Reply to Cassidy

John Cassidy has a piece up at The New Yorker, a sort of j’accuse directed at the media for being more critical of Edward Snowden than defending him. It’s a very interesting piece and I recommend it like most everything else Cassidy writes. But he quotes from my post on Snowden to make a point about differing attitudes toward him. So I wanted to take a moment to respond.First let me just quote from two paragraphs that gives you a sense of what I’m reacting to …

Snowden took classified documents from his employer, which surely broke the law. But his real crime was confirming that the intelligence agencies, despite their strenuous public denials, have been accumulating vast amounts of personal data from the American public. The puzzle is why so many media commentators continue to toe the official line. About the best explanation I’ve seen came from Josh Marshall, the founder of T.P.M., who has been one of Snowden’s critics. In a post that followed the first wave of stories, Marshall wrote, “At the end of the day, for all its faults, the U.S. 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 suspect that many Washington journalists, especially the types who go on Sunday talk shows, feel the way Marshall does, but perhaps don’t have his level of self-awareness. It’s not just a matter of defending the Obama Administration, although there’s probably a bit of that. It’s something deeper, which has to do with attitudes toward authority. Proud of their craft and good at what they do, successful journalists like to think of themselves as fiercely independent. But, at the same time, they are part of the media and political establishment that stands accused of ignoring, or failing to pick up on, an intelligence outrage that’s been going on for years. It’s not surprising that some of them share Marshall’s view of Snowden as “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.”

First, I want to thank John for taking my point seriously and on its own terms and even for what I guess is sort of a half-handed compliment.

I can’t speak for others. But, speaking for myself, Cassidy is misconstruing what I wrote. And if that’s attributable to my unclarity, let me try to correct that. It’s not about attitudes toward authority, as he puts it. It’s about something more like community or identity. And identity not to or with some journalistic clique but to a national community. (I’ve always felt happily alienated from the DC journo community. That’s why I run my own shop and live in New York, among other things.) Every national community is fictive to some significant degree. But we make it real by buying into its bundle of rights and responsibilities and mutual association.

Some of this actually connects up with what I’ve written about ‘thick citizenship‘ and my critique of dual-citizenship. I think our equality and shared community as citizens rests on our citizenship being more than a matter of travel documents and accidents of birth.

My reaction to Snowden isn’t tied to my being a journalist. If anything it’s in spite of it. It’s as part of this national community, as someone who buys into its basic structures, for all their problems. I’m a part of this club. And I try to keep that in mind whether I like what the club is doing at a given time or not. As I wrote in the first piece, I don’t like everything the US military does. But I do think there should be a US military. I also think it requires a significant amount of secrecy to operate. So I don’t think I can just wash my hands of it and say it has nothing to do with me just because I’m not part of the chain of command. When innocent civilians are killed in Pakistan or Yemen, I’m on the line for that just as I benefit from its protection in numerous ways.

And so I come back to Cassidy’s question: Aren’t we supposed to stick up for the underdog? Irritate the powerful? I will say, just as a personal matter, that I hate the idea of almost anyone going to prison for any significant length of time. So yeah, the underdog needs supporters where the big dog doesn’t. But isn’t it really more a matter of who you think is right? How you square things with your broader worldview? Where it all fits into what you value and what you don’t? It’s shallow to think you automatically go in with whomever is in the worse position.

The idea that one person with a conscience is a majority is a powerful one – it’s at the heart of our civilization. But when you take that step you throw yourself on the judgment of your fellow citizens and history who will either vindicate you or won’t. There’s no A for effort and it’s not the thought that counts. I don’t think I’m under any obligation to sign on with this guy no matter how much his conscience is inflamed or how much he’s risked. And no it doesn’t have anything to do with guilt about what he’s revealed or the failings of journalism or anything else.

Cassidy’s critique is sharp and elegant but essentially ad hominem and couched in no little self-flattery. We disagree because you’re with the insiders or you bend or gravitate towards authority while I’m with the little guy. All of this only comes down to balancing a complicated mix of equities, wrongs and rights, whether costs to the country outweigh the benefits to the republic, how we understand the terms of civil disobedience. This should be argued out on facts and explicitly stated values, even ones we may not be certain or wholly conscious at first that we espouse. Clearly people can come away from this with very different takes. But all of us reacting to this fast-moving, protean set of facts come to it with our own sense of political and community identity, one that shapes and in some cases distorts what we see. That applies equally to Snowden’s supporters as it does those who look on him with a jaundiced eye.