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.

Packer sees the American Left as irresponsible and naive, preferring to congratulate itself for its illusory moral purity rather than confront the difficult questions of how to use American power to advance the cause of liberalism. As an alternative, Packer has proposed a robust American liberalism that embraces the complexities of modernity and is unashamed to prosecute the international fight against “political Islam” and “all people who fear and hate the modern democratic world, with its fluidity, its openness, its assertion of the individual’s freedom and of human equality.”

This understanding of politics harks back to Max Weber’s emphatic contempt for those who prize the purity of “ultimate ends” over the true political ethic of “responsibility,” under which politicians do morally dubious but pragmatically necessary things to advance their causes. Unlike most realists (who have also been affected by Weber’s ideas, as filtered through Hans Morgenthau), Packer believes that there is substantial scope for America to rework the world according to liberal ideals. First, however, American liberalism has to overcome two internal challenges—liberals’ own pusillanimity and the broader tendency to abstain from the grind and compromise of everyday politics.

Hence Packer describes Snowden as an “American type” in the tradition of Thoreau, who follows his conscience “regardless of where it takes him.” Packer quotes Snowden as saying that when driven to it, “you realise that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is.” For Packer, this is proof of Snowden’s political absolutism. He says, “Not caring about the outcome is what Max Weber, in ‘Politics as a Vocation,’ called ‘the ethic of ultimate ends,’ in contrast with ‘the ethic of responsibility.’” However, Packer does acknowledge that without “this ethic” and “the uncompromising Thoreauvians who wear it as a badge of honour,” Americans might never have known about mass surveillance.

Nonetheless, Snowden’s “distrust of institutions and hostility to any intrusion on personal autonomy place him beyond the sphere in American politics where left and right are relevant categories.” Instead, Packer describes Snowden as exemplifying a libertarianism that “tends towards absolutist positions, which grow best in the mental equivalent of a hermetic laboratory environment,” and which is “often on the verge of rejecting politics itself, with its dissatisfying but necessary trade-offs.” This libertarianism reflects Greenwald’s views too, “though not completely.” While Packer acknowledges that Snowden and Greenwald have made some important findings, he describes them as anti-institutionalist ideologues (Greenwald is a demagogue with a “pervasive absence of intellectual integrity”) whose pursuit of radical individualism has marginalized them from ordinary democratic debate.

To be sure, Greenwald is a bit of a bruiser, with a litigator’s eye for facts and arguments that promote his own cause while discrediting his opponent’s (which is another way of saying that, from a Weberian point of view, Greenwald is not a scholar but a politician). Perhaps, then, Packer’s patrician disdain can in part be forgiven. What is quite unforgivable are Packer’s own dubious standards of argument, which are starkly at odds with his de haut en bas style of ethical condescension.

Packer plainly misrepresents Snowden. He is wrong to claim that Snowden’s statement that the outcome doesn’t matter fails Weber’s test of political responsibility. Snowden is not saying that he doesn’t care what happens as a result of his actions. He is saying (as the previous sentences, which Packer doesn’t quote, make emphatically clear) that he doesn’t care what happens to him. From a Weberian perspective (in which the true political actor derives the meaning of his vocation from his service to a cause), this is more admirable than problematic.

Packer furthermore cuts off this purportedly damning quote just before Snowden clarifies why he leaked the documents. In the original interview, Snowden says:

If you realize that that’s the world that you helped create, and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation, who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that’s applied [italics added].

Far from rejecting democratic politics, Snowden states that his actions were intended to provide the public with information that had been hidden from it, and choices that had been taken away (a point he has stressed in subsequent interviews). By cutting off the quote, Packer encourages the reader to infer that Snowden doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions for American democracy, and is instead burnishing the mirror of his own moral rectitude. Perhaps Packer believes that this misleading truncation represents Snowden’s true beliefs better than Snowden’s own words. If so, he should have quoted those words in full, explained why he believes them to be untrue and allowed the reader to decide.


MICHAEL KINSLEY’S aristocratism is more straightforward. He does not object to leaking so much as to these particular leakers. They are not, apparently, the sort of chaps to whom one ought to entrust such sensitive political decisions.

In his review, Kinsley argues that not only can we not trust Glenn Greenwald with decisions over the disclosure of information, but we shouldn’t trust journalists or publishers either. While Kinsley acknowledges that the Snowden revelations were a “legitimate scoop,” which revealed criminal behavior by the NSA, he argues that governments have to have the “final say” over which information gets published in democracies.

This apparently straightforward argument became more tangled as Kinsley responded to attacks by Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, and Sue Halpern in the New York Review of Books. As he has responded to these critics, it has become increasingly clear that his views are incoherent and muddled—less interesting for the questions they address than for those they avoid.

He agrees with his critics that certain previous leakers like Daniel Ellsberg and Neil Sheehan shouldn’t have been imprisoned, and claims that leaks in the public interest should always be retrospectively protected. He declines to explain what the public interest is, or to discuss exactly when journalists should be sent to jail and when they should be allowed to leak, claiming that the question is “complicated and I have other things to do” (perhaps his conjecture is too large to fit between the margins of the New York Times website). Kinsley does suggest, in his response to Halpern, that at least one class of journalists can be relied on to do the right thing with sensitive information—trusted friends of Michael Kinsley like “Bart Gelman [sic],” who has indeed done excellent journalism. The “other characters in this drama,” such as Snowden and Greenwald, “not so much.”

Kinsley’s objection concerns what a member of the British ruling classes might describe as Greenwald’s and Snowden’s lack of soundness. He clearly believes that neither Greenwald nor Snowden has the right disposition to make good choices in ticklish situations. In Kinsley’s eyes, Snowden has the “sweet, innocently conspiratorial worldview of a precocious teenager,” while Greenwald possesses the same personality type as Robespierre and Trotsky.

This obsession with personality means that Kinsley’s review of Greenwald’s book has remarkably little to say about its actual topic (NSA surveillance). Instead, he devotes most of his jejune essay to the far more urgent topic of the relationship between journalistic ethics and Greenwald’s purported fanaticism, paranoia and self-obsession.

His arguments are both beside the point and dubiously sourced. For example, Kinsley claims that the fact that Greenwald and his fans can express their views without being punished “undermines his own argument that ‘the authorities’ brook no dissent.” This might have been a respectable debating point if Greenwald’s book had not discussed the repeated harassment and detention of his colleagues Laura Poitras and Jacob Appelbaum by immigration officials, apparently in retaliation for the high crime of annoying U.S. authorities. Similarly, Kinsley sneers at Greenwald’s indignation at David Gregory, who asked Greenwald why he shouldn’t be prosecuted as a criminal. The continued efforts of U.S. prosecutors to redefine the politics of leaking so as to indict journalists as well as their sources suggest that Greenwald had every right to be worried and angry.

No doubt Greenwald is not overly modest, subtle or generous to his opponents. Yet this is beside the point. Greenwald makes a strong case that the advent of the Internet has made mass surveillance far easier and more dangerous than in the past, and he provides mountains of well-documented evidence to support it. And Kinsley?

Rather than responding to this case, he prefers to pretend that Greenwald is a paranoid pseudorevolutionary, and goes on to pick a fight over journalistic ethics. In Kinsley’s account, Greenwald’s personality flaws and obsessions explain why he is frightened by ubiquitous online surveillance. Hence, there’s no need to worry about whether he is right.

Kinsley here exemplifies a broader problem. Halpern has observed that Kinsley and other critics of the leakers like to focus on Greenwald’s and Snowden’s purported personal flaws rather than the issues that motivated them to act. Put differently, Kinsley, Wilentz and Packer have a hard time distinguishing between personality and politics. Each apparently believes that Greenwald’s and Snowden’s radical political beliefs show them to be paranoid demagogues, while their paranoid demagoguery demonstrates the worthlessness of their radical beliefs. This circular reasoning allows them to circumnavigate the difficult question of whether Snowden and Greenwald might be largely right, and what this might mean for liberalism.