Long time readers of Sean Wilentz will remember him for greatest hits like his notorious piece on the “cutthroat, fraudulent politics that lie at the foundation of Obama’s supposedly uplifting campaign,” involving “the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988 and the most insidious since Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, praising states’ rights,” or his claim that not only was Obama’s “most obvious change to liberal politics” the color of his skin, but Obama was the second coming of Jimmy Carter and a starry-eyed Russia-hugger to boot. So it’s very, very weird to see Wilentz criticizing Edward Snowden on the grounds that his “disgruntlement with Obama … was fueled by a deep disdain for progressive politics” – given his own track record on Obama’s brand of progressivism, why on earth would he believe this to be a problem?
But then the whole article – an attempted hack job on Snowden, Greenwald, Assange and the liberals who like them – is weird like that. In one sense, I can understand why the New Republic went for it – it’s perhaps the purest exercise in even~the~liberal~New Republic~ism that the magazine has published since its change in ownership. Yet it’s also so obviously intellectually shoddy and incoherently argued that you’d have thought that any half-way competent editor would have decided that no amount of contrarianism was worth the damage to the magazine’s brand.
Wilentz’s self-appointed task is clear enough – he wants to tell liberals why they shouldn’t trust the hidden agenda of people like Snowden, Greenwald and Assange. The problems come in the execution.
The article comes in three main parts. First – the promise:
Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange hardly subscribe to identical beliefs, and differ in their levels of sophistication. 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 … 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.
Then the evidence – a detailed examination of Snowden, Greenwald and Assange’s views, or at least those views as Wilentz would like to portray them. Finally, the argument, that these views add up to a pernicious political philosophy that no self-respecting liberal ought to sign up for.
The problem is that these don’t add up. Wilentz promises us evidence that the leakers want to damage the liberal state. Moreover, he tells us that he has evidence that has gone mysteriously ignored up to this point.
important caches of evidence have gone largely unexamined by the media. … The Internet houses a variety of their writings for message boards, blogs and magazines …. They are documents in which one can glimpse their deepest beliefs and true motives. What they reveal is at odds with the flattering coverage … [t]hey reveal an agenda that even the leakers’ most dedicated admirers should question.
Unfortunately, that’s not what Wilentz actually provides. Instead of providing evidence that would support an analysis of his targets’ ‘agenda,’ ‘deepest beliefs’ and ‘true motives,’ he provides a trio of successive lengthy laundry lists of everything that his three targets have ever said or done that might even possibly embarrass them in front of a liberal audience. Thus, we are treated to hitherto largely-unexamined-by-the-media facts such as the revelations that Snowden is a Rand Paul fan and libertarian, that Julian Assange not only is a bit of an arsehole, but
is facing rape charges has been accused of rape in Sweden, and that Glenn Greenwald likes to get into arguments.
The three narratives are larded with minatory innuendo. That Snowden writes about liking his gun hints at his ‘developing affinities.’ That Glenn Greenwald took pro-bono free speech cases on behalf of a variety of unpleasant people shows that his “true passion [is] defending the civil liberties of extremists.” Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with defending these people’s constitutional liberties of course, as Wilentz grudgingly acknowledges after a few paragraphs of loving description detailing precisely how unpleasant some of Greenwald’s clients were. And of course, there’s lots of juicy stuff in the section on Assange, where Wilentz uses Assange’s dodgy alliance building to sort-of-sidle-up-real-close to the ‘it’s all a Russian plot, of course’ line that various cranks have been pushing on the Internet.
What is rather conspicuously lacking is any evidence that these people (and it is interesting, as an aside, that Chelsea Manning’s fate and motivation don’t even get a mention) are dead-set on their joint goal of “wound[ing] the liberal state.” Snowden, as you’d expect from a Paulite, doesn’t like welfare. Greenwald has made some very unfortunate statements about immigrants. Assange’s politics are whatever Assange’s politics are. But these do not, under any reasonable interpretation, add up to a sekrit shared agenda of trying to take down the liberal state as it’s usually understood. None of the revelations to date have had any relevance whatsoever to welfare or immigration policy, let alone dire implications for them. Somehow, I suspect that none of the future revelations will either. If imaginary-Edward-Snowden were running for the Senate, and I was thinking about whether to vote for him, I’d find his views on welfare very, very relevant. Since actual-Edward-Snowden is running from the government for leaking security information … not so much.
All this leaves Wilentz with the unenviable task of demonstrating that despite all the appearances, pushing back against the security state is an anti-liberal agenda. He accomplishes this through an intellectual sleight of hand, wherein the “liberal state” of the opening sections is magically transformed into the “national security state” that Greenwald et al. are setting out to “sabotage.” As best as I can tell, the justification for this transposition is this:
The leakers and their supporters, however, see things very differently. To them, national security is not a branch of 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 US 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 that 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 aimed 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, therefore destroying the public’s faith in their government’s capacity to spy aggressively on our enemies while also protecting the privacy of its citizens.”
This paragraph is the cornerstone of the big, teetering edifice that Wilentz is trying to construct. And it’s made out of straw and horseshit. Apparently, either Wilentz didn’t read any further down in the transcript that he is quoting from, or he decided, for whatever reason, that the further elaboration of Greenwald’s argument was irrelevant or unhelpful to his readers. What Greenwald goes on to say:
This is exactly the kind of debate that we ought to have out in the open. What exactly is the government doing in how it spies on us and how it reads our emails and how it intercepts our chats? Let’s have that discussion out in the open. To the extent that these companies and the NSA have a conflict and can’t get their story straight, let them have that conflict resolved in front of us. And then we, as citizens, instead of having this massive surveillance apparatus built completely secretly and in the dark without us knowing anything that’s going on, we can then be informed about what kinds of surveillance the government is engaged in and have a reasoned debate about whether that’s the kind of world in which we want to live.
You can, if you want, depict this as willful efforts to destroy trust in the federal government’s spying and surveillance. But calls for having “conflicts [in different actors’ accounts] resolved” in public and “reasoned debate” are not, under any reasonable definition efforts ‘paranoid libertarian’ attacks on liberalism. They are what democratic liberalism, as it is usually understood, is supposed to be all about – active debate by an informed public over what it wants the government to do and not to do. It’s only by magically eliding liberalism into the need for a surveillance state that Wilentz can get where he wants to go to. But at best that kind of elision begs a lot of fundamental questions. At worst, it involves willful and active dishonesty.
It also relies on a quite extraordinary blindness. Wilentz sneers at the claim that the US is “an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions.” But his evidence that this is “simply not the case” solely and exclusively involves surveillance of US citizens (where his claims seem to me to be inaccurate, but that’s a different matter). Yet if one looks at the US reaction to the Snowden revelations, a reaction that Wilentz glosses over as pursuit of a “serious criminal,” there’s plenty of evidence both of imperialism and hegemonic drunkenness. These not only include the apparent threats of retaliation against any country against any country that even slightly cares about the goodwill of the US, and might be so impudent as to give Snowden exile, but the decision to get US allies to force down the plane of a head of state on the mere suspicion that Snowden might be on board. It’s hard for me to see this as anything other than arrogant, drunken imperialism, but likely my cynicism just reveals my sneaky illiberalism. Wilentz goes on to deplore how Snowden has damaged the credibility of US influence over the Internet by revealing that “the US was manipulating the Internet for its own nefarious means.” But, rather obviously, the US was manipulating the Internet (and, for that matter, fundamental cryptographic standards) for its own nefarious means. That’s the kind of thing that power-drunk hegemons do.
There’s space for argument and debate over whether what Snowden did was right or wrong, good or bad. There’s also, very obviously, space for criticizing Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange as writers, as activists, as whatever. FWIW, I’m not, for many reasons, a fan of Assange, I’ve had the odd run-in with Greenwald, and I doubt I’d agree with much of Snowden’s politics beyond his skepticism of the security state (which probably goes a lot further than mine – I’m OK with e.g. many forms of spying on China and Russia). But what Wilentz is engaged in isn’t expression of disagreement, or real argument, or intelligent criticism. It’s shoddy hackwork, a kind of underpants gnome reasoning, in which Wilentz starts from evidence that Greenwald, Snowden and Assange have a common goal (as they surely do) of weakening the surveillance state, claims that this entails that they are really out to wound the liberal state, and tries to slap together the missing argumentative bridgework between these very different claims with expostulation, innuendo, arm-waving, personal attacks and whatever else he can throw in that he thinks might be damaging. It’s sad to see someone who considers himself (and is considered by many of his colleagues) to be a serious historian shoveling this kind of tripe in public; it’s the sort of thing that gives public intellectualism a bad name. A sorry affair, altogether.