artfully constructed scenes.

The whole exercise in amateur taxidermy has the rhetorical purpose of stitching two very different claims together, creating the illusion that they are naturally conjoint. The first is that Wilentz’s antagonists are enemies of the “modern liberal state.” The second is that they are enemies of the “national security state.” The first, obviously, is rather more likely to worry liberal readers than the second. However, Wilentz’s evidence largely concerns the second. He eschews logical argument in favor of a superficially impressive accumulation of quasi-relevant details about his antagonists’ personal histories, which appear intended to suggest connections where none exist.

The resulting artificial monstrosity, like P. T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid, doesn’t hold up on close examination. Bits fall off if you poke it at all hard. If Wilentz’s underlying thesis—that it’s profoundly illiberal to oppose government spying—were expressed in seven words rather than seven thousand, it would be so obviously ridiculous as to be unpublishable in a serious magazine. A more scrupulous presentation of his opponents’ actual words might hurt his case nearly as badly. When Wilentz quotes Greenwald on the NSA’s radical agenda, he fails, for example, to inform the reader that Greenwald goes on, in the same interview, to suggest that we need to have the discussion about government spying “out in the open,” allowing us

as citizens, instead of having this massive surveillance apparatus built completely secretly and in the dark without us knowing anything that’s going on, [to] be informed about what kinds of surveillance the government is engaged in and have a reasoned debate about whether that’s the kind of world in which we want to live.

Calls for “reasoned debate” among informed citizens are the stuff of standard liberalism, not paranoid libertarian rants. For whatever reason, Wilentz declines to mention these and other similar quotes, behaving more as an inquisitor than a public intellectual.


GEORGE PACKER’S indictment of Snowden and Greenwald is better structured than Wilentz’s, and by far better written. Perhaps no writer alive is as skilled as Packer at conveying an air of weary and hard-won rectitude in a world of ethically ambiguous choices. It is unfortunate that this moral aristocratism is so deplorably misemployed. If anything, Packer’s article is more actively misleading than Wilentz’s.

Like Wilentz, Packer views Snowden and Greenwald in the context of his own decades-long battle against the Left. However, Packer’s animus is subtly different. Long before Snowden’s revelations came out, Packer excoriated the American Left for its “coy relativism,” accusing the American tradition of “political dissidence . . . at least since Thoreau” of having a “sneering contempt for average American life and a sentimental insistence that reality simply fall in line behind enlightened feelings.”