The "privacy moderate" has been everywhere in recent weeks, a non sequitur always at the ready. Yes, let's debate the tradeoffs between privacy and security, they say, but "Edward Snowden's no hero," they inject, as if excessive regard for Snowden poses a threat of some kind.
Even sensible analysis is becoming polluted by the pathologies of the "privacy moderate."
In Foreign Policy, James Traub grants that President Obama has presided over multiple "onerous programs," that "fear has become America's permanent state," that present methods of government surveillance must be "fixed," that the secret legal memos Obama is relying on should be published, that the state currently has "too much scope for information gathering," and that the status quo is tantamount to a surveillance state operating without the consent of the governed.
It is difficult to exaggerate the sweep and seriousness of those charges!
Yet Traub complains that it is excessive "to lionize Edward
Snowden, the former NSA contract employee who exposed the programs, as a heroic
defender of democracy in the face of authoritarian menace," adding that "surveillance, even
on a giant scale, is not conspiracy, or murder."
Of course, no one has said that NSA surveillance is murder, and insofar as parts of the program are criminal, it is the definition of conspiracy, but set all that aside. If Traub regards the surveillance state as severed from the consent of the governed, excessive in scope, driven by irrational fear, and in need of fixing, why should he object to lionizing -- that is to say, treating as important and of great interest -- the person who made public the objectionable programs? If the surveillance state is operating apart from democracy, why isn't the person who revealed as much a defender of democracy, not in the face of "an authoritarian menace," but the sort of unchecked power that could lead to one? "Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be
opened with all
its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light," MLK once said, "injustice must be exposed, with
all the tension its
exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before
it can be
I am mystified by the "privacy moderate" who yearns for a debate about the surveillance state without anyone being so transgressive as to leak the information without which there would be no debate.
What I sense, but cannot prove, is the privacy moderate's desperation to avoid facing the full extent of the establishment's extreme behavior. Americans once condemned such excesses. The Obama Administration is nowhere near as morally odious as, e.g., the bygone East German state. But Americans didn't just criticize its surveillance apparatus, the Stasi, because the East German regime used it for evil. Quite apart from the character of the regime and its secret police, Americans found the very notion of secret, pervasive spying on innocent citizens repugnant. We found the notion of vast files kept on private citizens creepy, because that isn't the role the state ought to play in a free society. Today, the American state is engaged in intentionally spying on tens of millions of innocent citizens. It did its utmost to hide the truth about that spying.