Edward Snowden is a hero, in the truest sense. At the age of 29, he sacrificed a comfortable, fulfilling life, working a stable and well-paid job in Hawaii, and exposed himself to great risk—most certainly including risk to his life—out of personal conviction. Even if I were not convinced that Snowden had made the United States a more informed, more democratic, and in fact, safer country through his controlled leaks to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gelliman, I would admire his commitment to principles above self-interest. As it stands, I think that he has done a tremendous service for his country, in a way that the apostles of patriotism constantly invoke, and for his troubles he has been forced from his home and family, under a state of constant legal and physical threat, and reviled by many.
Many or most of my fellow travelers on the left, in my experience, support Snowden. It’s not hard to imagine why, given that he has exposed the inner workings of a key cog in the violent, invasive apparatus of American empire. Yet there has also been a strain of leftism that has been deeply suspicious of Snowden and sought to question, or out-and-out discredit, his work. I don’t mean natural skepticism, which we should bring to bear on any public figure, but active hostility and fear-mongering. (I’m also not talking about die-hard Democratic partisans, who object to Snowden under the simple logic that Snowden has harmed a Democratic president and is thus the enemy. I’ve spent far too much of my life debating that kind of partisanship, so I’ll just set it aside—that’s their logic, they stick to it, fine.) My interest here is instead focused on those who criticize Snowden neither because he’s undermined the national security state, as is typical of “terrorism experts” and various imperial stenographers, nor because he’s hurt Obama and Congressional Democrats. I’m talking about those who think Snowden should be distrusted or rejected because he’s, alternatively, a secret libertarian, an open libertarian, a quasi-libertarian, a crypto-libertarian, or similar.
You can find this argument all over. For a balanced, fair take, here’s Salon’s Andrew Leonard. On the other side of the ledger is this piece by Sean Wilentz of (of course) The New Republic, still the go-to magazine for establishment whining and the fetish for “legitimacy,” which at TNR tends to refer to those political opinions that have had the blessings of establishment power. But a little Googling will show you that the subject of Snowden’s libertarianism, whether real or imagined, has attracted a great deal of attention from those who identify as part of the broad left-wing.
My response to the claim that Edward Snowden is a libertarian is simple: I don’t care. At all. It’s simply immaterial to me. I have no particular interest in his broader ideological or political beliefs. Snowden is not a candidate for President or Congress. He’s not my political czar or my personal friend. What has distinguished Snowden has been his actions, the action of releasing a small portion of a vast trove of secret government documents to the public, in order to reveal to us the extent to which our national security system has trod on our rights and on our freedom. It is of little consequence to me whether he believes in socialism or fascism or anything in between, so long as the fruits of his efforts leave us more informed and better able to at least understand how the military state has harmed us. I don’t know why that indifference to his broader politics would be surprising to anyone. I respect and value his actions, and I feel that we owe him a great debt. If he proposes political ideas that I find immoral or unwise, I will say so. There is no contradiction there.
When we’re discussing Snowden, of course, we’re also discussing Glenn Greenwald.
Since he first burst onto the scene as a vicious critic of the George W. Bush administration and its War on Terror, Greenwald has been a divisive figure, capable of moving ordinarily reserved writers into fits of anger. Like Snowden, Greenwald has been cast as a libertarian many times, and as with Snowden, this is frequently represented as a reason for a socialist like myself to fear and mistrust Greenwald. I will admit that, with a political writer and journalist like Greenwald, there is a greater reason to consider his broader politics than there is with Snowden. It’s never been clear to me that he remotely fits the libertarian profile that he has frequently been assigned. But more, Greenwald has always been a writer who has restricted his professional work to a small range of issues, involving foreign policy, surveillance, and civil liberties. On those topics, I substantially agree with him. If he turns around and writes against universal health care or union rights, I’ll register my disagreements with him, in print, as I do with any other issue or any other writer. I don’t see anything complicated about that.
Peter Frase wrote a brilliant piece on these issues at the socialist magazine Jacobin, where I have also been a contributor. As Frase writes, “there seems to be an instinct among some on the Left to suppose that defending the possibility of government requires rejecting any alliance with libertarians who might criticize particularly noxious aspects of the existing state. Or, to be a bit more subtle, that any critique that emphasizes government authoritarianism merely distracts us from the critique of private power.” Like Frase, I find that a reductive misunderstanding of the nature of the state and the purpose of socialist practice. But beyond the specific political questions involved, I become frustrated and impatient with this line of thinking because of what it implies about political behavior. To a degree, politics will always involve finding alliances and building coalitions. But those alliances are also necessarily conditional and limited. With all the endless contentious political issues people argue about, the odds of any two people agreeing on every issue are very slim. So we work together on what we can and we disagree on what we disagree about. I could never vote for Rand Paul, for any number of reasons. But when he writes an op/ed calling for the de-militarization of America’s police force, that’s useful and valuable, and I can say so without being a member of the Rand Paul fan club. The notion that we obligate ourselves to permanent alliances with everyone we find common cause with is a juvenile, destructive vision of politics—and one, incidentally, that makes meaningful change nearly impossible, in a country where the rich dominate politics on both sides of the aisle.
More, there’s the seemingly growing phenomenon of people involved in political arguments arguing about what one side or the other truly believes, rather than about what’s true, what’s moral, or what’s best. Every day, I read people insisting that they believe one thing while their interlocutors insist that they secretly believe something else. Someone misspeaks, or someone else misunderstands them, and suddenly the argument is over what that someone really thinks instead of the merits of the argument. Awhile back, I realized that I had come to hate my own political writing, simply from an aesthetic standpoint. I had grown to spend so much time defending myself about things I didn’t say and don’t believe that I had no time or energy to argue the things that I did say and do believe. So I’ve come to lard so much of my writing with statements about what I’m explicitly not saying that it’s a stylistic mess. I feel like I have no choice. But even so, I constantly get commenters and emailers saying “You believe X,” when I have directly and unambiguously said “I’m not arguing X.” It’s exhausting and pointless.
Trying to define what the other side thinks, or trying to read their minds to find the evil hiding within, is a road that has no ending. There is no way for anyone to prove what they really believe. And while we are busy trying to define our own beliefs, we are leaving the important work of politics undone. I know how to argue. I know how to press my case. I know how to advocate for what I believe in. I don’t know how to prove to someone that I’m not secretly harboring beliefs that I say I don’t have, and I have no patience for hunting secret libertarians. The issues that the Snowden affair has brought up concern the most basic questions of democratic society, of individual rights and collective responsibility. We have plenty to argue about already. So let’s just argue. It’s a lot less aggravating, and a lot more useful for all of us.
(Photo: Outside the Reichstag building in Berlin on May 8, 2014 a demonstrator holds a poster depicting fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden during a demonstration in favor of an appearance by Snowden as a witness in German NSA hearings. By Adam Berry/AFP/Getty Images)