The Reaction to Edward Snowden Parallels that of Julian Assange
Aug 14, 2013

The Reaction to Edward Snowden Parallels that of Julian Assange

Whenever we learn something new and impactful about what our governments or other institutions of power are doing, we owe ourselves a public discussion of these new revelations. Perhaps we accept the revelations as acceptable or desirable, or perhaps we find them unacceptable and harmful in which case the public discourse can lobby these institutions of power to change their ways. As with Wikileaks before it, the NSA leaks provide us with precisely such new revelations about what our government is doing and we ought to have such a public discussion. Unfortunately, and as with Wikileaks, that discussion is largely absent and has been replaced by a proxy discussion that is both vacuous and vapid. 

Instead of discussing whether we approve or disapprove of what the NSA is doing - something which undeniably has impact - we have taken to discussing what we feel about Edward Snowden.  Ought he have done this? Is he a hero or a traitor, brave or a coward? Where will he go next? What is his character, what makes him tic? Why did he do this? 

To all of this I respond: who cares? What we think of Snowden and his actions has little consequence. In comparison to the actual actions of the US government, i.e. actions that are both impactful and which we can change with public consensus and politically pressure, Snowden's role ought to be relegated to a footnote in history much the same way that Watergate is a story about the Nixen Administration, not the whistleblower Daniel Elsburg. 

We saw all of this before - and I documented it at the time - with Wikileaks. There we saw a truly remarkable outpouring of information about what governments around the world were up to and we deserved a robust discussion on what among all this new information we approved and disapproved of. Instead, we saw a truly insipid discussion about Julian Assange. 

One aspect of this is that attacking the whistlerblower is a proxy for defending the actions. Instead of having to defend difficult to defend actions on the part of government, one can merely attack the messenger. The character assassinations of Assange and Snowden are lead by the the right, but often the left gets dragged into the muck and ends up having this side debate opposed to focusing on the real issues. So and so is saying Snowden is a coward, surely we must point out the heroism in his actions! Any such debate about Snowden is largely irrelevant, and too much emphasis on it crowds out the real discussion we should be having namely on the NSAs actions. 

There is, however, one aspect of talking about Snowden - as opposed to talking about the NSA - that is illustrative of a larger and more important point. Namely, as a whole the mainstream media (even when lambasting the NSA) has been fairly critical of Snowden. We saw a similar phenomenon with wikileaks where newspapers would post revelations from the leaks and simultaneously run op-eds denouncing Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. While inate pro-establishment biases undoubtably creep into this, I think at least part of what is going on here is that these leakers are simply outclassing the journalism class at their own jobs. A large part of the purpose for journalism, part of why journalism is so protected, is that it is meant to uncover and share with us what those with power are doing that we may not like. The two biggest such stories of the last few years have come to us not from the journalists discovering and cultivating leakers, but from entirely independent actors sidestepping the entire journalistic process to reveal their massive leaks. It was only seven years ago when the NYT won a Pulitzer for the NSA's warrentless wiretapping story, and the Washington Post got much praise for their Top Secret America story.  But when it isn't them doing it, the animosity towards these actors may stem, at least in part, as a reaction to being beaten at their own jobs. 

Rightly of wrongly, whatever you think about any of these tangential aspects on the Wikileaks or NSA stories, at the end of the day we now know something new about what our government is doing. We owe ourselves a frank discussion of what we think about this, and we owe ourselves that discussion regardless of our thoughts about Edward Snowden or anybody else. 

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