WORTH REPEATING: The Character Assassin’s Gate


PROSPECT: The Errors Of Edward Snowden And Glenn Greenwald

ANTI-WAR.COM: George Packer, resident egghead-journalist at the New Yorker – and Iraq war supporter-turned-“anguished” semi-recanter – is the latest “liberal” to turn his guns on Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald for their alleged devotion to libertarianism. A whole genre has grown up around this subject: Sean Wilentz, writing in The New Republic and the boys over at ThinkProgress are exemplars of the form. They compete with neocons like David Brooks and the Weekly Standard gang to see who can demonize the Snowden-Greenwald team in the most damning terms. And to these folks, the “l”-word – libertarian – is the twenty-first century equivalent of calling someone a Communist in the darkest depths of the McCarthy era, a term of opprobrium reserved for society’s pariahs. It’s a compliment I only hope the libertarian movement can come to deserve.

Packer starts out with the usual psychologizing: Snowden is “an old American type,” kind of like Henry David Thoreau – “a solitary individual” “who withdrew to a cabin,” and defied the law in favor of following his conscience. Snowden, to hear Packer tell it, “lives in the hyperconnected isolation of the Internet.” Contempt for the Internet courses through the length and breadth of this diatribe, which is perhaps to be expected from someone who works for that epitome of the legacy media known as The New Yorker – sadly degenerated from its salad days, never having recovered from becoming Tina Brown’s plaything.

The Thoreau imagery is completely made up, along with the rest of the mythology generated by Packer & Co.: Snowden did not retire to a cabin, he wasn’t a loner, he didn’t just live on the Internet. Indeed, he had a life, a relationship with a woman – whom Packer, like the creep he is, describes as a “pole-dancing girlfriend” – he had friends. He was, in short an ordinary American, which is precisely why his actions are so admirable to the average person – and so offensive to the political elites and their “intellectual” hangers-on, who hold ordinary people in contempt.

After setting up this phony image of an eccentric hermit encased in a cybernetic-cabin-in-the-woods, Packer then attacks Snowden for not living up to the Thoreauvian straw man ideal: Thoreau, after all, took his punishment for defying authority, while Snowden “fled to Russia.” The fact is that Snowden was stranded in Russia by Packer’s beloved Obama administration, which took away his passport and physically blocked his flight to South Henry David Thoreau – “a solitary America. And as to why Snowden has this alleged moral obligation to deliver himself up to the Surveillance State, which not only jails but tortures its perceived enemies, this is a deep mystery: I guess Packer feels cheated at not being able to enjoy the spectacle of a virtuous man being tortured by his enemies. The Pharisees were never very nice people, but the Snowden-haters – who universally echo this bizarre demand – make them look like humanitarians.

The libertarian-baiting is heavy:  [..] Yet even if Snowden was a libertarian – so what? What does that have to do with what he has revealed about the illegal and clearly unconstitutional activities of the US government – none of which are even remotely described, let alone discussed, in Packer’s rant? And that’s the significance of this psycho-political smear job: look over here, not over there. Forget the revelations – the execution of the NSA’s maniacal mission, which is to abolish the very concept of privacy – and let’s talk about Snowden.  […] The worst is yet to come, however. Here is a man whose entire “journalistic” career has been one long act of fellatio in service to the Powers That Be – whether they be the neocons he sucked up to during the Bush years or the “progressive” gang presently inhabiting the White House – accusing Greenwald of “a pervasive absence of intellectual integrity”! Chutzpah doesn’t quite cover it. […] There is more to Packer’s attempt to assassinate the character of the two people who have done the most to let the American people in on the ill-kept secret of Washington’s maleficence, both at home and abroad, but enough is enough. MORE

CROOKED TIMBER: There are two problems with this analysis. The first is that it misstates the arguments of Max Weber. The second is that it grossly misrepresents the position of Edward Snowden. First, Max Weber. Weber’s claims about the ethic of responsibility can be found in his classic essay (conveniently available online in PDF form), Politics as a Vocation. When Weber seeks to contrast the ethic of responsibility and the ethic of ultimate ends, he is not arguing against “absolutist positions.” For Weber, some kinds of absolutism are not only acceptable, but admirable. Instead, he is arguing against pacifists and others who do not want to embrace the ugly truths of politics – that politics is ultimately based on force, and that morally dubious actions can have politically beneficial outcomes. It’s worth quoting Weber’s arguments at length.

We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ or to an ‘ethic of responsibility.’ This is not to say that an ethic of ultimate ends is identical with irresponsibility, or that an ethic of responsibility is identical with unprincipled opportunism. Naturally nobody says that. However, there is an abysmal contrast between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends—that is, in religious terms, ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord’—and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.

You may demonstrate to a convinced syndicalist, believing in an ethic of ultimate ends, that his action will result in increasing the opportunities of reaction, in increasing the oppression of his class, and obstructing its ascent—and you will not make the slightest impression upon him. If an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil. However a man who believes in an ethic of responsibility takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people; as Fichte has correctly said, he does not even have the right to presuppose their goodness and perfection. He does not feel in a position to burden others with the results of his own actions so far as he was able to foresee them; he will say: these results are ascribed to my action.

… No ethics in the world can dodge the fact that in numerous instances the attainment of ‘good’ ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means or at least dangerous ones—and facing the possibility or even the probability of evil ramifications. From no ethics in the world can it be concluded when and to what extent the ethically good purpose ‘justifies’ the ethically dangerous means and ramifications.

Weber is arguing against a specific kind of unworldliness, which assumes that from good actions only good things come, and from evil actions only evil. His claim is that the world of politics is at best a morally ambiguous one, in which wicked means can produce good outcomes. Those who fail to recognize this should withdraw entirely (as a truly religious vocation demands) from worldiness. Those who recognize this and are not pure creatures of politics who shift their positions according to interest and convenience, are, for Weber, genuinely heroic individuals, who have truly embraced politics as a vocation.

So is Packer right in claiming that Snowden is irresponsible in the Weberian sense? Emphatically not. Indeed, Packer’s presentation of Snowden’s argument is actively misleading. In his review, Packer accuses Glenn Greenwald of a “pervasive absence of intellectual integrity” for claiming inter alia that Snowden had tried to protect his colleagues while failing to note a Reuters article “showing” that Snowden had borrowed logins from these colleagues. But Packer fails his own test for intellectual integrity. He presents quotes that seem to support his claims. However, not only does he fail to provide the necessary context for these statements, but he appears actively to elide bits of the quotes that undermine his thesis. The interview with Snowden that Packer draws on is available here. And it really doesn’t say what he suggests it does. MORE

PREVIOUSLY:  While it’s normal for questions to arise out of something as horrific as this mass killing, it is downright weird to read the dozens of sympathetic accounts of Bales’s life before he became a mass murderer. The excuse-making of the right-wing pundits on Fox News is one thing: that, after all, is to be expected. Far creepier, however, are the some of the more “complex” explanations for Bales’s crime, notably one proffered by Iraq war supporter and neocon-enabler George Packer, in the New Yorker, who denounces “the smugness of the antiwar crowd” and instructs us to avoid “easy condemnations.” […]  He complains about “the tiny number of Americans who belong to our all-volunteer military.” Everybody, in his view, should have the opportunity to become a war criminal. He goes on to imply we all bear some mysterious collective responsibility, because we haven’t paid enough attention to the conflict. His main concern, however, is to counter those “smug” antiwar types:

It’s easy and currently fashionable to sneer at the entire ten-year effort. To say that it was doomed from the start, and no one but a fool would try to change Afghanistan. Didn’t we learned anything from the British and the Soviets? Wasn’t this the graveyard of empires? When would we ever realize we can’t police the world or occupy Muslim countries? It looks pretty obvious now. It gets less obvious when you go back to where we were after September 11th and give it an honest reckoning.”

We didn’t know: we couldn’t know. It’s not my fault! MORE