Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Paranoid Libertarianism

Sean Wilentz has written a fairly well-researched piece on the Snowden-Greenwald-Assange triumvirate.  He explores their political beliefs, especially prior to their becoming celebrated leakers.

While some have lambasted Wilentz for equating the national security state with the liberal idea of the state today, I think he touches on a major problem I have with the S-G-A troika.  They have displayed and continue to display a shocking political naivete.

Leaving Assange aside for a moment, both Snowden and Greenwald have carried on long and heavy flirtations with the Paulistas.  Snowden seemed to be a Second Amendment Fundamentalist and Greenwald allied himself with the Cato Institute and Ron Paul's presidential runs.

As I've written before, the problem is that there is simply no reform of the NSA that is acceptable for Greenwald.  He is opposed to the NSA on principle.  Snowden was once an ardent supporter of the security state, up until he wasn't.  Wilentz writes:

They have held, at one time or another, a crazy-quilt assortment of views, some of them blatantly contradictory. But from an incoherent swirl of ideas, a common outlook emerges. The outlook is neither a clear-cut doctrine nor a philosophy, but something closer to a political impulse that might be described, to borrow from the historian Richard Hofstadter, as paranoid libertarianism. Where liberals, let alone right-wingers, have portrayed the leakers as truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors, that’s hardly their goal. In fact, the leakers despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.

Wilentz's research suggests that Snowden was much more politically antagonistic to Obama than his public comments suggest.  He opposed Obama's (non-existent at the time) plan to ban assault weapons, the stimulus and Social Security in general.  He favored a return to the gold standard.  In short, Wilentz describes - accurately, I think - Snowden as a politically naive, Paulista of the standard right wing libertarian sort.

Greenwald comes across as we already know him.  He is an aggressive advocate for his positions, just as he was for his clients when he practice law.  He sees his debate opponents not only as wrong on the merits, but as allied with the forces of darkness.  As a lawyer he gravitated towards defending the civil rights of extreme groups like the World Church of the Creator and the National Alliance.  As a blogger, he began to stake out his territory as a "pox on both your houses" libertarian, trying to unite the pothead left with the gun toting right.  Like Snowden, Greenwald allied himself with Ron Paul in 2008.

(Ron Paul is best understood the way Charlie Pierce describes him: as Crazy Uncle Liberty.  Pierce notes that Paul makes sense for about five minutes and then, inevitably, he starts saying some crazy shit.  What is disturbing about people like Greenwald and Snowden is how they simply don't seem to hear or mind the crazy shit.  The gold standard?  C'mon, man!)

What Snowden and Greenwald have is a single, monomaniacal obsession with the intelligence community that leads them into political relationships with reactionary extremists like Ron Paul.  Paul and his son, Rand, do make sense on some issues.  But like the stopped clock, they are dangerously out of synch most of the time.  This inability to see anything beyond their obsession with the NSA to me makes them the most unreliable of narrators.

Wilentz again:
The leakers and their supporters, however, see things very differently. To them, national security is not a branch of the government; it is the government, or it is tantamount to being the government: a sinister, power-mad authority. As Greenwald has argued: “The objective of the NSA and the U.S. government is nothing less than destroying all remnants of privacy. They want to make sure that every single time human beings interact with one another, things that we say to one another, things we do with one another, places we go, the behavior in which we engage, that they know about it.” It is impossible, therefore, to reform this clandestine Leviathan from the inside. And so the leakers are aiming at de-legitimating and, if possible, destroying something much larger than a set of NSA programs. They have unleashed a torrent of classified information with the clear intent of showing that the federal government has spun out of control, thereby destroying the public’s faith in their government’s capacity to spy aggressively on our enemies while also protecting the privacy of its citizens. They want to spin the meaning of the documents they have released to confirm their animating belief that the United States is an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions.

I think this position has found real resonance on the Left, because many Leftists are incredibly uncomfortable with the existence, much the less the exercise, of political power.

But that manages to overlook the impulse Greenwald has to overhype his case and to see things in absolutist terms.  Wilentz cites the revelations about the xKeyscore program that Snowden claimed would allow him to read everyone's emails.  But the actual leaked documents don't support that interpretation.  Greenwald has claimed there are other documents that DO support that claim, but they have not been released.  Ironically, one source for showing that the NSA has been snooping too much on American citizens is the NSA internal audit, which has suggested that the NSA is at least taking some measures to police itself.

Like Wilentz, I agree that Snowden and Greenwald have exposed some troubling issues with data collection. But I also think that the most troubling revelations have been less about what is in the documents than what the documents suggest about the processes that the NSA uses to determine what it should be collecting.  The NSA needs reforms to make sure that it acts responsibly towards American's privacy rights.

But, like their avatar Ron Paul, Snowden and Greenwald have succumbed to the stopped clock phenomenon.  And what is right about their positions should not obscure what is wrong.

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