The Cost of Lies

’Tis of thee

Steve Waldman

I want to comment on this widely discussed bit by Josh Marshall:

Let me put my cards on the table. At the end of the day, for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support. I’m not a bystander to it. I’m implicated in what it does and I feel I have a responsibility and a right to a say, albeit just a minuscule one, in what it does. I think a military force requires a substantial amount of secrecy to operate in any reasonable way. So when someone on the inside breaks those rules, I need to see a really, really good reason. And even then I’m not sure that means you get off scott free. It may just mean you did the right thing.

So do I see someone [Manning] who takes an oath and puts on the uniform and then betrays that oath for no really good reason as a hero? No.

The Snowden case is less clear to me. At least to date, the revelations seem more surgical. And the public definitely has an interest in knowing just how we’re using surveillance technology and how we’re balancing risks versus privacy. The best critique of my whole position that I can think of is that I think debating the way we balance privacy and security is a good thing and I’m saying I’m against what is arguably the best way to trigger one of those debates.

But it’s more than that. Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage — choose your verb — the US intelligence apparatus and policies he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal. I think it’s easy to exaggerate how much damage these disclosures cause. But I don’t buy that there are no consequences. And it goes to the point I was making in an earlier post. Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically – for better or worse – to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?

I, like Josh Marshall, identify very strongly with the political community called the United States of America. But for precisely that reason, my reaction is almost precisely the opposite of Marshall’s.

As a human being, it is very important to me to be good. But I am not meaningfully a human being as an individual. No one is, no matter how libertarian ones philosophy or how sterilely individualistic ones economic models. I do not identify with the political community called the United States like I might identify with a football team, hoping for victory against rivals simply because it is mine, my team. I identify with the United States of America as a vast and complex social and moral agent of which I have the privilege to be a part. I am elevated by my affiliation with, incorporation within, that community when it is a good community. I am diminished and pained and made nauseous when it is an evil community. Of course it is both, always, in various degrees, in my own shifting perceptions and those of others and in whatever unknowable objective reality might ever be ascribed to such a thing. But there are preponderances. A decade ago, my view was that the United States was, on the whole, in this imperfect realm of man, a good community. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, ” said Dr. King. I believed that about the United States, and I believed that about the United States’ role in the larger world. Now I hear various smug, self-righteous, powerful figures intone those words and I want to puke. In my tiny, flawed view — but I don’t think I am alone in this — the preponderances have shifted. As a community, our flaws are eclipsing our virtues. Men and women are imperfect, human communities are imperfect, but there are differences of degree and they matter. We are all born sinners, avaricious machines, selfish genes, but some work and strive and, to various degrees, perhaps even succeed at being better than they might be, and we should notice that, honor it. And when we are small and mean — perhaps without bad intentions but life is hard and the world is complex and we are buffeted by so many different forces, so many “incentives” — when we notice that we are small and mean, we should dishonor that, and work to change it.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an evil empire, and he was right to do so. That never meant that Russian people, individually, were bad people. That did not and would not justify anyone’s blowing up a Moscow apartment building, or attacking their soldiers, or any other prima facie awful thing. Violence in the service of good is not an impossible thing, perhaps, but it is a rare and very delicate thing at best. Violence ought never be justified in broad, sloppy brush strokes. Nothing would have justified a terrorist act against the Soviet Union, but it was a community whose moral character, with respect to both the lived experience inside it and its influence externally, was malign, and it was a matter of serious concern to people within and without that it should change. The community that was the Soviet Union is still evolving, and the jury is still out, as it will ever be, because human affairs are never permanent. For the sake of the people inside that community and for the sake of all the rest of us, we ought to wish them the best.

It pains me very much to say so, but the United States today is not a benign community. We have, over the last decade, undermined nearly all of the reasons that I, perhaps as a fool, thought distinguished us as virtuous, in our own particular way, despite our many flaws. A decade ago, I trusted our institutions, our government, our think tanks and university and third estate, our processes and our evaluations of our own competences, and supported what turned out to be a disastrous war in Iraq. Even though I observed what at the time were pretty obvious housing and credit bubbles, I believed our system was self-correcting, that those who fueled those errors would eventually be held accountable, economically and sometimes criminally, that we would suffer institutions to fall and titans to be shamed in order to preserve the integrity of our economy. I remember how ashamed I was when, in 2005, my then-girlfriend (now wife) came to visit the United States, and we were driving around with people on NPR debating whether torture was OK. Today my country holds people it has exonerated of wrongdoing in a tropical prison for indefinite terms because it cannot overcome the bureaucratic and political obstacles to letting them live, somewhere, the lives that they like each of us have been blessed with. Today my country sends remote control airplanes into a country we are not at war with and kills people it cannot identify in a program it assures us is “surgical”. When called to account for harm to noncombatants, it classifies “males of military age” as militants to keep the statistics flattering.

I am, and I will always be, a member of the political community called the United States of America. That is why these things pain me. The fact that I identify with this community does not mean I identify with the state, its government, its military institutions, even its civil society as presently constituted. I certainly want to identify with those things. I certainly used to identify with those things, ostentatiously and very proudly. In the community we all wish we belonged to, we would honor the state and the constellation of prominent institutions that surround it, banks and universities and newsmedia, as constituting a system of political and economic and necessarily moral governance that functions reasonably well, whose actors police and correct themselves when, inevitably, things go askew. I don’t think a reasonable observer can claim this describes the institutions of the United States right now. Laws are made of words. There is no rule of law in a society where Presidents argue over what “is” is, or claim “domestic” e-mails aren’t “targeted” to avoid discussing whether or not they are read. There is no rule of law when our leaders offer no language that meshes with commonsense reality, only phrases carefully parsed not to be caught out as outright lies while revealing as little truth as possible. There is no rule of law when members of incumbent power centers, in government or banking or the military, are almost never held to account for crimes that in ordinary life would be grave, while those they dislike are jailed naked and sleepless for the sin of betraying their secrets without any hint or allegation of malice.

Even in a good community, there is a role for secrets. I have taken some heat for defending, in principle, a role for opacity in banking, and would certainly defend a sphere of secrecy in diplomacy and governance. And it is always true that some cockroaches will thrive in the shadows. But though we may sometimes choose to blind ourselves, we ought not do so blindly. I might entrust my funds to a banker in promise of a sure return, but only if I have reason to believe, in the context of the web of institutions to which she belongs, she can be trusted to do reasonable things rather than steal the advance. I needn’t mislead myself that she is infallible. But I should know that in the unlikely event of a failure, it will be a virtuous failure, which in practice implies an accountable failure. Secrecy may be necessary, but it is intolerable without accountability, accountability in fact not in form. Our core institutions and the humans within them no longer hold themselves accountable for their large crimes, though they occasionally offer scapegoats from their ranks for small ones. They have evolved ingenious contrivances with elaborate rituals of accountability whose lack of substance is most invisible to the people enmeshed in them. This will kill us, is killing us, slowly and by degrees and not before it kills many other people. It is because I identify with my political community, because I do not exist except as a part of that community, that I am desperate to change this. I cannot be a good person, and I cannot be happy, when this is my polity.

The comfortable, “legitimate”, forms of accountability are failing, have failed. Whistleblowing is accountability by other means, and we need that, and ought to celebrate it. Our problem is not that it is done too frequently or too lightly. I might prefer Edward Snowden hadn’t gone to China(ish), but the health and virtue of my community is not a contest, not a rivalry with that or any other country. Contra Marshall, Snowden has “upended” nothing. Nothing he did prevents us from doing as much or as little surveillance as we, collectively, choose to do, and we may yet choose to do quite a lot of it. What Snowden has done is force us to own up, to stop pretending we are not doing what we all know we are doing, to stop pretending we do not know what is being done to us. It is on us, as a political community, to decide what we want to do and most importantly, how, on what terms, we want to do it. The people to whom we should listen the least are Dianne Feinstein and Barack Obama, John Boehner and Lindsay Graham, James Clapper. The tragedy is they probably have as hard time telling when they are lying as we do, they are so lost in it all. This isn’t their decision. This is our country.


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