The Work of Revelations: Snowden, the Torture Report, and the Diminishing Returns of Info-Spectacles

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come,” wrote Victor Hugo. Isn’t that ultimately the message of Les Misérables? In contrast to the revolutionaries hopelessly slaughtered en masse at the barricades, it’s Jean Valjean’s unimpeachable righteousness alone that ultimately drives his longtime tormentor to suicide. I dreamed a dream…

Rather than just being the domain of French Romantics and office motivational posters, the notion that information alone has transformative power is the cornerstone of establishment left thinking. It stems from liberal enlightenment ideals that configure history as a linear progression—embodied in the apocryphal quote about the moral arc of the universe. It goes one way, and that’s forwards towards progress. This coincides happily with the preponderance of lawyers in the ranks of mainstream human rights and civil liberties groups, for whom information is the sine qua non of preparing briefs and mounting cases.

There’s a more controversial theory that information isn’t inherently good. Even revelatory information—stuff the powerful don’t want you to know—ostensibly in the service of a progressive goal, can be used for right-wing ends if it obscures or moderates a more radical prescription. If information is getting used to co-opt a more radical course of action, then that project is reactionary.

For its part, progressive e-magazine TruthDig doesn’t want people messing with this line of thinking in the case of the Senate Torture report: “When the truth is spoken by politicians…skeptics are right to suspect it’s not merely the truth. It is always tailored to redound to some benefit to the speaker. But there are moments in history when that doesn’t matter.”

We’re being told it’s one such moment now. The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a heavily redacted, heavily abridged “Executive Summary” of its 6,000 page report on CIA torture. Adding to the report’s mystique is the fact that the White House and CIA wanted to suppress the information contained within, with the CIA even hacking the computers of Senate staffers compiling the report. The torture report seems like the most illicit kind of revelatory information, so it’s created an enormous amount of commentary and condemnation.

However, with the exceptions of some specific ghoulish details, most of the information was already known. The most horrific facts—that the CIA raped prisoners, that torture was used to fabricate justifications for the War in Iraq, that human beings were tortured to death, that almost a quarter of torture cases were the result of mistaken identity—had all been reported on within the last decade.

There’s a disconnect between the content of the torture report and the narrative that now surrounds the event itself. When TruthDig called for putting skepticism aside, it was in a piece hailing Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain as their progressive heroes of the week. Feinstein’s fingerprints are on many of the US’s worst abuses of this century, and McCain is one of the most bloodthirsty figures in the US government, and by extension the planet. Given that these newly minted progressive heroes are some of the worst imperialists, and the torture report’s aura doesn’t reflect reality, this seems like exactly the right moment for those meddlesome skeptics to be asking questions.

The journalists and public figures who promote the torture report present it as transformative information, but it’s shaping up to be a spectacle that sets the left back yet again. The report has followed many parallels with the last time this happened, the spectacle surrounding Ed Snowden’s leaks to Glenn Greenwald et al. The Snowden drama provided a useful template for how dissent is going to be managed, channeled, and moderated going forward. The way the NSA leaks were handled has provided the elites a scalable model for taking the release of even revelatory information and using it to come out on top and consolidate their power.

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Fortunately, last October Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media had an acrimonious public divorce with once-hire Matt Taibbi. If Taibbi had been someone with less social capital, then the failure of Racket might’ve just been a momentary hiccup for the internet’s hottest journalistic “insurgency.” As it stands, the fact that people want to be in Taibbi’s orbit has opened up a lot of space for analysis of Omidyar’s would-be media empire, where the establishment consensus was once airtight. It’s certainly vindicated what Taibbi said about journalists being akin to an easily spooked herd of deer, who only get around to asking the right questions “eventually. But far after the fact.”

When the leaks began, they painted a complete picture of a monster whose contours had only previously been hinted at. Stories about warrantless wiretapping and the size of “Top Secret America” had won their authors Pulitzers and hinted that the US government was spying on all of us. There were reports of a secret government data-storage facility of gargantuan proportions being built in Utah. Stories had periodically cropped up in unexpected places about the government’s ability to record and store all our communications. However, now the public knew the truth definitively. There was excitement, talk of change, reform, maybe even something more drastic. Soon, the whistleblower went public. More stories came out, about more countries. Continue reading

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The only criticism that’s Left

How did “hypocrisy” become the worst accusation leveled against the powerful?

When looking at a recent Daily Show segment that amounted to a whitewash of American assassination policies, I was struck by the focus on “hypocrisy.” To hear America’s most-trusted liberal satirist tell it, President Obama was mostly guilty of the crime of saying one thing and doing another. The focus on hypocrisy elided the fact that the thing in question, which he said he wouldn’t do, was murdering people. From my humble perspective, that seems like a worse sin than duplicity. Once I had “hypocrisy” on my mind, though, I noticed that the accusation seemed to be everywhere. It seems like the worst thing left-aligned people say about the powerful anymore is that they’re hypocrites.

Last month, the new left-most boundary of acceptable criticism, First Look’s The Intercept, wrote about an in-house NSA advice column named “Ask Zelda.” Why was this “Dear Abby for spies” worth writing about? An NSA employee had written in to ask Zelda how they could set boundaries with an intrusive boss. It turns out NSA employees value their own privacy, even as they violate our privacy. We, the American people, charge the national security state—with the grave crime of hypocrisy!

J’accuse!

Actually, no, I meant a different French phrase—no shit. To say that our elites and their spies, enforcers, and state apparatchiks see themselves as subject to different laws and standards as the rest of us should be so obvious as to be totally banal at this point. In fact, I remember reading a book about that years ago.

In addition to the accusation of hypocrisy being obvious, it’s also largely exculpatory. The accusation is embedded with the idea that there’s a high-minded ideal being betrayed. We need only to get the hypocrites to see the wisdom of their core beliefs, then get their actions to mirror these deeply held convictions. It’s the same idea at the heart of the hoary, vomit-inducing tall tale about how Obama just needs his liberal base to “make him” enact the progressive agenda that he really desires.

What seems more likely is that hypocrisy is a feature, not a bug, of the exercise of power. The state and our plutocratic class do what they want, and then they tell us whatever they want, regardless of that statement’s relationship to reality. Otherwise, why would we consent to being ruled by the venal mediocrities who are our elites, unless they made overtures towards democratic pluralism, transparency, and the common good? Continue reading

The Good and Evil of Left-Libertarian Transpartisanship

On October 26, in Washington, DC, thousands gathered as part of the “Stop Watching Us” rally to demonstrate against the American surveillance state. Describing itself as a coalition of “over 100 public advocacy organizations and companies from across the US,” the protest featured attendees, speakers, and sponsors from both the anti-authoritarian Left and the Libertarian right.

The nature of an entrenched, bipartisan national security state means that the most powerful members of both parties have an interest in perpetuating government power. The Obama administration carried on the previous administration’s spying programs, and today a Democratic president finds vociferous defenders amongst the most authoritarian members of the “opposing” party.

Consequently, opposition to excessive government intrusion takes on a transpartisan nature. At the Stop Watching Us rally, Dennis Kucinich and Naomi Wolf shared the stage with Tea Party Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI) and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. The roster of backers included Code Pink, the ACLU, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as well as the Libertarian Party, FreedomWorks, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (whom I’d not heard of, but come on, “Competitive Enterprise?” Going to go ahead and put that on the Libertarian side).

The Left-Libertarian crowd that showed up on Saturday mirrors the one in Congress that came 12 votes short of defunding the NSA’s mass telephone surveillance last July. The July 24th House bill was co-sponsored by fellow Michiganders Justin Amash, a Tea Party Republican, and John Conyers, a Democrat who co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus. The Amendment would’ve “limit[ed] the government’s collection of records…to those records that pertain to a person who is subject to an investigation.” No more blanket collection.

More importantly, the bill managed to accumulate such significant, bipartisan support despite the fact that the nation’s most powerful lawmakers vehemently opposed its passage. The leadership of both parties was arrayed against Amash-Conyers, and as often happens in matters of national security, the Obama administration found a staunch supporter in Michelle Bachmann. Given bills like the Amash-Conyers Amendment, it looks like a Left-Libertarian alliance is the sort of transpartisan project that can finally rein in the surveillance state. Continue reading

The Evolution of Edward Snowden

In the last month, the Guardian has published one revelation after another about the NSA and the staggering and unprecedented ways that it surveils Americans (and literally everyone else). One of the most frustrating and predictable things about the response to these revelations has been the concerted effort to shift the focus from the substance of the revelations to psychological speculation about Edward Snowden. The dominant narrative in this regard is that Snowden is a “narcissist,” a bizarre claim about a man whose first public statement included “I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who watches what’s happening and goes, ‘the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.'” This speculation is usually baseless and counterproductive, and human motivation is an infinitely complex thing, but this week the Washington Post revealed an aspect of Snowden’s inner life that is consequential and revealing.

Ed Snowden has portrayed government secrecy as a threat to democracy, and his own leaks as acts of conscience. But chat logs uncovered by the tech news site Ars Technica suggest Snowden hasn’t always felt that way.

“Those people should be shot in the balls,” Snowden apparently said of leakers in a January 2009 chat. He said he enjoyed “ethical reporting.” But “VIOLATING NATIONAL SECURITY? no. That s— is classified for a reason.”

“I am so angry right now. This is completely unbelievable.”

It’s interesting that Snowden was evidently virulently anti-leaks a mere 4 years ago. Working in the bowels of the surveillance state, seeing exactly what kind of powers the government is exercising over us, produced a radical shift in him.

Continue reading