politics, philosophy, and other lonely musings
As can be easily deduced from prior posts, I am, in a basic sense, an atheist. I don’t believe there to be a god. I don’t subscribe to any particular religious doctrine or system of beliefs—or at least, religion as would be commonly understood. (Not having a discrete definition of ‘religion’, it may turn out that I am, in fact, religious in some way. Such could be the case for nearly any of us, but I digress.) However, I am disquieted with attempts to turn atheism into Atheism. It seems to me that many atheists, while rejecting the notion of gods and religion, nevertheless (some will resist this next characterization) believe, think, or understand, atheism to be, in some sense, a belief system.
For an example of this, consider so-called “Atheism Plus (+).” Jennifer McCreight of Blag Hag fame quotes a comment left on one of her blog posts: “I can’t help but see social justice as a logical consequence of atheism.” A logical consequence. As though atheism logically entails certain positions, political, social, and so on, thereby becoming Atheism with a capital A.
Yet I think this is fundamentally wrong. By that, I don’t mean that atheism is in any sense incompatible with social justice, feminism, or other, equally laudable goals. Far from it. However, I think there is, if not an incoherence, at least a mistaken understanding of just what atheism is.
From the Chicago Tribune (Reuters):
“If Hong Kong doesn’t act soon, it will complicate our bilateral relations and raise questions about Hong Kong’s commitment to the rule of law,” said a senior Obama administration official.
One might wonder what questions about the White House’s commitment to the rule of law are raised by the continuing and unwarranted persecution of whistleblowers under this administration; the almost total lack of transparency on the part of this administration (except, of course, when their hand was forced by leaks of information); the secret judicial interpretations of landmark, wide-ranging, supposedly counter-terror legislation that potentially reaches into the private lives and violates the civil liberties of millions of Americans (how can the rule of law exist when just WHAT the law is isn’t even clear?); and the continued, asserted power of (again) secret legal interpretations granting the executive branch the authority to order the targeted killing (fancy way of saying assassination, one might think) of American citizens with entirely no due process—or, at least, no due process that would be recognized by anyone familiar with the subject.
Perhaps the White House should be looking inwards, and examine the current state of the rule of law in Washington’s glass house before haphazardly tossing stones.
An article David Brooks wrote on Edward Snowden and the NSA in the New York Times opinion section has caught some attention, and not the kind of attention one should normally seek. It is, dear internet denizens, singularly disappointing and says much more about the politics of David Brooks than it does about American society, or even Mr. Snowden, though Mr. Brooks clearly thinks otherwise.
After shortly praising Snowden as “thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs”, Mr. Brooks goes on to bemoan the downfall of society; or, as he calls it, the “atomization of society.” Apparently, Mr. Snowden’s actions are not those of a benevolent whistle-blower or of a public benefactor committed deeply to certain American ideals, but of “the loosening of social bonds” by “young men in their 20s who are living [...] between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.” According to Mr. Brooks, besides “Big Brother”, there is the danger of “the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.”
Brooks goes on to list the ways, oh the ways, that Mr. Snowden has betrayed himself, his family, his neighbors, you, me, his country, and (probably) God as well. Brooks attributes this to Mr. Snowden being the “ultimate unmediated man”, the “solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.” Hmm, quite. But… how, again? Ahh, yes.
Snowden is “making everything worse” by “betray[ing]” the “basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures” that are required for “society to function well.”
Snowden has “betrayed honesty and integrity” and, most worrying it seems, judging by repetition, “his oaths.”
Snowden has “betrayed his friends”, “anybody who worked with him”, and “young people in positions like that” in the future who will suffer (somehow) from an ongoing deficit of the trust required for the responsibility that Snowed held. One assumes, of course, that by “positions like that”, Mr. Brooks is not referring to the decision of whether or not leak information relating to the invasion of privacy of millions upon millions of people.
And that last tidbit, by itself, is exactly the problem with Mr. Brooks and, for that matter, Diane Feinstein, and (who I’ve recently heard come out against Snowden) John Boehner. In this case, it appears that, however much Mr. Brooks doth protest, his (presumably) imaginary, malevolent state is, in fact, the very real protagonist of our little story.
Herr Brooks is concerned, not with the privacy of Americans or of legal protections for whistleblowers (and the exemptions the federal government has to those statutes). He is concerned with all these combined betrayals of those in power, “those who enabled [Snowden] to rise” to his position of luxury after having been a mere high school dropout. Brooks is concerned with “betraying the cause of open government”, perhaps the most rich and rubbish claim in his rather unlettered article. He writes, “Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter” and “limit debate a little more.” Unfortunately, it is the leaks that are required for American citizens to have an accurate idea of just what their government is doing to them, and (supposedly anyway) in their own names.
The deference to a program of mass data mining that could herald most extensive anti-privacy structure in perhaps the entire history of mankind (and maybe even as large as the most fantastic examples in dystopian literature) is shocking, especially for one who regards himself as a conservative. Yet Brooks is symbolically shooting the messenger. It is Snowden, not the NSA we should be suspicious of, of the motivations of liberal individualism run amok, according to Brooks. Brooks appears to believe that Snowden has “not been able to point to any specific abuses”, and this alone should justify our continued trust in the machinations of a huge and overpowering, yet shockingly opaque and secretive government surveillance regime.
Perhaps Brooks also believes the protestations that some have made in defending PRISM and the Verizon court order, namely that such programs are essential to the administration of national security and anti-terrorism efforts, and without them we will either be far less secure or be choosing far more intrusive methods—though one wonders how much more intrusive the government could be. Surely, the next step will be to trot out some poor victims of the 9/11 attacks or the Boston Bombing and accuse those who question the government’s assurances that innocent Americans will not be targeted of being insensitive to the suffering of these victims, and of being bystanders while yet more become victimized in the future.
One might also consider, by way of analogy, the power of federal prosecutors. In service to a vastly bloated and vastly overbroad set of laws and regulations, federal prosecutors are more than willing to pile on charge after charge simply to force a plea bargain. Given that (as Harvey Silverglate has argued) we are almost all guilty of some federal crime, federal prosecutors will dig up whatever they can to find possible charges. It isn’t much of a stretch to wonder if by reading and storing all of this vast amount of information on American citizens, whether it won’t someday (sooner or later) be used as a treasure trove for those looking to embarrass or over-charge defendants into guilty pleas—to say nothing of what other insidious ends one might pursue using the collected data of hundreds of millions of people, and likely even more all across the globe who are not even Americans, therefore protected even less by our supposed commitment to liberty and freedom under the Constitution.
The ultimate mistake Mr. Brooks has made is in accepting, without question, the assurances by those who wield awesome coercive power that their continued exercise of that power is absolutely necessary but that it will never be used unjustly, illegally, or otherwise wrongly. He is more than willing to question the motives of the leaker, and come to the conclusion that not only is Snowden somehow defective, but that his defectiveness is a new movement of young people in American society. But Mr. Brooks is completely unwilling to second-guess the motives of the federal government, of the NSA, of the CIA, and ask whether access to such a powerful security regime is really in the best interests of Americans. The problem Brooks sees remains on the same level of the systemic, but he turns his sights squarely on just who those in power would like him to. Quite convenient, especially for a man who is himself a member of the elite, power society from which our representatives are routinely selected. We might wonder whether Brooks is even aware of the invisible farm in which he is fenced in, albeit very comfortably.
The burden should, and must, be kept squarely on top of those who profess to wield such awesome authority, especially when they profess to us it is for our own good. Too often power asserted ends up being power exercised—and the most damning problem in many cases is that we cannot predict the future, and how these tools and powers will be wielded by others who may be even less angelic than those currently in power. The danger here, as with the atom bomb, is that once in existence, we may lack the power to undo that fateful step.