Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On the "solitary leaker", and ethical autonomy

In case you didn't know what you should think about Edward Snowden's leak of NSA data-mining activity, authoritarian NYTimes columnist David Brooks has done the thinking for you.

His advice? We needn't worry about the government! We just need to have the right kind of trust in the "series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world" that infiltrate and delineate our culture. It's Snowden and other "solitary" young men with spotty high school records we need to fear! Why? Because they are just the sort to take it upon themselves to puncture the useful fiction of our civic life.

The problem exposed by Snowden's leak is not the gross overreach of government monitoring of private communications, but "the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds." We haven't been betrayed by our elected officials; Snowden betrayed us when he broke the confidentiality he was sworn to: "He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter." War is peace; ignorance is strength.
So why was it so hard for Snowden to trust Big Brother? My friend Jonathan Figdor, the Humanist chaplain at Stanford University, sees clearly how Snowden (and any thinking person) might suffer a crisis of civic faith: Maybe those institutions and authorities lost credibility when they violated the trust we had in them... Like when the banks got bailed out, but the middle class and working poor got evicted from their homes; or when Bush gave his buddies in the top .5 of 1% enormous tax cuts on the backs of the poor and middle class; or when Bush trotted out Colin Powell to make an erroneous case for war in Iraq and sent a lot of American troops to die overseas under false pretenses. Please, David, don't pretend like you have no idea where this lack of trust in authority comes from. It comes from years of abuse.
Speaking of uppity reactions to years of abuse, I guess Rosa Parks betrayed us all when she slipped the bonds of social propriety and refused to go to the back of the bus. If that analogy seems absurd to you, perhaps:

  1. You are an authoritarian, and view Rosa Parks' civil disobedience as salutary only because the larger culture -- its media, schools, and other authorities -- has endorsed that interpretation as safe; or
  2. You are ethically autonomous, and recognize that there is among human beings a moral obligation to one another that precedes (and indeed, gives rise to) the civic obligation to the rule of law. 

The dogmatist, the absolutist, and the authoritarian agree: A person is only as good as his or her word.

The relativist, the materialist, and the Humanist offer that a person who keeps his or her word without having a clean conscience has become an instrument of an authority's convenience... which is as good as definition I know of dehumanization. 

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