October 15, 2013

Dissidence, and Dissidents, that Even Hollywood Can Love

The most revolutionary and significant aspect of the promise that WikiLeaks offered the world was its radical method of disseminating information. Beginning in very early childhood, all of us are taught to rely on authority figures for everything: for personal and professional advancement and fulfillment, for opportunities of all kinds, for survival itself. Most damningly, we are all taught to rely on authorities for what to think: for our opinions on what books and movies to like or to revile, for our political views, for our perspectives on other people -- and even for our view of ourselves. Information comes to us only after it has passed through numerous filters: via our parents in the first instance, then through our teachers and professors, later on from bosses at work and "tastemakers" and trendsetters in the social sphere, and from "experts" in any field which claims complexity for itself that is not amenable to understanding by laypeople. (I note in passing that every subject in the world should be communicable in a manner that makes it fully understandable to a basically functioning adult. By every subject, I mean every subject, including quantum physics. If an "expert" claims that he cannot make an idea understandable to you, he's trying to get away with something. I suggest that you treat any pronouncement from all such individuals with the greatest skepticism of which you are capable. In short: don't believe a word they say.)

WikiLeaks eliminated the filters -- and most people were horrified. One of the most fascinating revelations in the widespread response to WikiLeaks' work was that the disapproval of its basic approach -- disapproval which ranged from contained but pointed tut-tutting ("My dear, we simply cannot function this way as a society!") to outright loathing -- was spread throughout the continuum of political views. Many of those on the left were as undone by WikiLeaks as those on the right, thus confirming that our culture's insistence on the primary virtue of obedience to authority transcends comparatively superficial political distinctions.

Because it is crucial to what follows, I offer this summary of WikiLeaks' methodology:
[WikiLeaks] transfers the demanding work -- understanding the material in the first instance, and then making those judgments we think justified -- to each and every one of us. Many people don't want the responsibility. Their greatest preference is to defer to authority, to obey. WikiLeaks deprives them of that opportunity. One of the results is that many people profoundly resent WikiLeaks and wish only that it would instantly dissolve into nothingness.

This particular resentment stands largely separate and apart from a writer's political beliefs, and you find it on both right and left. It is more deeply personal than political convictions alone. WikiLeaks allows people no excuse merely to obey, and they no longer have justification for being intellectually lazy. WikiLeaks' critics often decry the manner in which government systematically and increasingly disregards citizens' voices and concerns -- but present them with the means to take back their own power in a meaningful way, and they recoil in horror. In addition to being invaluable in itself, WikiLeaks' work provides this additional benefit: it reveals many people's actual motivations and concerns. And one great truth that has been revealed (again) by this latest episode is that the majority of people want to be guided by authority, by "experts," by those with "secret information." Give them that "secret information" so they can judge it for themselves and they immediately cry: "Oh, we can't possibly understand that! Only the State, or 'experts,' can be trusted with that information and explain it to us!" Most people want to obey. They've been taught obedience as the primary virtue, and they now believe the lesson and have fully internalized it.
For a detailed discussion of this issue, see "In Praise of Mess, Chaos and Panic," and the essays referenced there.

As I set out in "In Praise of Mess" and developed further here and here, WikiLeaks' methodology stands in stark contrast to that used by the journalists to whom Edward Snowden gave his document trove. These journalists insist that filtering of the "raw" documents is indispensable to understanding by the otherwise untutored (and, presumably, unwashed) public. These journalists will first select which documents we will be permitted to see, and which we won't (which is most of them). But that is far from sufficient in the view of these journalists, who are gifted with powers of understanding and judgment far exceeding the abilities of us ordinary schmucks. We are told that the Snowden documents are "difficult" and "complex." Therefore, when we are allowed an occasional glimpse of carefully selected documents, these journalists will explain to us what we should think of them, and what conclusions we are entitled to reach. These self-appointed authorities are genuinely dedicated to the role they have granted themselves: they will guide us in every step we take. Our "protectors" will guard from all the dangers that might unleash chaos resulting in the immediate implosion of the rigid structures that narrowly circumscribe our lives: an original thought, a unique perspective, an unexpected insight.

If you are an unreconstructed and unsalvageable advocate of spontaneity and universe-shattering chaos, a troubling thought might occur to you at this point. In terms of basic approach, what choice is there between a State which is committed to constantly increasing its control over every aspect of our lives -- and "experts" who are determined to shepherd us through each step of accessing and evaluating information, even information which directly affects every aspect of our lives? A few of you are thinking that this is no choice at all. Obviously, you're entirely correct. You need to bathe in scalding water, and pray for deliverance from the gods of authority. It is pitiful that these journalist-"experts" are commonly regarded as presenting a serious challenge to the authoritarian State. It is equally pitiful that most of those on the left (broadly speaking) subscribe to this same view. This is further evidence of the universality of our training in the primacy of obedience. If you think authoritarianism is confined to the right, you have failed to pay attention in recent years, and you have missed much of history.

The radical nature of WikiLeaks' approach could conceivably be dramatized in a film, but it would require a writer and director of extraordinary talent and imagination. Such a film would also depend on creators willing to challenge our culture's widespread condemnation of WikiLeaks. People of this kind are unusual in any culture, and they are unheard of in Hollywood. It is only to be expected that The Fifth Estate, the Disney film about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange that opens later this week, sounds absolutely dreadful, as detailed in this valuable article: "Disney's Ode to State Repression." The writer notes that the film "serves as a rolling character assassination of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange," and goes on to write:
Wikileaks has been at the forefront of the contemporary effort to push out uncensored, unvarnished data about crimes that range from corporate banking scandals to the U.S. massacre of Reuters reporters in Iraq. What really catches in the government’s craw? You’re free to review and assess that data unencumbered by big media spin or government censorship. How else to explain the feds’ debauched assault on independent journalist Barrett Brown, who’s facing over 100 years in prison for essentially repasting a publicly available link that contained publicly available data “that he was researching in his capacity as a journalist,” according to his lawyer.

Two principles have formed the core of Wikileaks’ operative mores since its formation: uncensored information and a rigorous commitment to protect the anonymity of the whistleblowers who provide that information. Unsurprisingly, authoritarian governments, criminal corporate enterprises and their toadies just hate these two prongs of potential exposure – full disclosure of primary source material and protection of the sources of that information.
The article mentions the central importance of anonymity several more times. This sentence leapt out at me:
Anonymity undermines managed dissent, and we live in an age of managed dissent.
From the State's perspective, anonymity is deeply troubling. Threats to the State's control can come from anywhere; when the State is unable to identify the sources of leaks, it is much more difficult to strengthen the State's protections. What -- and whom -- does the State need to protect itself from? The State doesn't know.

Anonymity is also critical in terms of the questions of method I've raised. When we don't know the identity of a leaker, it is impossible to make the resulting story(ies) about the personalities of the players. Our sole focus must be on the content of the leaks, regardless of the source. And in fact, this is ideally how we should evaluate all information: on its own merits, on the strength of the arguments offered, regardless of the person involved. When we don't even know the person involved, most people's temptation to focus on comparatively trivial matters is removed at the outset.

With these factors in mind, it is instructive to consider the Snowden stories from an additional perspective, and to go back to close to the beginning. One question immediately comes to mind: Why, exactly, do we know Edward Snowden's identity? I will admit (somewhat to my chagrin) that I failed to analyze this question with the care it demands; I will now attempt to rectify what I consider an error of some consequence. But as the NSA stories first appeared, I experienced what I know many others experienced. I was filled with admiration and gratitude for the enormous risks Snowden had chosen to run. Since it was unarguable that Snowden had put his life on the line, I was strongly disinclined to examine his behavior in a serious way. And I must emphasize even now that I do not engage in this discussion to raise questions about Snowden's character or about him personally. As I hope will be clear, my major concern is Snowden's self-identification with regard to the NSA stories themselves and how they are being offered to us. (I will also acknowledge that the analysis that follows does contain implications concerning Snowden's character, but for the most part, I will leave the reader to draw what conclusions he will on his own.)

Snowden explained why he identified himself in his first interview with Glenn Greenwald:
Greenwald: "One of the extraordinary parts about this episode is usually whistleblowers do what they do anonymously and take steps to remain anonymous for as long as they can, which they hope often is forever. You on the other hand have decided to do the opposite, which is to declare yourself openly as the person behind these disclosures. Why did you choose to do that?"

Snowden: "I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government that's a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy and if you do that in secret consistently as the government does when it wants to benefit from a secret action that it took, it'll kind of give its officials a mandate to go, 'Hey tell the press about this thing and that thing so the public is on our side.' But they rarely, if ever, do that when an abuse occurs. That falls to individual citizens but they're typically maligned. It becomes a thing of 'These people are against the country. They're against the government' but I'm not."

"I'm no different from anybody else. I don't have special skills. I'm just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what's happening and goes, 'This is something that's not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.' And I'm willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say, 'I didn't change these, I didn't modify the story. This is the truth; this is what's happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this.'"
Other statements from Snowden confirm these as the primary reasons that led him to come forward.

Snowden contends that "the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures." Why? In terms of the documents' contents, the motives of a particular leaker are entirely irrelevant. Snowden's motives don't alter what the documents say, or the programs they describe. Is Snowden suggesting that we should view the documents in light of his own character? That appears to be the implication. But as I suggested above, this is absolutely the wrong way to approach any information. The information is what it is; the identity of the person offering it should be of no concern to us at all. (There are rare exceptions to this rule, but none are relevant here.)

Snowden says that leaks like his "subvert[] the power of government," and "that's a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy." He worries that people might conclude he's "against the government," so he identified himself in part to assure everyone that he's not "against the government." In other words: he doesn't wish to threaten the State in any serious way. Even though he himself thinks that the State's surveillance powers threaten liberty and privacy, he is not committed to eliminating that threat. He wants "the public" to "decide whether we need to be doing this." It thus appears that if "the public" approves total surveillance by the State, that outcome would be satisfactory to him in the most important sense (and despite the fact that he himself would choose differently). Any outcome would be all right, as long as "democracy" approves it after being informed of the relevant facts.

Snowden identified himself for an additional reason: if he insisted on personal anonymity, he is concerned that the State might treat that as a sanction for the State's own secrecy practices. We might observe that the State hardly needs encouragement from Snowden (or anyone else) for its insistence on as much secrecy as it can get away with. We might also observe that a lone individual who incurs the wrath of the State -- especially a State which proclaims its "right" to murder anyone it chooses, whenever it wishes -- is hardly on equal footing with the State itself. (Do I actually need to say this? Apparently, I do.) No reasonable person could question Snowden's desire to protect himself as fully as possible from the murderous anger of the State. And Snowden himself indicates that he's well aware that the State might attempt to kill him. With regard to his personal safety, we should also note this passage from a Guardian article that accompanied that first interview:
The Guardian, after several days of interviews, is revealing his identity at his request. From the moment he decided to disclose numerous top-secret documents to the public, he was determined not to opt for the protection of anonymity. "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," he said.
I obviously agree with Snowden that he's "done nothing wrong." And it's lovely that he himself believes that -- but, honestly, what does his own conviction on this point (or mine, or yours) have to do with anything? Most importantly, what does it have to do with the State's view of him, and with what the State is prepared to do about its own view? Nothing, nothing at all.

I am not aware of any additional arguments Snowden has offered for identifying himself. As I indicated, Snowden has repeated these arguments in different forms, but the arguments are the same. (If you know of additional arguments he's made on this point, please let me know, although I strongly doubt they will alter my conclusions.) The reasons he offers for identifying himself are notably weak tea: they are irrelevant, or wrong, or wildly misplaced. At best, we can only say that Snowden is extremely naive. Despite his very strong criticisms of the State's surveillance activities, he seems to have a curiously sanitized view of the State with which he is contending. He seeks to assure the State that his disclosures don't represent a serious threat to State power, or at a minimum that he hopes they will not. In effect, he's hoping his disclosures will lead all of us, including the powerful ruling class, to say: "We need to talk."

Among my other reactions, I find all this extraordinarily puzzling. It becomes even more puzzling when we consider Snowden's repeated insistence that he doesn't want to be "the story" himself. If he had remained anonymous, he couldn't be the story. So he made himself a key element of the story by identifying himself when he didn't need to, and for reasons which are singularly unconvincing. And remember that he identified himself while he was still in Hong Kong. The result was that he was suddenly in the midst of a terribly dangerous situation. He only managed to get out of Hong Kong with great difficulty, and then his efforts to find asylum were hugely complicated by the fact that his identity was known throughout the world. (If we accept the fact that Snowden himself was very naive about the dangers he faced, there surely must have been others -- for instance, the all-knowing journalists with whom he was interacting -- who appreciated those dangers, or should have. Couldn't they at least have convinced him to withhold his identity until after he was in a country that had granted him even temporary asylum?)

Snowden's self-identification becomes somewhat less puzzling when we look at another element that was introduced in the story at the same time: the contrast with Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks. From that same early Guardian article:
Snowden said that he admires both Ellsberg and Manning, but argues that there is one important distinction between himself and the army private, whose trial coincidentally began the week Snowden's leaks began to make news.

"I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest," he said. "There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn't turn over, because harming people isn't my goal. Transparency is."

He purposely chose, he said, to give the documents to journalists whose judgment he trusted about what should be public and what should remain concealed.
Look carefully at the second and third paragraphs in that excerpt. Note the huge contradiction they contain. On one hand, Snowden claims that he "carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest" -- while the story goes on to state (and this is a claim that has been repeated numerous times) that he chose "to give the documents to journalists whose judgment he trusted about what should be public and what should remain concealed."

If, in fact, Snowden "carefully evaluated every single document" he disclosed, and determined that "each was legitimately in the public interest," why do these trusted journalists have to determine "what should be public" all over again? (We might conclude that the involved parties simply believe that you can never have too many filters. Given the way in which the NSA stories are being ever more fitfully delivered to us, I wouldn't be disposed to argue with that view.) This element of the story never made any sense. But if you disbelieve Snowden's claim that he "carefully evaluated every single document," the mystery vanishes -- and Tarzie recently demonstrated that Snowden's claim cannot be true.

I began by describing the genuinely radical methodology employed by WikiLeaks. Just how radical that methodology is, was reflected in the title of one of my WikiLeaks essays from three years ago: "A World without Obedience or Authority: Toward a Life of One's Own, and a Real Revolution." The promise that WikiLeaks held out is one that the custodians of the Snowden leak strongly reject. Greenwald is at pains to constantly reiterate his admiration for WikiLeaks and Manning, but the manner in which he markets the NSA stories contradicts that claimed admiration at the most fundamental level. Beginning with that early Guardian article, Greenwald & Co. repeatedly emphasize that Snowden and the superlatively wise journalists overseeing the NSA stories are "responsible," and "careful," that they make certain never to endanger anyone or anything. They're not "against the government," and they certainly do not wish to threaten it in any serious manner. They want a "debate," and they want "reform." But as I've noted, "reform" of what I term the Death State is an exercise in unbridled, unreflective, and decidedly unserious fantasy. When he speaks of his and his compatriots' "responsibility" and "care" in recent days, Greenwald doesn't mention WikiLeaks or Manning by name -- but he doesn't need to. There is only one other leak story in the past few years that equals (and exceeds, in my view) the NSA stories, and everyone knows what it is.

The unavoidable implication of the way the NSA stories are marketed is that the NSA stories represent "good" leaking, while WikiLeaks represents "bad" leaking. Greenwald & Co. are "responsible," WikiLeaks is not. Greenwald & Co. are "careful," WikiLeaks is not. Greenwald & Co. are superbly protective of everyone on the planet, including the murderous ruling class, while WikiLeaks endangers every constituted authority and everyone who exercises destructive political power. And the fact that we know who Snowden is and was offers an additional benefit. From that same Guardian story, one more time:
He has had "a very comfortable life" that included a salary of roughly $200,000, a girlfriend with whom he shared a home in Hawaii, a stable career, and a family he loves.
A "good" whistleblower with a conscience that works overtime (even on behalf of those who would kill you in an instant, just for being there), who gave up big bucks -- and even gave up a hot babe with whom he cavorted on Hawaii's beautiful beaches. At sunset, no doubt.

The movie writes itself, doesn't it? It was all there, right from the beginning. We should have seen it:
For more than a week, Hollywood has been exploring what could be one of the most difficult nonfiction projects it has ever tried: a proposed film based on the journalist Glenn Greenwald’s planned book about Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive whistle-blower.

As of late Friday, it was not clear that any studio had secured a deal. But 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures Entertainment and the cable television powerhouse HBO were among potential buyers that had considered the project, according to several people who were briefed on it, but spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality strictures

Mr. Greenwald’s planned book, which is based on his close contact with Mr. Snowden and promises fresh revelations about government and corporate intelligence-gathering, is set for publication next March by Macmillan’s Metropolitan Books imprint.
(The Times article is via Tarzie, who has thankfully been all over numerous aspects of this story.)

I don't want to be misunderstood. I am obviously not suggesting that the NSA stories were designed from the outset with the goal of marketing what is potentially a blockbuster film to Hollywood. That would be ridiculously trivial, and hopelessly beside the point. What I am arguing is what I regard as far worse. The self-appointed authorities who sporadically deliver the NSA stories to us, "carefully" and "responsibly" selected, sanitized, and redacted, have no quarrel with obedience or authority in the manner WikiLeaks does, more's the pity. They obviously have no such quarrel, for they act as authorities themselves, and they do this with regard to what might have been a game-changer if handled in a fundamentally different way. But their gatekeeping has served and continues to serve to defang these stories of any meaningful danger to authority they might have had, just as their insistence on their own "responsibility" and "care" makes the NSA stories thoroughly "respectable" -- and thoroughly safe. They don't want to seriously threaten anything at all, much less overthrow it. They want a "debate," after which you are free to choose tyrannical, murderous rule, if that's what you want.

The article about The Fifth Estate excerpted above makes clear how Hollywood will treat anyone who represents a genuine threat: he will be subject to character assassination, his motives and character will be despoiled, and the crucial significance of the methodology he championed will be ignored. That article offers this further observation:
While the The Fifth Estate script includes a couple of toss-away bromides about Wikileaks’ commitment to the anonymity of its whistle-blowing information providers, its real thrust is to boost the fabricated ‘common sense’ notion that some information just isn’t ready for prime time consumption, ergo we should rely on ‘responsible’ outlets like The New York Times to parse the data for us.
To which we can add, "responsible" outlets like The Guardian.

But we have a noble, self-sacrificing hero, some danger but not too much, and even Hawaiian beaches. It's all so respectable and safe that I'm sure Tom Hanks will be happy to star (Jennifer Lawrence will have a delicious cameo as Snowden's girlfriend), and Steven Spielberg will be thrilled to direct. Fabulous. And all the leading real-life characters are well-prepared and well-practiced for their interviews. We might say they're ready for their close-ups. What a fucking great country.

It's enough to make you weep, isn't it? Yes, I thought it might.