Why didn’t Edward Snowden agree to be jailed, abused, silenced, and quite possibly tortured? This is what Melissa Harris-Perry wants to know.
Harris-Perry is one of MSNBC’s minor weekend anchors, a professor currently at Tulane University who started out retailing her academic pretensions as a sometime guest on the Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes shows: her job was to inject fancy words like "discourse" and "paradigm" into the standard lefty-"progressive" boilerplate propaganda we’ve come to expect from that venue. With a magisterial tone bordering on the parodic, and complete protection from having to defend her views against any contrary opinions, Harris-Perry soon carved out a niche for herself as a dogged defender of the Obama administration, no matter what the circumstances. So when Snowden emerged as the biggest whistleblower in American history, exposing the existence of a secret surveillance apparatus that snakes into every aspect of American life, she sprang to the Dear Leader’s defense and delivered an "open letter" to Snowden that underscores why no one needs to take her seriously:
"It’s me, Melissa.
"I hear you’re looking for a country. Well, wouldn’t you know, I have an idea for you! How about…this one?
"Come on back to the U.S.A., Ed. I know you’re not super pleased with the government these days–and I feel you. The information you revealed about surveillance raises serious issues about the behaviors of our leaders and how they justify and hide those practices from the public. But, here is the deal: it’s time to come home and face the consequences of the actions for which you are so proud."
Isn’t that cute? For an alleged "feminist" to write such a girlish letter really is quite an accomplishment. Think of what she had to endure in order to do it: first she had to revert back to her old, pre-feminist, pre-Women’s Studies self, and find her "It’s me, Melissa" voice. Then she had to forget all those fancy words she learned in Professor Phony’s "Gendered Discourse as the Paradigmatic Exemplar of Our Racist Society" course, and reconnect with her girlish infatuation with exclamation points. And it wasn’t over yet! Then she had to unlearn proper English grammar before she could write a sentence like "I feel you" – instead of, you know, I feel for you.
Whew! After all that, I’m surprised she had the energy to continue all the way to the end, but our girl Melissa is no shrinking violet. What she lacks in credibility she more than makes up for with all that energy.
Okay, so why should Snowden throw himself on the mercy of the Big O and "face the consequences"? After all, he’s a whistleblower, not a suicide bomber: why should he give up what remains of his freedom?
"I know you must feel you’ve already given up a lot to reveal government secrets," avers Harris-Perry, "your well-paid job, your life in Hawaii, your passport.
"And maybe your intentions were completely altruistic–it’s not that you wanted attention, but that you wanted us, the public, to know just how much information our government has about us. That is something worth talking about. But by engaging in this Tom Hanks-worthy, border-jumping drama through some of the world’s most totalitarian states, you’re making yourself the story."
Maybe his intentions were completely altruistic – and maybe not. Harris-Perry isn’t fooled. She knows he gave up his career, his relationships, his family, everything, just to get attention. Why else would he try to escape? Right? And he’s traveling through "some of the world’s most totalitarian states," which sounds dicey, if not ominous. Never mind that Hong Kong, where many thousands of Americans and other Westerners live and work, is hardly North Korea, but we’ll pass that one by. Because, you see, it’s all Snowden’s fault that "journalists" of Harris-Perry’s ilk choose to focus on everything but what the whistleblower is blowing the whistle on. He is selfishly – even narcissistically – refusing to doom himself to life in prison, and therefore it follows – as the night does the day – that "journalists" like Harris-Perry are justified in completely ignoring why the Obama administration is calling out its Ringwraiths in hot pursuit.
And if you don’t see the "logic" of that, why you’re just not conversant with the kind of academic rigor routinely demanded of a professor who was granted tenure at Princeton. Of course, there’s the odd fact that Princeton’s Center for African American Studies refused to promote her to a full professorship – it is bruited about she was asked in no uncertain terms to leave Princeton – and that colleagues such as Cornell West call her "a fake, a fraud, and a liar," but never mind all that.
I’m talking about her, instead of her arguments, because Harris-Perry doesn’t make any real arguments: all we get is snark, or, as Prof. West puts it in describing her academic style, "a lot of twittering." The best she can come up with is the kind of bromide Twitter was made for: "Come home and face the consequences" leaves you with 105 characters to go.
Okay, I’ll admit it: I chose an easy target. Sure, there are plenty of party-lining Regimists around, and I could’ve had my pick. What’s interesting about Harris-Perry’s particular take on what has been the Regimist theme song of the month is how far it goes in characterizing Snowden as an agent of sinister foreign powers, just as the neocons of the Bush years demonized the antiwar movement as agents of terrorism:
"We’re talking about you. I can imagine you’d say, "Well, then stop! Just talk about something else." But here’s the problem, even if your initial leak didn’t compromise national security, your new cloak-and-dagger game is having real and tangible geopolitical consequences. So, well, we have to talk about…you.
"We’re talking about how maybe now you’re compromising national security by jumping from country to country, causing international incidents and straining U.S. relationships with Russia and China. Really. Important. Relationships. And we’re talking about how you praised countries like Russia and Venezuela for ‘standing against human rights violations’ and ‘refusing to compromise their principles.’"
"I mean, where do you even come up with that kind of garbage, Ed? What are you thinking?"
Here is a statism so single-minded, so obtuse, that the desire to escape its depredations is considered the worst treason of all. Who would argue that escaped slaves in the South were guilty of "compromising national security" by "jumping from country to country" and "causing international incidents" in their efforts to find safe haven in, say, Canada, or one of Britain’s Caribbean possessions? And, no, the analogy is not a bit overdrawn: Snowden is not only fleeing State oppression, he’s doing it because he refuses to be a slave to the government. He is our Spartacus, almost alone in the arena, facing off against the Regime and its talking head gladiators.
In Harris-Perry’s world, to speak is to "compromise national security," and to escape from the clutches of an all-pervasive Spy State is treason. The subtext of the letter to Snowden is: you must come home and be punished as an example – and a warning – to others. This is the new theme of the Obamaites and their Republican enablers: as this Scott Horton interview with McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay lays out in some detail, the Obama administration is in the midst of a "security" clampdown in its own ranks. Non-classified information ordinarily available to the media is now inaccessible and an internal spying regime has been instituted, which encourages government employees to report on each other for "suspicious" behavior.
This is important because whistleblowers like Snowden, Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou, Dan Ellsberg, and others too numerous to mention individually deprive our rulers of the one ingredient essential to any despotism, whether it be monarchical or "democratic," and that is secrecy. After all, if the folks out in the cornfields ever got wind of what their wise leaders were really up to, those proverbial peasants-with-pitchforks would be at the gates in no time. It’s therefore usually necessary to conduct the ugly business of government behind doors more than halfway closed, relying on a compliant media to simply omit or downplay reporting on certain matters. However, in the case of the NSA’s "architecture of oppression," as Snowden perceptively described it, all this subterfuge about America being the land of the free and an international exemplar of liberal democracy is thrown overboard very quickly, and suddenly it becomes a felony to reveal the decision of a duly constituted court. It becomes a felony to reveal that you’ve received a National Security Letter, or to discuss its contents. And the highest treason of all is trying to escape.
Listening to Harris-Perry’s tirade, I wondered whether I had stumbled on a heretofore unknown episode of The Prisoner, the cult classic 1960s television series written by and starring Patrick McGoohan, in which a former British intelligence agent who has committed some unknown treason finds himself imprisoned in a place known as The Village. McGoohan’s pioneering series presents a prescient portrait of the anesthetizing Prozac-ed out mass culture of America today: the Village, with it’s pastel houses, outfitted with every comfort, are set in a garden-like "controlled community," where calming voices are carried on the wind and daily medication prevents coherent thought. Everyone is subject to 24-hour surveillance, and cameras are everywhere. Each episode tells the story of one unsuccessful escape attempt after another, while McGoohan – the prisoner – probes ever deeper into the true nature of the Village. We don’t know what crime he’s been imprisoned for, but the clear implication is that it’s something big, almost Snowden-like. I’m surprised no one has brought up the McGoohan connection: the story lines are parallel if not identical. Snowden seems to be fleshing out McGoohan’s scripts in the front page headlines of every newspaper.
In the series, the Village employs its agents, who are constantly trying to entrap McGoohan into confessing to his alleged crimes, and giving up some Big Secret he supposedly possesses, but he resists. Harris-Perry, in her faux concern for the issues raised by Snowden’s exposure of massive government spying on innocent Americans, is straight out of an episode of The Prisoner, in which an agent of the Village tells him to give up his secret because his "level of celebrity" will somehow protect him. Really? Not, I suspect, if Harris-Perry and her fellow Madam Defarges over at MSNBC have anything to say about it.
I agree with Harris-Perry on one point: it is valid to discuss Snowden, his politics, his personal journey from agent of the state to enemy of the state, but unlike her I don’t think this detracts at all from the actual content of the documents he has made available to Glenn Greenwald and the staff of the Guardian newspaper. Greenwald tells a very interesting back story to all this in his talk given at the "Socialism" conference, in which he relates how and under what circumstances he met Snowden, and how that meeting inspired him to think about how real change comes about.
Snowden’s personal example is inspiring, and focusing on him, far from detracting from his message, only serves to draw out the attention span of the public for these things: it underscores rather than trivializes the real meaning of the revelations. Indeed, the very effort to capture Snowden dramatizes, in vivid terms, the kind of global hegemony the US seeks to enforce, and brings home the important point that the NSA’s "architecture of oppression" is just a part of it. The international blockade separating Snowden from his right to asylum is another part of it, another example of the tentacles of the Empire exercising their global reach.
And yet, in spite of all that, Snowden remains out of their clutches – and that’s why, in part, he’s become an international folk hero. This is the source and significance of the "celebrity" that protected him from the Chinese regime, but won’t help him if the American authorities ever get their hands on him. Snowden is so popular in China that the Communists didn’t dare turn him over to the US. The same is true in Russia, where Putin has a real hot potato on his hands. Snowden has continued to elude them all precisely because of his international grassroots support, although it is a mistake to believe that will help him if he listens to Harris-Perry and comes back to the US.
Or would it? After weeks of being subjected to one of the biggest smear campaigns in recent memory – denounced as a traitor by Regime sock puppets "left" and "right" – the polls show Americans overwhelmingly hail Snowden as a whistleblower and a hero. Anyone who thinks that means he’ll get a better deal in Obama’s America than he got in Hong Kong or Russia (so far) is living in a fool’s paradise. It’s later than you think.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.