Monday, March 3, 2014

The Courage to Resist

An essay on man in revolt

Forbes op-ed columnist, Carrie Sheffield, joins the chorus of media intelligentsia attacking former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as a "traitor."

In a piece from last December ("Edward Snowden is Not 'Person of the Year,'" 12/18/2013), the conservative Sheffield--her byline reads, "Committed to free minds & free markets,"--echoes The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin, that Snowden is a "grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison."

Sheffield chastises an alleged media landscape wherein publications are practically falling over themselves to "beknight" Snowden as a "hero" or First Amendment champion. I am curious to know which specific publications Sheffield is referring to. Editorials in every newspaper I pick up have nothing but denunciatory vitriol for the 30-year-old Booz Allen Hamilton contractor.

Sheffield's claims that Snowden, "undermined trust and transparency among the ranks of public servants who protect America," and that he "did not reveal one single abuse by the U.S. intelligence community," are childish in their level of ignorance.

She, like so many of Snowden's critics, trots out the ludicrous argument that Snowden should have gone through the "traditional government channels," (in Sheffield's case a "sympathetic member of Congress,") to expose his findings.

Yet it is the traditional channels of government--i.e. Congress, the Executive Branch, etc.--that have authorized and are carrying out these illegal methods of spying. Indeed, Snowden's revelations are not at all revelatory to members of Congress. They signed off on them!

As Glen Greenwald, the former Guardian reporter who broke the Snowden story, pointed out during an interview on Democracy Now! last year (06/24/2013), had Snowden gone through the "traditional" whistleblower channels he "would have ended up having to go to the very same members of Congress who think that not only are these programs good, but that they ought to remain secret."

This is how the power elite attempts to delegitimize whistleblowers, by quibbling over tactics and "proper channels," while ignoring the actual substance of what truth-tellers like Snowden have revealed. Their approach is the same every time: Shoot the messenger--ignore the message.

But the fact remains, we would not be talking about our government's mass-scale domestic spying apparatus if it were not for Edward Snowden. The NSA was never going to publicly disclose its "PRISM" program on its own. The Obama administration--just like all previous U.S. administrations--is more than comfortable lying to the American people about its clandestine and often illegal activities.

This is precisely why we need whistleblowers, reporters, and dissidents like Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Upton Sinclair, and Seymour Hersh to act as a watchdog on government actions. These rebels make democracy possible.

As Howard Zinn once said, "Democracy is not what governments do. It's what people do."

Those who claim they have "nothing to hide," or who cynically dismiss Snowden's revelations as "unsurprising," do not understand the extent of what is happening. The NSA is currently collecting every email, text-message, Tweet, and phone conversation of every citizen. They can track our web searches, online banking activity, and Internet history. Orwell's dystopian nightmare envisioned in 1984 has become reality. Big Brother is literally watching us. Our lawmakers have obliterated the Fourth Amendment. And the NSA's surveillance is not limited to the U.S. They have spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and participants at the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009.

We have become Orwell's Oceania. "The Party's surveillance tactics and technology are so advanced," Orwell wrote in 1984, "that even the smallest twitch can betray a rebellious spirit."

A citizenry under this sort of oppressive, constant surveillance is not free. Privacy is not merely a luxury. It is essential to democracy. It is only when we can be alone with our own private thoughts--far from the madding crowd, as Thomas Hardy famously phrased it--that we can engage in creative thoughts or projects, indulge in art or literature, and reflect on the broad, philosophical questions of our time. (You know--the questions we are so often forbidden from asking in the arena we spend the vast majority of our waking lives: The workplace.)

Indeed, without privacy, any form of political, social or cultural dissent is impossible. And that, as Orwell understood, is ultimately the point.

Consider what Snowden has sacrificed to bring us the truth. He will likely never be permitted to return to the United States--not without facing criminal charges and potentially life in prison. Congress members like California Sen. Diane Feinstein (a Democrat; just sayin') claim Snowden is guilty of treason and should be extradited to the U.S. Maine's favorite junior Senator, "independent" Angus King concurs, telling the media last summer he is "moving more and more toward the 'treason' end of the scale," when it comes to his opinion of Snowden's actions. He too, argues with a straight face that Snowden should have gone to Congress with his findings.

The fact is, we are all better off as citizens thanks to Snowden's disclosures, as well as to the reporters that have brought those disclosures to light. Democracy cannot function when the public is in the dark of its own government's actions--especially when those actions are illegal. Snowden displayed the moral courage and personal convictions so rare in our fearful, conformist society, and yet so crucial for democracy. And that is why the corporate state is so desperate to silence and discredit him.

French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus viewed rebellion as the single greatest affirmation of our individual humanity. A proponent of the philosophy of "the absurd," Camus believed life is meaningless and our individual fates are largely out of our control. But we can still choose how we live. And it is only through a constant state of rebellion, Camus argued, that one can create meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. It is only through rebellion that one can be truly free.

"A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object," he wrote in his 1956 book-length essay, The Rebel. "But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object."

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