Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Snowden's Anti-Secrecy As Pro-Democracy

Here is the rather stunning Edward Snowden interview about his motives for NSA whistleblowing and refusing anonymity himself whatever the dangers.

I disagree with the glib portrayals I am seeing from anarcho-poseurs loosely approving and national security apologists reflexively condemning Snowden's actions or convictions as anti-statist, at least on the basis of this brave and provocative interview. Julian Assange, in contrast, does seem properly regarded as rather techno-libertopian in a dystopian rather than utopian mode that sometimes seems to me a bit facile however much I sympathize with much of what he is doing and much that he is worried about.

Snowden is an anti-secrecy activist, explicitly acting in the name of the People he repeatedly cites, in a specifically democratic sense that indispensably relies for its force and legibility on democratic state forms. He seems on his own view to be informing the public of wrongdoing and demanding action from citizens and accountability from representatives. I think his rhetoric in all this is theoretically substantial and should not be discounted as self-serving special pleading.

Also, his refusal of anonymity as a whistleblower seems to me not just of a piece with his anti-secrecy stance (which by the way is not the same thing as a promotion of privacy in the conventional liberal sense, even if he sometimes seems to want to describe himself as protecting personal privacies rather than resisting authoritarian secrecies), but seems to me evocative of a Kingian tradition of democratization.

At first blush, Snowden's intervention seems profoundly different from the non-accountabilty of the activism of the Anonymous model with which it will likely otherwise be seen to be a part. He argues that secrecy, surveillance and recording in combination enables a radical framability of anyone on whom any suspicion happens to fall, rightly or wrongly, as a threat justifying extraordinary policing incompatible with democratic values.

I regard this framability as indispensably of a piece with the deceptive and hyperbolizing norms and forms of pervasive marketing and promotion discourse in consumer-financial market orders:

Any crap can be sold as desirable, any citizen can be framed as a threat, everything is already profiled, and the profiled is always a target.


jimf said...

> At first blush, Snowden's intervention seems profoundly
> different from the non-accountabilty of the activism of the
> Anonymous model with which it will likely otherwise be seen
> to be a part.

Oh, I see him as more of a second Daniel Ellsberg.

Though Ellsberg is still head and shoulders above any subsequent
whistleblowers, for a number of reasons: 1) Ellsberg's credentials
and background were impeccable; no high-school dropout he;
2) the RAND Indochina study he leaked, which reflected badly
on U.S. policy in Vietnam, had **direct** bearing on the current war,
in which people were dying every day; 3) Nixon really was a nasty
character -- "We'll teach that punk a lesson." was his taped reaction
to Ellsberg's "treason" and 4) like Sauron being tripped up by his
own malice, Nixon's "plumbers" getting caught breaking into
Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office compromised any legal pursuit
of Ellsberg from the get-go, and together with the Presidency's
subsequent disgrace pretty much got Ellsberg off scot-free
(though he says he fully expected to go to prison for a long,
long time). Apart from the loss of his erstwhile RAND buddies,
things didn't go to badly for Ellsberg (who can now go on TV and
talk about people like Assange and now Snowden). That's not
likely to be true of either Assange or Snowden.

Dale Carrico said...

I was rather surprised when Ellsberg declared Snowden's disclosures more significant than his own. One of the weird similarities was that folks who were really paying attention weren't surprised by any of the revelations -- reading Hannah Arendt's essays on their import at the time are very interesting in this regard -- more that the disclosures broke the crust of convention wisdom, disabling plausible deniability about ugly truths in at once sudden and sweeping ways.