Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


The New Republic has published a film review by Yishai Schwartz under the portentous title “The Edward Snowden Documentary Accidentally Exposes His Lies”. While I generally support — and indeed, am grateful — for what Snowden has done, I am also sensitive to the problems of democratic governance raised by depending on individuals to decide that conscience commands them to break the law. We are certainly treading on procedural thin ice, and our only recourse, despite the commendable wish of Snowden himself, as well as Greenwald, to push personalities into the background, is to think carefully about the motives — and the honesty — of the man who carried out the spying. So in principle I was very interested in what Schwartz has to say.

Right up front Schwartz states what he considers to be the central dishonesty of Snowden’s case:

Throughout this film, as he does elsewhere, Snowden couches his policy disagreements in grandiose terms of democratic theory. But Snowden clearly doesn’t actually give a damn for democratic norms. Transparency and the need for public debate are his battle-cry. But early in the film, he explains that his decision to begin leaking was motivated by his opposition to drone strikes. Snowden is welcome to his opinion on drone strikes, but the program has been the subject of extensive and fierce public debate. This is a debate that, thus far, Snowden’s and his allies have lost. The president’s current drone strikes enjoy overwhelming public support.

“Democratic theory” is a bit ambivalent about where the rights of democratic majorities to annihilate the rights — and, indeed, the lives — of individuals, but the reference to “overwhelming” public support is supposed to bridge that gap. So how overwhelming is that support? Commendably, Schwartz includes a link to his source, a Gallup poll that finds 65% of Americans surveyed support “airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists”. Now, just stopping right there for a minute, in my home state of California, 65% support isn’t even enough to pass a local bond measure. So it’s not clear that it should be seen as enough to trump all other arguments about democratic legitimacy.

Furthermore, if you read down to the next line, you find that when the targets to be exterminated are referred to as “US citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists” the support falls to 42%. Not so overwhelming. (Support falls even further when the airstrikes are to occur “in the US”, but since that hasn’t happened, and would conspicuously arouse public debate if it did, it’s probably not all that relevant.) Not to mention that Snowden almost surely did not mean that he was just striking out at random to undermine a government whose drone policies he disapproves of; but rather, that democratic support for policies of targeted killing might be different if the public were aware of the implications of ongoing practices of mass surveillance.

More generally, it struck me that almost nothing of what Schwartz has to accuse Snowden of are, in any normal sense of the word, lies. (This may be partly the fault of an over-eager headline writer. The only place where the article uses the word “liar” is in the context of a genuine accusation of misrepresentation, and the accusation sounds pretty cogent.) The article is mainly concerned with tossing out judgements like “grandiose”, “bizarre justification”, and “world-historical view of himself and a twisted understanding of what constitutes bravery”.

Schwartz ridicules the claims that Snowden would be unable to get a fair trial, because Snowden and his lawyer harp on about the lack of a “public interest” defence. But can anyone who has watched the last dozen years of terror trials and government obfuscation doubt that Snowden would be subject to eavesdropping on his communication with his lawyers, punitive interrogation and incarceration regime, and would be forbidden to introduce exculpatory evidence under broad “national security” exemptions?

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