Josh Marshall And David Brooks Make The Exact Same Point About Edward Snowden, But Only One Of Them Is Right

by evanmcmurry

Josh Marshall and David Brooks are making the same essential point in their pieces on Edward Snowden: that regardless of the abstract moral quality of Snowden’s actions, he performed them selfishly, prioritizing his own conscience over the harm he could cause others.

It’s convincing when Marshall makes it:

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.

[snip] 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 policieis 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.

That’s smart, nuanced reasoning. We all have problems with the military and the government, but we are all, also, enmeshed with them. To jeopardize these institutions, whatever your reasons, is to view them as distinct and peripheral, not only from yourself but from everybody around you. This is not to say that leaking classified information is never justified, but it is to say that doing so automatically puts you in an antagonistic relationship with the society on whose behalf you claim to be acting. The sating of your conscience doesn’t automatically underwrite your actions.

Needless to say, David Brooks falls way short of Marshall’s take:

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.

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.

[snip] But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.

This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse.

For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.

Brooks, as only he can, undoes his own point. The pressures of conformity exerted by familial and social bonds are the exact forces that lead to abuses of power; people are too complacent/fearful/loyal/etc. to know wrongdoing when they see it, or act when they recognize it. Under these conditions, it really does take someone like Snowden, who is willing to sacrifice the comforts of a normal life, to point out the overreaches of the state. Who else will? A happy father of four, with mortgage payments?*

Again, Marshall and Brooks are making the same basic point about Snowden’s view of an “atomized” society, in Brooks’ formulation, falsely legitimizing his actions. Marshall’s point is incisive and generative. Brooks’s makes me want to donate to Snowden’s defense fund.

* This is to say nothing of the role giant, secretive government surveillance programs have played in fraying the ends of Brooks’s public trust. After all, we can only judge Snowden’s relation to the state because he revealed it for us.