‘Tis of thee

I want to comment on this widely discussed bit by Josh Marshall:

Let me put my cards on the table. At the end of the day, for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support. I’m not a bystander to it. I’m implicated in what it does and I feel I have a responsibility and a right to a say, albeit just a minuscule one, in what it does. I think a military force requires a substantial amount of secrecy to operate in any reasonable way. So when someone on the inside breaks those rules, I need to see a really, really good reason. And even then I’m not sure that means you get off scott free. It may just mean you did the right thing.

So do I see someone [Manning] who takes an oath and puts on the uniform and then betrays that oath for no really good reason as a hero? No.

The Snowden case is less clear to me. At least to date, the revelations seem more surgical. And the public definitely has an interest in knowing just how we’re using surveillance technology and how we’re balancing risks versus privacy. The best critique of my whole position that I can think of is that I think debating the way we balance privacy and security is a good thing and I’m saying I’m against what is arguably the best way to trigger one of those debates.

But it’s more than that. Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage — choose your verb — the US intelligence apparatus and policies he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal. I think it’s easy to exaggerate how much damage these disclosures cause. But I don’t buy that there are no consequences. And it goes to the point I was making in an earlier post. Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically – for better or worse – to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?

I, like Josh Marshall, identify very strongly with the political community called the United States of America. But for precisely that reason, my reaction is almost precisely the opposite of Marshall’s.

As a human being, it is very important to me to be good. But I am not meaningfully a human being as an individual. No one is, no matter how libertarian ones philosophy or how sterilely individualistic ones economic models. I do not identify with the political community called the United States like I might identify with a football team, hoping for victory against rivals simply because it is mine, my team. I identify with the United States of America as a vast and complex social and moral agent of which I have the privilege to be a part. I am elevated by my affiliation with, incorporation within, that community when it is a good community. I am diminished and pained and made nauseous when it is an evil community. Of course it is both, always, in various degrees, in my own shifting perceptions and those of others and in whatever unknowable objective reality might ever be ascribed to such a thing. But there are preponderances. A decade ago, my view was that the United States was, on the whole, in this imperfect realm of man, a good community. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, ” said Dr. King. I believed that about the United States, and I believed that about the United States’ role in the larger world. Now I hear various smug, self-righteous, powerful figures intone those words and I want to puke. In my tiny, flawed view — but I don’t think I am alone in this — the preponderances have shifted. As a community, our flaws are eclipsing our virtues. Men and women are imperfect, human communities are imperfect, but there are differences of degree and they matter. We are all born sinners, avaricious machines, selfish genes, but some work and strive and, to various degrees, perhaps even succeed at being better than they might be, and we should notice that, honor it. And when we are small and mean — perhaps without bad intentions but life is hard and the world is complex and we are buffeted by so many different forces, so many “incentives” — when we notice that we are small and mean, we should dishonor that, and work to change it.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an evil empire, and he was right to do so. That never meant that Russian people, individually, were bad people. That did not and would not justify anyone’s blowing up a Moscow apartment building, or attacking their soldiers, or any other prima facie awful thing. Violence in the service of good is not an impossible thing, perhaps, but it is a rare and very delicate thing at best. Violence ought never be justified in broad, sloppy brush strokes. Nothing would have justified a terrorist act against the Soviet Union, but it was a community whose moral character, with respect to both the lived experience inside it and its influence externally, was malign, and it was a matter of serious concern to people within and without that it should change. The community that was the Soviet Union is still evolving, and the jury is still out, as it will ever be, because human affairs are never permanent. For the sake of the people inside that community and for the sake of all the rest of us, we ought to wish them the best.

It pains me very much to say so, but the United States today is not a benign community. We have, over the last decade, undermined nearly all of the reasons that I, perhaps as a fool, thought distinguished us as virtuous, in our own particular way, despite our many flaws. A decade ago, I trusted our institutions, our government, our think tanks and university and third estate, our processes and our evaluations of our own competences, and supported what turned out to be a disastrous war in Iraq. Even though I observed what at the time were pretty obvious housing and credit bubbles, I believed our system was self-correcting, that those who fueled those errors would eventually be held accountable, economically and sometimes criminally, that we would suffer institutions to fall and titans to be shamed in order to preserve the integrity of our economy. I remember how ashamed I was when, in 2005, my then-girlfriend (now wife) came to visit the United States, and we were driving around with people on NPR debating whether torture was OK. Today my country holds people it has exonerated of wrongdoing in a tropical prison for indefinite terms because it cannot overcome the bureaucratic and political obstacles to letting them live, somewhere, the lives that they like each of us have been blessed with. Today my country sends remote control airplanes into a country we are not at war with and kills people it cannot identify in a program it assures us is “surgical”. When called to account for harm to noncombatants, it classifies “males of military age” as militants to keep the statistics flattering.

I am, and I will always be, a member of the political community called the United States of America. That is why these things pain me. The fact that I identify with this community does not mean I identify with the state, its government, its military institutions, even its civil society as presently constituted. I certainly want to identify with those things. I certainly used to identify with those things, ostentatiously and very proudly. In the community we all wish we belonged to, we would honor the state and the constellation of prominent institutions that surround it, banks and universities and newsmedia, as constituting a system of political and economic and necessarily moral governance that functions reasonably well, whose actors police and correct themselves when, inevitably, things go askew. I don’t think a reasonable observer can claim this describes the institutions of the United States right now. Laws are made of words. There is no rule of law in a society where Presidents argue over what “is” is, or claim “domestic” e-mails aren’t “targeted” to avoid discussing whether or not they are read. There is no rule of law when our leaders offer no language that meshes with commonsense reality, only phrases carefully parsed not to be caught out as outright lies while revealing as little truth as possible. There is no rule of law when members of incumbent power centers, in government or banking or the military, are almost never held to account for crimes that in ordinary life would be grave, while those they dislike are jailed naked and sleepless for the sin of betraying their secrets without any hint or allegation of malice.

Even in a good community, there is a role for secrets. I have taken some heat for defending, in principle, a role for opacity in banking, and would certainly defend a sphere of secrecy in diplomacy and governance. And it is always true that some cockroaches will thrive in the shadows. But though we may sometimes choose to blind ourselves, we ought not do so blindly. I might entrust my funds to a banker in promise of a sure return, but only if I have reason to believe, in the context of the web of institutions to which she belongs, she can be trusted to do reasonable things rather than steal the advance. I needn’t mislead myself that she is infallible. But I should know that in the unlikely event of a failure, it will be a virtuous failure, which in practice implies an accountable failure. Secrecy may be necessary, but it is intolerable without accountability, accountability in fact not in form. Our core institutions and the humans within them no longer hold themselves accountable for their large crimes, though they occasionally offer scapegoats from their ranks for small ones. They have evolved ingenious contrivances with elaborate rituals of accountability whose lack of substance is most invisible to the people enmeshed in them. This will kill us, is killing us, slowly and by degrees and not before it kills many other people. It is because I identify with my political community, because I do not exist except as a part of that community, that I am desperate to change this. I cannot be a good person, and I cannot be happy, when this is my polity.

The comfortable, “legitimate”, forms of accountability are failing, have failed. Whistleblowing is accountability by other means, and we need that, and ought to celebrate it. Our problem is not that it is done too frequently or too lightly. I might prefer Edward Snowden hadn’t gone to China(ish), but the health and virtue of my community is not a contest, not a rivalry with that or any other country. Contra Marshall, Snowden has “upended” nothing. Nothing he did prevents us from doing as much or as little surveillance as we, collectively, choose to do, and we may yet choose to do quite a lot of it. What Snowden has done is force us to own up, to stop pretending we are not doing what we all know we are doing, to stop pretending we do not know what is being done to us. It is on us, as a political community, to decide what we want to do and most importantly, how, on what terms, we want to do it. The people to whom we should listen the least are Dianne Feinstein and Barack Obama, John Boehner and Lindsay Graham, James Clapper. The tragedy is they probably have as hard time telling when they are lying as we do, they are so lost in it all. This isn’t their decision. This is our country.

Update History:

  • 18-Jun-2013, 3:25 a.m. PDT: Reworked sentence about noticing ourselves being “small and mean” a bit (no change in meaning, but removed a duplicate “but” and made it slightly less awkward, i hope, although nearly every sentence of this piece is awkward.) italicized rituals in “rituals of accountability”.

23 Responses to “‘Tis of thee”

  1. Nemo writes:

    There is nothing to discuss. There is no “decision” left to make.

    Given the choice between (a) thousands of little bureaucrats listening to every conversation anyone ever has and (b) a 0.000001% increased probability of one little girl getting her legs blown off, a clear majority will choose (a). That is our society. The system reflects that society, and it is not going to change. (This is why not voting is the only rational choice, but that is a topic for another time.)

    You only have two options: Pray that the bureaucrats are benevolent, or take your privacy into your own hands. The latter is probably impossible and, in any event, will eventually be illegal. Not that it matters because you are most likely too lazy to bother trying.

    I keep wondering who got it more right, Orwell or Huxley. I go back and forth.

    I do not know whether there was ever a fight, but if there was, it ended long ago. Liberty is dead. Privacy is dead. Wealth, power, and the almighty State are all that exist. Have a nice day.

    Please do keep blogging though.

  2. stone writes:

    That film , “the lives of others” set in 1980s East Germany gives an amazing view of a police state. It is shocking how people collectively can form a country very different from the one they want. I think we all have a big responsibility to dig in our heels about not going down that road.

  3. stone writes:

    For myself about my own country (the UK), I’m now much more skeptical as to whether the UK is “good” than I was a decade ago BUT I don’t think the UK was better then. I just think I have a more realistic view.

  4. […] ‘Tis of thee Steve Waldman. Read this. […]

  5. ed writes:

    at one time josh marshall would have reveled in the role of radical critic of government abuse and defender of the sort of rights and values that mr snowden now propounds. but that was when bush and cheney ruled the roost. with the candidate of hope and change in office marshall, like many of his peers (just watch msnbc for e.g.), has performed a 180 degree turn that is almost orwellian in audacity. what was once bad is now good. more than anything else the snowden affair is exposing the fraud and hypocrisy of so-called liberals in the media. they are, as we should have realised all along, just hacks and shills.

  6. […] Steve Waldman […]

  7. If time is short, theoretical discussions must end. We need to stop saying this is wrong, and craft actual policy choices, and establish new problem solving methods… we need shit we think can get PASSED. Right now I suggest two, and getting others to cheer, fight or suggest other plans should be incredibly easy – feelings don’t matter STRATEGIC PLANS matter…. this is the equivalent of ballot issue voting.

    We cannot just elect politicians and hope they form policy, we need to USE THE INTERNET to form policy, teach it to voters, and get them demanding it happen. There is very little space between online petitions and wikilaw writing.

    As with gay marriage, the solution to what ails us is first and foremost the Internet.

    1. As judo, we ought to demand a law that any information derived from gleaned from NSA calls is fruit of the poisoned tree, nothing learned during calls, or investigated, determined bc of the metadata should be admissible in a court of law.

    Let the FBI hate the NSA, pit them against one another. Get police organizations putting their hands over their ears and screaming LA-LA-LA whenever metadata is mentioned.

    2. We need to get serious about watching the state, her contractors and her public employees. We should first and foremost create a $1K tax credit to watch government. Anyone who wants to send $1K less to the government include $1K worth of receipts, buying cameras, drones, subscribing to cloud based data storehouses, pay developers to extend open source code that watches the watchers. We should outright limit profits on government contracts, demand total open books to the line item, expose their bank accounts. We should do the same to public employees. We used to say “good enough for govt. work” – today our public sector wouldn’t know a productivity gain if it sht on their front stoop…. we should AT LEAST say, “since we overpay you, you will stop using cash, and your bank accounts will be open to society.”

    This is a less radical than it appears… it is a new legal framework that extends the first and second amendments to the age of the Internet.

    In the end, I’d rather have fun loving kinky public employees feel be terrified they will be laughed at and have the citizens that pay income axes feel secure, than the other way around. The upside is BILLIONS of dollars a year in a new kind of free press, using coders, to dig thru and find and root out cronyism, fraud, and corruption. Everyone commits three felonies a day? Well then lets establish the felonies committed by the public sector BEFORE we play this game.

    Nation-states are a fact. Man vs. the State is a fact. Trust but verify is a fact.

    This leads us to: We get special treatment versus other citizens other places. We must oversee and have the ability to dominate our state when we need to. Technology is the answer to all of our problems.

  8. diptherio writes:

    Welcome to the club Steve, now whatcha think we all should do about this? That’s the question some of us were struggling with 10 years ago and still are. We’re glad to have your brain power working on our side and hope that you will devote no small amount of your organic processing capabilty to helping solve this very difficult, and very important, problem.

  9. what to do? what to do? motherf’er.

  10. Peter K. writes:

    I agree with Waldmann for the most part in his post. He should use more ALL CAPS like Morgan.

    Marshall: “And it goes to the point I was making in an earlier post. Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically – for better or worse – to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?”

    Waldmann is correct to mention Dr. King. Replace Snowden with Dr. King in Marshall’s quote. Sometimes the “democratically elected leaders” – Bush, Reagan, Nixon? – behave badly. Or in King’s case, the elected government hadn’t evolved yet. The people were ahead of it. That’s why you see mass protests in Istanbul (was Constantinople) and Brazil(!)


    I wonder if Marshall and other liberals like him are being partisan. They would be saying different things if Bush was President.

    What are Marshall’s views on the Vietnam War? For me the Vietnamese communists were fighting an anti-colonial war and it wasn’t our business. The domino theory was bogus. With Iraq, Saddam Hussein was Dick Cheney on steroids. He invaded Iran and annexed Kuwait. He ran a police/surveillance state which committed genocide against the Kurds in the north and massacred the Shia in the south. If I were talking to a vet, I’d say it’s good Saddam is gone. See the Arab Spring.

    Torture and Guantanamo/black sites etc. “taking off the gloves” has damaged the U.S.’s reputation and has been painful for me as well. One way to look at it though is that this stuff has always been going on and 9/11 just brought it out into the open.

    This surveillance state data mining is new though thanks in part to technological innovations. Americans are complacent about it – as much else they’re busy with work and raising a family. When it becomes a problem after an economic disaster coupled with a Nixonian President, it will be too late. Snowden has done a service at great personal cost. Guys like him and Aaron Swartz are heros and men of conscience. And Snowden is a Ron Paulite! Who hates the Fed! (ramble all you want Mr. Waldmann, like Morgan, I do in comments)

    Looks like Bernanke is gone:

    “WASHINGTON — President Obama suggested that he was likely to nominate a new Federal Reserve chairman later this year, saying in a television interview aired late Monday that the current chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, had “already stayed a lot longer than he wanted or he was supposed to.”

    Mr. Obama praised Mr. Bernanke’s leadership of the Fed, which has mounted an aggressive campaign to revive the economy over the last several years. His second term as chairman of the central bank runs through the end of January.”

  11. Peter K. writes:

    My comment was poorly worded as usual. I don’t know Snowden’s views on the Fed. He did give money to the Ron Paul campaign. Paul and Bernanke don’t agree on much. Libertarians and Market Monetarists disagree was well.

  12. […] interfluidity » ‘Tis of thee. […]

  13. anyday writes:

    I’ve been reading Josh Marshall since before we invaded Iraq. Although Marshall was always more conservative than I, after Obama was elected he turned into a partisan hack. I think he started getting money for his site from some Democratic group? or maybe it was fatherhood? I’m shamelessly patriot and love this country, the people, the land and our constitution. and there is no way you can reconcile the NSA spying with the 4th amendment. As Orwell said, one of the main differences between a democracy and a totalitarian regime is the existence of secret police. We are no longer a democracy.

  14. A dude writes:

    This is where the society is in its cycle from birth to collapse. Can’t fight it, and this stage may last a generation or more. All you can do is chose the way you live your own life.

  15. Dan Kervick writes:

    What has Snowden really revealed that 90% of us didn’t already believe was going on? All he did was tell us the name of the program.

    During the Bush administration, Republicans were authoritarians. Then a Democrat was elected, and a large bunch of them became libertarians. If a Republican is elected in 2016, most of them will go back to being authoritarians again.

    Spare me the patriotic poetry. Marshall has always been a party hack. During the Bush administration, Josh Marshall would have cooked up some reason to support Snowden as a hero of American liberty. Now that his party is in charge, Snowden is odious.

  16. Thank you for this post.

    As an immigrant to the U.S., and a diasporic Canadian since before adolescence, I share your moral impulses but not the identification with a polity.

    Which makes things a little difficult, as I see a lot of shared ground between your impulses of what a healthy country looks like as a citizen, and my impulses of the same, but from a national non-place.

    But I’m encouraged by movements such as yours, particularly as the institutions here are more attuned to the voices of nationals (“constituents”), and the benefits would be experienced more broadly.

    You have allies domestically and abroad. Despite much of the anti-American rhetoric people speak of, much of the world is more interested in an America that tries to live up to its own professed standards, and would welcome any movement in that direction.

  17. […] See full story on interfluidity.com […]

  18. […] Interfluidity on Snowden and love of country, and more from him […]

  19. DocMerlin writes:

    “(a) thousands of little bureaucrats listening to every conversation anyone ever has and (b) a 0.000001% increased probability of one little girl getting her legs blown off, a clear majority will choose (a).”

    But that isn’t the choice.
    The choice is between a president with enemies lists, that blows the legs off little girls using his army of flying robots, and listens in to all your conversations vs one without that.

  20. Robert H. writes:

    This is over-emotional. It’s enough to say “Snowden’s leak didn’t harm anyone, was motivated by good intentions, and revealed useful information, so I support it.” You don’t need to go to “America’s government is a force of pure evil and all who expose its secrets are righteous,” nor will more than a fringe follow you when you do go there, nor will you like all the repercussions of defending that position (IE, it raises questions about what betrayals of the government aren’t justified if America is so evil that some betrayals are automatically justified).

  21. bmcburney writes:

    The rest of us in the USA are just not worthy of having someone with your very refined sense of ethics live among us. We only degrade your extreme wonderfulness by our disgusting thoughts and actions. You should leave. Perhaps your leaving would be enough for us to see the error of our ways but, if not, it would surely be sufficient punishment for them.

  22. […] 4. Interfluidity on the government. […]

  23. This is just fantastic.