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.