Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The moral carpet bombing of Edward Snowden has begun

David Brooks vents his prejudices and treats us to pop sociology in search of moral clarity this morning. Nice how some things don't change.

Brooks first reduces Edward Snowden to a social stereotype on flimsy evidence, then condemns him in high moral dudgeon, then undercuts the basis of his condemnation without noticing. For bonus points, he throws in a near-nonsense assertion about the founding fathers' original intent that, insofar as it has any meaning at all, is more false than true.

Brooks' lede intones, "From what we know so far, Edward Snowden appears to be the ultimate unmediated man." That's Brookspeak for 'not a good boy.'  He does not accept the authority and inherent benevolence of Institutions -- in Brooksworld, the repository of all moral value.

Condemning the world's anti-Boy Scouts does not exhaust Brooks' font of indignation. No, the charge must be generational and societal. We are All at Fault, for we are raising a generation of idiots (in the Greek sense of individuals isolated from society):

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.
Well yes, computers do present new opportunities for the mathematically and mechanically gifted to isolate themselves.  But there have always been legions of bright, somewhat Aspergery young men more comfortable with the machines of the day than with the church youth group or other agents of socialization that Brooks so adores.  Where's the evidence that more young men (and women) are more disconnected now than in the past?  Or, for that matter, that Snowden fits this stereotype?  Brooks brings none to bear, except that Snowden didn't finish school, doesn't live with his mother and was once short with a neighbor. Societal breadown, thy name is Snowden.

Once he's established to his own satisfaction that Snowden is not one of us, Brooks starts the moral carpet bombing, with an anaphoric chorus: He betrayed his friends. He betrayed his employer (they paid him $200k! The perfidy!) He betrayed...the Constitution:
The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed. Snowden self-indulgently short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability, putting his own preferences above everything else.
Brooks should have a look at Pauline Maier's Ratification. The Constitution was written to pass muster with a populace deeply suspicious of centralized power, on a hair trigger to suspect that every branch of the envisioned federal government was being granted powers that might empower it to trample on the states and on individuals. Such suspicions were amply aired in every state ratifying convention. And about those founders: as young (or younger men), they risked their own lives and established their own authority by tearing out central pillars of the existing order. They did not see their world as Brooks would have us see ours:
If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.
To the extent that you can generalize about a diverse group of men, the founding fathers' world views were probably something of a cross between those on both sides Brooks's Goofus/Gallant dichotomy.

In the end, Brooks himself unravels the moral noose he's been pulling round Snowden's neck, acknowledging:
Snowden faced a moral dilemma. On the one hand, he had information about a program he thought was truly menacing. On the other hand, he had made certain commitments as a public servant, as a member of an organization, and a nation. Sometimes leakers have to leak. The information they possess is so grave that it demands they violate their oaths. 

But before they do, you hope they will interrogate themselves closely and force themselves to confront various barriers of resistance. Is the information so grave that it’s worth betraying an oath, circumventing the established decision-making procedures, unilaterally exposing secrets that can never be reclassified?
But Brooks never truly engages with Snowden's thinking to examine whether he may have had cause to answer "yes" to those questions. He's answered them to his own satisfaction, so Snowden must hang in our estimation. And he's answered them in a way that truly begs the question.

Brooks blames Snowden and his ilk for the erosion of trust in our society (excuse the re-quote in the first paragraph):
If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme. You’re more likely to donate to the Ron Paul for president campaign, as Snowden did.
Whenever he lauds and laments the undermining of those "gently graded authoritative structures" -- as he repeatedly does -- Brooks never seems to consider the possibility that they've been weakened because those who controlled them betrayed the trust with which they were invested.  Leave aside our collective awareness of the government's drive for Total Information Awareness, as Prism's precursor was dubbed.  The last administration openly instituted and ferociously defended a torture regime and demonstrably cooked intelligence to take the U.S. to war under false pretenses. The current administration declined to hold the perpetrators of institutionalized torture accountable. The entire banking system devoted itself to originating mortgages based on fraudulent data and then inflating the value of those mortgages. The Supreme Court has undermined efforts to curb the metastasizing of lobbying and campaign funding.  Income inequality has been widening for a generation. Stepping back a generation, the trust in government that was measurably higher into the early sixties at least was undermined first by the government's lies, self delusions and war crimes perpetrated in Vietnam and Cambodia and then by Nixon & Company's verified abuse of power to undermine political opponents.

Brooks is right to insist that society cannot function without a modicum of trust in its core institutions. Erosion of trust in government is a problem, vitiating government's ability to function. Technology does exacerbate the challenges: new means of scrutiny of government can be as disruptive as scrutiny by government.

But when rendering moral judgment, Brooks always reverts to defense of his beloved institutions in the abstract -- and blame of individuals not so enamored of those institutions. 

1 comment:

  1. Well done, Andrew. One of the best things about reading the news online at the old age of 60 is having commentary like yours, that puts my own feelings after reading something like today's column by D Brooks into well written english.