After Edward Snowden became a public figure – blowing the whistle on the US government’s extraordinary surveillance of its own citizens, not to mention the citizens of other countries – quite a few commentators complained that Snowden, not the US government and the NSA, had become the focus of media attention. Their point was well taken: there can be little doubt that the attention paid to the messenger diverted the mainstream media from the message itself, saving the Obama administration from sustained public scrutiny and debate. Over the past several weeks, however, as Snowden has remained holed up in the no-man’s-land of a Moscow airport, under threat of being handed over to American authorities, the complaint has become insupportable. The messenger and the message are not two separate stories, one less important than the other. It is quite apparent that they are both pieces of the same story of power and its abuse. Snowden is the human face of that story, and it is hardly his fault that most commentators in the US are unable or unwilling to see that his fate is actually a microcosmic enactment of the fate – and indeed, the possibilities – of democracy and responsible government in this country and others.
Through its relentless and illegal pursuit of Snowden, preceded by the essentially pseudo-legal treatment of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, the Obama administration has displayed the same unappetizing traits that are reflected in its secret courts, secret judgments, secret interpretations of laws (that amount, effectively, to secret laws), and secret policies of surveillance that erode the Constitution (which has the great flaw of not being secret). There is, for instance, the penchant for bullying. Obama, Holder and their pals in Congress have gone after a solitary man – a man without an army, powerful allies or unlimited resources – who dared to challenge and embarrass them. They cannot claim to be upholding some lofty principle of the law: none of this vindictiveness was in sight when the same administration refused to prosecute or even investigate the abuses of the Bush-Cheney regime. Not one torturer faced the courts, not one policy-maker was hauled into court; it was all ‘look ahead, not behind.’ James Clapper lied blatantly to Congress – a felony, incidentally – without so much as a slap on the wrist from the Department of Justice. Not one of the men involved in the Haditha massacre did jail time; the bankers and CEOs who wrecked the economy were protected and rewarded. Trigger-happy pilots and drone operators who blow away civilians like boys playing video games are protected from the sight of the public, lest anybody take offence or suggest punishment. It is those who insist upon showing that are hounded and punished. This is not simply hypocrisy. Like all forms of bullying, the persecution of Snowden and Manning is also a straightforward sign of cowardice. These men are politically defenseless, unlike the torturers, bombers and CEOs.
Moreover, the governmental instruments and agencies that might afford the bullied some defense – what is, ideally, known as due process – have themselves been corrupted so badly that due process can only be a cynical joke. What sort of justice (which is what awaits Snowden, one US government spokesman ominously declared some weeks ago) can be expected from a regime of kangaroo courts, black sites and indefinite solitary confinement? And more broadly, what kind of democracy can be expected from a regime in which every branch of the government has become complicit in illegalities, to the extent that the only sure legality is secrecy itself?
The degree of the cynicism with which Snowden, Manning and the rest of us are confronted is particularly evident in the behavior of the two veteran legislators from California, Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats, and both of whom have gone out of their way to defend the NSA surveillance program. Years ago, as a teenager in San Francisco, I met Ms. Pelosi. It must have been before she was a member of Congress, although she was already in the DNC. I forget now what the forum was – probably Model UN. Even then, I was startled by how intolerant and, well, brainless she was: a party hack defending the party line from teenage critics, without a thought of her own. It is not that Feinstein and Pelosi are especially invested in specific surveillance programs, beyond their own complicity. They are easily recognizable as machine politicians: what matters to them, more than anything else, is power. That means doing absolutely anything to maintain themselves and their party in office, but it also means being obsessed – to the point of total identification – with the machinery of the state itself.
Unlike the classical machine politicians of the days of Tammany Hall, who actually interacted with ordinary voters and their petty corruptions, the new machine politicians serve, and function as, mechanisms of pure, cold, concentrated violence. The public is either irrelevant or an irritant. Nancy Pelosi in her expensive pantsuits exhibits the same dead-eyed form of power and arrogance that hides behind a policeman’s sunglasses or a bureaucrat’s computer monitor. She and her colleagues continuously enforce a militarism that is so normative that it does not register as militarism. They enforce, simultaneously, a corruption that does not register as corruption, because it has been legalized at the level at which governments and corporations operate. (And that, of course, is the difference between the West, where there is ‘no corruption,’ and the Third World with its cash-filled suitcases.) How naïve we were when we assumed that Barack Obama would remain a creature of human dignity in a state in which oversized police cars bristle with more antennae than warships and are referred to as ‘cruisers’ and ‘interceptors’! There was no other possibility, not because Obama is a Chicago man, as one might be tempted to say, but because he is a hollow man who entered the machine. (With Hilary Clinton, of course, there was never any doubt that she was already of the machine.)
The element of ordinary self-interest in American machine politics is easy enough to identify: the government is secretive, selective and violent because it suits the proverbial one percent that circulates between company boardrooms and government offices. And what the Snowden affair has shown is how ubiquitous and incestuous such elites are. What we have seen is not so much mutual back-scratching as a veritable circle-jerk of the governments of the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria and even Russia: the big bully and his catamites, who are also little bullies. The rulers of each of those countries, and quite a few others, have shown themselves to be a single tribe of power, organized as a network of gangs hidden behind metaphorical sunglasses and computer screens, guns and badges, cruisers and interceptors. No democracy left behind! Jimmy Carter said as much recently in Der Spiegel, to the general indifference of an American media that paid more attention to the pregnancies of nincompoops. (Even Der Spiegel left the story out of its English edition.) Carter’s point, however, was not just about the determination of politicians, bureaucrats and their corporate cronies to line their pockets while pretending to ‘defend’ the public. It was about the nature of the modern state itself, which has become entirely inconsistent with democracy.
That development, obviously, is as old as the democratic state. Gandhi wrote about the shamelessness of Parliament and its connection with violence in Hind Swaraj more than a hundred years ago, and he was not the first; his insights remain valid today, as do Orwell’s and Huxley’s on the statecraft of ‘security’ and soma. Heinrich Böll’s novels of the 1960s and 1970s show that even an apparently unaggressive and ‘reformed’ society like West Germany was its own violent, secretive empire of power. When Böll protested against the Adenauer-initiated fetish of ‘normalcy’ in the West German state, he was not saying that Adenauer had returned Germany to Nazi times; he was, rather, pointing out the brutal normalcy of a type of modern bully-state that included the Third Reich as well as the Federal Republic. Norman Mailer said the same thing about the United States, more or less at the same time.
But whereas present-day Germans are still able to make those kinds of connections (between the Stasi on the one hand, and Angela Merkel’s BND on the other, for instance, thanks partly to the East German interlude – it’s not surprising that the only significant public protests against state surveillance have come in Germany), Americans are locked into a model of citizenship that includes absurd levels of anxiety, deference, syrupy sentimentality and the worship of uniformed personnel. Germans would have found it familiar – in 1913. When strangers are urged, every year, to approach random soldiers with ‘Thank you for your service, sir,’ and shops offer discounts to military personnel in the same way that small-town merchants give discounts to high-school athletes, the garbage about permanent war and giving aid and comfort to the enemy becomes a pervasive stench in the air we breathe. We learn to hold our own breath and concentrate on shopping. Any information that is not advertising becomes dangerous, subject to ‘collection.’ Trying to locate an old friend recently, I Googled his name. Within minutes, my Yahoo page was asking me if I wanted to find low prices on Lincoln Wong, whose name had been interpreted as a brand by some well-behaved algorithm. This could be either amusing or disgusting, depending upon your mood at the moment. But that algorithm is the model American citizen today.
Gandhi, Orwell, Huxley, Böll and Mailer inhabited a world in which certain balances of power still existed, and those balances – like the Cold War, or Non-Alignment, or anti-colonial nationalism – allowed for the existence of politics (real politics and not circle-jerks) that generated spaces of resistance and asylum. And in the disappearance of the prospect of asylum for Edward Snowden we can see the full extent of what has been lost.
July 29, 2013