Monday, September 16, 2013

Snowden and Manning have cheapened what it means to be a whistleblower (updated)

One of the things that bothers me about the Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning episodes is that they have blurred the lines about whistleblowing. As with any act of civil disobedience, it is an important tool for those seeking justice.

That's why I found myself agreeing with some of what Peter Ludlow has written in a NYT op-ed titled The Banality of Systemic Evil. For example:
In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” one of the most poignant and important works of 20th-century philosophy, Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called “the banality of evil.” One interpretation of this holds that is was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolph Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their “proper” roles within a system, following proscribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing — or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.
That reminds me of this Martin Luther King, Jr. quote:
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Staying silent in the face of evil is indeed to be complicit.

But nowhere in Ludlow's article does he grapple with the deep moral question of having to isolate what is "evil." Much as Glenn Greenwald simply assumes that anyone in a position of power is lying, Ludlow infers that any bureaucratic system is evil and therefore justifies whistleblowing. When it comes to our government system, you can see how this aligns perfectly with a libertarian view.

Even those who are the loudest critics of Chelsea Manning will note that if she had merely leaked information about malfeasance in Iraq, she would likely be deemed a hero and walk free today. But that's not what she did. She leaked indiscriminately.

When it comes to Edward Snowden, there is even less of a case to be made. To date he has not released anything that points to illegal activities. President Obama has been willing to discuss improvements to NSA surveillance and the administration is busy declassifying at least as many documents as have been leaked so far. The idea that what we are witnessing from this administration falls under the rubric of "the banality of evil" is simply absurd.

Ultimately the job of whistleblower brings with it the responsibility to ask deep moral questions of oneself. To take the easy way out by simply defining every system as evil isn't a moral position - its the abdication that responsibility. Snowden and Manning have cheapened the whole concept of what it means to be a whistleblower. They don't deserve the label.

UPDATE: Just a bit off-topic, but I find this kind of tweet from Greenwald to be fascinating.

No one has more respect for Alice Walker than I do. But the implication here is that if Walker supports Snowden, so should I, because nowhere in the article linked is her position explained or justified. Its simply stated. This is solely an appeal to authority from someone who constantly decries authoritarianism. It also suggests that perhaps those in doubt should "blindly" follow those they admire.

Alice Walker's view of Snowden doesn't really affect mine. I chose to look at the evidence and decide for myself. If that means I don't agree with her, so be it. I have as much right to my own opinion as she does. I suspect Alice would support that. Its the non-authoritarian thing to do.


  1. You have identified the core concern: "...the job of whistleblower brings with it the responsibility to ask deep moral questions of oneself."

    With the withering away of true investigative journalism and its replacement with 'gotcha' punking, even those who do tell important truths are partnered with the Snowdens and Assanges and Greenwalds who care nothing for the issues they expose or the consequences that they cause. They have done none of that self reflection, only self praise.

    Those who have committed civil disobedience in the past were doing so fully prepared to take the rap for it. The elderly nun sentenced to life imprisonment for trespassing at a missile silo knew, full well, she may never again see the sun, walk freely in the world. She submitted her life to make that anti-nuclear arms statement. Snowden and his peers think they should be heroes without consequence. True millennials who think their burps deserve medals. They revealed nothing scandalous, in Wikileaks they may well have caused harm, and they moved the entire discussion from sacrifice to privilege for themselves.

    We have become a degraded nation if this is how serious civil disobedience is ignored by this grandstanding power grabbing. Shameful.

    1. This is the best description of what is going on that I have heard to date. I only wish that somewhere in the media there could be a discussion like this that extended beyond the "gotcha punking" (brilliant) that is going on.

  2. Mo'nin, Ms. Pants

    GAWD, have you EVer been JAMMin'!!!
    As always, THANK YOU for what you continue to do. Again, and, as you've come to see from a number of others, you're needed. Now...Glenn

    This feels like it's aimed at me. I mean, Ms. Walker is not one of the "go to" people to comment on much of anything. But, it seems like, maybe, Glenn thinks he can impact on black folk by waving a black person in front of us and saying: "See"? If I'm right about this, we have seen this foolish thinking time and again and, if I'm right, it's CERtainly not surprising that we'd see GG attempting to employ it. And, if I'm right...

    It will NOT work.

    1. Wow, I'm such an Alice Walker fan that the whole idea of it being an appeal to black folk didn't even dawn on me. Duh!


  3. Hey, I know plenty of folks who admire Snowden's courage but think he's an idiot. Also, we should certainly note that Greenwald's "neutral linking" of Alice Walker in no way constitutes an endorsement of her writing, thinking or other political activities; it certainly does not imply any kind of agreement with her at all, any more (or less) than he would agree with any random "coalition of current and former military, police, and other public officials." And color? Are you telling me that this nice white-haired lady is colored? Well, strike me down with a feather, what a coinkydink.

    1. I certainly hope you wrote all that with your tongue firmly planted in your cheek. If not...oh well, ignorance is bliss I guess.

    2. Of course! (Well, the first sentence is sorta true.)

  4. My initial reaction was that this is a Snowbro attempt to to show the world he's not "racist". Howver, I would like to invoke the "Bob Cesca 24 hour Rule", especially in light of the fact John Lewis did not state support for Snowden as Snowbro had claimed. But if Ms. Walker did indeed express support, I agree with SP; she has a right to her opinion.

  5. I love her work. Met her once briefly, and know friends of her daughters. That's just to say... she's allowed her opinion, means nothing to me.