Snowden

I watched Snowden tonight. The performance was good if a little drawn out at the end.

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And since everyone knows in any case, the movie did raise my blood pressure over my own brushes with surveillance. Yawn.

(I should disclose that throughout the 2000s I deliberately cc’d all of my correspondence — private, professional, official, casual — to John Ashcroft.)

I should also disclose (outside of parentheses) that I believe there are conditions to responsible decision-making. I do not want my open heart surgery performed by plumber. I do not want my plumbing performed by by surgeon. Indeed, one of my principle objections to California’s proposition system is that it makes public policy subject to Gorgias’ “fine art.” (Gorgias — the subject of Plato’s 5th century BCE dialogue featuring a policy-maker who is as ignorant as his audience, but who is skilled in rhetoric.) I do not want a surgeon who talks a good line, I want a surgeon who is certified by all of the appropriate boards. Yes?

What this means is that I do not believe that all citizens should be or even can be masters of all the information they would need to master in order to make responsible decisions at the ballot box. Nor do I believe that all citizens should or can be masters of all the information released by Mr Snowden. There is a slight-of-hand in Mr Snowden’s argument that we need to be wary of. He is releasing information that we should be able to judge. Yes. He is releasing information that we are ill-equipped to judge. Yes.

Here is the service I believe Mr Snowden delivered. He made us face how ill-equipped we are to evaluate the conditions that make for our own freedom. We are not equipped. So — back to Mr Snowden — should this information be placed in our laps? Should I hand my surgery off to my plumber? Yes. Perhaps he should know, could know, how to perform this surgery. But is he equipped? Am I going to place my body in my plumber’s hands?

But now let us recast Mr Snowden as political theater. If he conceals what he knows, I am left in my belief that I am sufficiently equipped to perform surgery on your daughter’s heart. Mr Snowden exposes how ill-prepared I am to perform this surgery. I thought that I was protected from unlawful search and seizure. I am ill-informed. The government might search and seize any of my affects at any time. They will say that they are justified to do so because I am at risk. We are all at risk. We are always at risk. We are therefore all always subject to unlawful search and seizure. Mr Snowden pulls away the veil from this deceit. He demands that we take cognizance of the violation of our freedom. He compels us to be aware our responsibility to know and take responsibility for our freedom.

Does he compel all of us to be surgeons? Where does expert knowledge fall in Mr Snowden’s hagiography?

Let me propose that this question presses particularly hard on north Berkeley progressives. We stand with Mr Snowden. And, yet, is not our liberty to stand with him based in part on our conviction, founded or not, that — well, yes — we are fully equipped to command the knowledge that he places at our disposal. But this knowledge will also be released to publics in Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas, to communities who have not enjoyed the benefit of education, health, and security and who may, therefore, draw very different conclusions from the information Mr Snowden releases. Are we (falsely) assuming that all of us enjoy degrees from Ivy League schools? Are we assuming that the information Mr Snowden is releasing will find minds that have been equally endowed with liberty? And, if not, is it reasonable to assume that most of those to whom this information has been released will receive it as evidence not that our government is surveilling us, but that we have reason to be more closely and tightly surveilled?

Hand a scalpel to a surgeon, she knows precisely what to do. Hand it to a historian — I am a historian — I haven’t got a clue.

This is the existential question posed by Snowden. He is a provocation. He wants a public to be there which is not yet there. It should be there. If it is not there, then in what sense can we describe ourselves as a democracy?

Mr Snowden is begging us to think for critically about capacity-building. We are not there yet. Should we be? How do we get there?

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