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The Significance of Citizenfour's Win

When Laura Poitras received the Academy Award for best documentary, civil society was pushing back against the deep state.

"And the Oscar goes to ... Citizenfour."

With those words, filmmaker Laura Poitras took the stage Sunday at the Academy Awards, where her portrait of whistleblower Edward Snowden and the sweeping mass surveillance that he exposed won the prize for best feature documentary.

The award couldn't have pleased the NSA and its apologists, most of whom live a continent away in Washington, D.C. As they see it, Hollywood just feted a journalist who helped to recklessly expose closely guarded national security secrets.

But as Poitras noted in her acceptance speech, the NSA surveillance programs that she helped to reveal "don't only expose a threat to our privacy but to our democracy." Citizens can't vote out politicians for adopting a wrongheaded or  illegal policy "when the most important decisions affecting all of us are made in secret."

That's an under-appreciated insight. Perhaps it struck some who watched Poitras' Oscar speech and will strike others who see Citizenfour due to Sunday's win (the film makes its TV debut on HBO Monday). Meanwhile, it's worth noting another part of Poitras' speech that may have struck some as boring Oscar boilerplate:

Thank you so much to the Academy.

I'd like to first thank the documentary community. It's an incredible joy to work among people who support each other so deeply, risk so much, and do such incredible work.

We don't stand here alone.

The work we do and that needs to be seen by the public is possible due to the brave organizations that support us. We'd like to thank RADiUS, Participant, HBO, BritDoc and the many organizations that had our back making this film.

In this case, the "thank-you" list is actually an important reminder of the always vital, sometimes under-appreciated role that civil society plays in the United States.

Mike Lofgren, a Congressional staffer for over 28 years, recently wrote that "there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose."

He calls that part of our government "the deep state." President Eisenhower had something similar in mind when he spoke of the "military-industrial complex," as do many commentators today when they speak broadly of "the national security state." One troublesome feature is that it cannot be fully controlled at the ballot box.

But its power and influence can be tempered by civil society, used here to mean "individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government." Thus the significance of Poitras' Oscar win.

As she noted, there were numerous people at both for-profit and non-profit institutions who helped her—a dissenter—to make three documentaries about the War on Terrorism, even amid irresponsible suggestions that she was complicit in treason.

And with its Sunday awards ceremony, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a particularly visible and culturally influential part of civil society in America, recognized Citizenfour as a filmmaking achievement. In doing so, its members implicitly validated the project of exposing how government stores and monitors our private communications as a worthy enterprise rather than a discreditable one. In this way, civil society has just strengthened a core democratic norm.