The pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, the expense damnable.’
Lord Chesterfield’s description of sex translates with sublime ease to summarize the perfect civil liberties storm unleashed through the Edward Snowden NSA revelations – a fine, fine mess…American style.
It is one thing to fling your botnet army at Iran, and bomb its Supreme Commander and his bearded, nuclear weapons building boyos back to the digital Stone Age. The American intelligence team was just pitching ‘em high and tight, giving the Islamist rogues a geopolitical purpose pitch: we can do this whenever we want, Ayatollah – bring it on. No boots on the ground required…
Perfectly fine to spy on China, Russia, or even Canada and your EU allies – this is just ‘good to know’ material, after all. They do the same. The NSA imbroglio a la Snowden provides unsettling, inconvenient illumination of a darker, far more ingrained and utterly relentless US executive power ethic, one that persists age to age, across administrations, from Democrat to Republican and back again. This is American exceptionalism in every perverted sense of that tattered, threadbare concept. We spy on our own people – because we can.
Snowden’s NSA whistleblowing, like that so ineptly orchestrated by Bradley Manning, lays bare this paradox: the Great Republic, self-proclaimed global guardian of liberty and personal freedom, sanctions systemic government spying on its own citizens in the name of national security. Additional zest and intrigue are provided by its unlikely spear carriers. Some impassioned types of the American left regard Snowden as an exemplar of conscience in action. Manning attracts similar adoration in the same quarters. There is one certainty – the mammoth government-sponsored communications intercepts, and executive distrust worthy of Stalin are so disturbing they provide the only common ground occupied by the American right, left and center since 9/11.
No good can come of this. President Obama and his crew have been less than deft in their pursuit of Snowden’s extradition and inevitable Sturm und Drang show trial. Everyone will eventually go back to sleep, and the next administration will oversee the same damn things. Exceptional, without question….
The only real baffle in these sad affairs is the doltish march to martyrdom Snowden and Manning pursue, with sanctimony such a lousy defence to aiding the enemy and treason indictments. To riff the old ‘Pogo’ line, the enemy is us, if a liberal democracy feels compelled to monitor its citizens unceasingly. But these dudes signed numerous non-disclosure guarantees regarding any data they handled for their contractor or military masters, with oaths to boot. If your conscience eats at you like a Promethean eagle dining on your liver as you work – quit, and at the appropriate time, take the safer, well-trodden confidential informant path to an obliging media outlet and Deep Throat the thing. A strategy with acknowledged risks – ask Daniel Ellsberg – but surely more graceful, arguably more honorable, and decidedly more effective. Much tougher to shoot and kill messengers that lob shells as confidential informants with lawyers riding shotgun, than sacrificial lambs bleating patriotism on their way to slaughter.
As for now, Lord Chesterfield on sex and the Obama administration on Snowden have the same problem – short term pleasure, a ridiculous position when exposed, and …that damnable expense.
Image: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at a window in the Mark Hopkins Hotel, October 31, 1946. Photo by J. Marron