Libertarian-Baiting the Anti-NSA Movement

Partisan shill with a hidden agenda smears "Stop Watching Us" rally

by , October 23, 2013

The intellectual and political degeneration of the "progressive" wing of the Democratic party continues apace, as Tom Watson – a prominent spokesman for the movement – attacks the upcoming "Stop Watching Us" rally, to be held in Washington this coming weekend (Saturday, October 26). Although he claims to support the goals of the rally – more on that later – he writes:

"Yet I cannot support this coalition or the rally. It is fatally compromised by the prominent leadership and participation of the Libertarian Party and other libertarian student groups; their hard-core ideology stands in direct opposition to almost everything I believe in as a social democrat."

The reasoning behind Watson’s sectarianism is ostensibly ideological: he goes through the hate-on-libertarians mantra, so familiar to readers of Salon.com, including our opposition to the welfare state, gun control, Obama-care, and, oddly – for an alleged progressive – he cites with horror the Libertarian Party platform which calls for "unrestricted competition among banks and depository institutions of all types."

There’s more libertarian-baiting in Watson’s screed – the equivalent, for Salon readers, of progressive porn – in which he reels off supposedly horrifying examples of the libertarians’ transgressive politics. I won’t bore my readers with the gory details, beyond remarking on the crudity of Watson’s smears: does he really believe libertarians are "infatuated with Mussolini"?

The incredibly weak argument that libertarianism is somehow a cleverly disguised variety of fascism is supplemented by an even weaker stab at a strategic argument: Watson opines that by associating with these Very Bad People "the loss is much greater than the gain." How does that calculus work out, exactly? Well, you see, simply by standing on a stage with these subversive elements, progressives "convey legitimacy" to libertarians – as if Watson and his fellow progressives are the Final Arbiters of Legitimacy.

It’s a weird conceit, but to be expected coming from those who see themselves as being in power, with Obama in the White House and the Democratic party in (temporary) ascendancy. And just for color, Watson throws in the argument that libertarians are really the political equivalent of child molesters: "And [the progressives’] own argument for privacy is weakened by the pollution of an ideology that uses its few positive civil liberties positions as a predator uses candy with a child." Nice.

This last fusillade, with its unpleasant – indeed, downright libelous – over-the-top implications, hints that something more is at stake here. Another agenda is at work, which – sure enough – comes out in the next paragraph:

"This is an abandonment of core principles, in my view, out of anger over Edward Snowden’s still-recent revelations about the National Security Agency and its spying activity, particularly domestic access to telephone and online networks and metadata. It represents trading long-held beliefs in social and economic justice for a current hot-button issue that – while clearly of concern to all Americans – doesn’t come close to trumping a host of other issues areas that require ‘the long game’ of electoral politics and organizing."

Translation: Progressives are reacting emotionally and irrationally Snowden’s revelation that the Obama administration is spying on the American people and setting up a police state apparatus. It’s really not that big a deal, especially when weighed against all the Big Government initiatives so dear to Watson’s social democratic heart. Who cares if we’re all being spied on? Never mind that man behind the curtain! Just keep your eye on the prize – "the long game" of establishing a social democratic utopia in America.

The punch-line for this joke of an argument is:

"[T]he presence of anti-government laissez-faire wingers at the beating heart of the privacy movement will surely sour the very political actors that movement desperately needs to make actual – and not symbolic, link bait – progress in its fight.

"I speak of the progressive movement and the Democratic Party, of course."

Few progressive critics of the rising civil libertarian movement frame their polemics in such nakedly partisan terms, and Watson is clearly performing a public service in exposing his own motives so brazenly. The government’s spying operation uncovered by Snowden and overwhelmingly opposed by the American people is clearly a huge political embarrassment not only for this President but also for his party. And they are not backing down in supporting their Dear Leader. As Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who has done the most to expose the NSA’s Panopticon to public view, points out: the Democratic party and its political and ideological chieftains are the biggest defenders of the NSA today.

The weakness of Watson’s argument finally causes it to collapse completely when he writes:

"For those whose feet still touch the ground, the path to NSA reform so clearly lies inside the Democrats’ big tent – and runs through its liberal wing. And because we are a liberal republic, whose central government is not leaving the landscape anytime soon (the libertarians’ fondest goal), change must also run through an elected Congress."

Gee, now I could be wrong – along with every news outlet that reported on the matter – but wasn’t it a libertarian Republican, one Justin Amash, who introduced legislation that almost defunded the NSA’s unconstitutional snooping, barely losing by a mere 16 votes? And wasn’t it Nancy Pelosi, one of the most visible and vocal leaders of the Democratic party, and former Speaker of the House, who lobbied relentlessly against the Amash bill? Indeed, Pelosi headed off a trans-partisan civil libertarian coalition in Congress – the same one reflected on the speakers platform shared by libertarians and pro-privacy progressives this coming weekend – by mobilizing Obama-loyal "progressives" who de-prioritize civil liberties in the same way and for the same reasons as Watson. If it were up to Watson, the Amash bill – supported by a very broad congressional coalition stretching from the Ron Paul Republicans to the Alan Grayson left-populist types – would never have come as close as it did to passing: indeed, it would never have made it to the floor.

Which is exactly Watson’s desired outcome, in spite of his ostensible support for the programmatic demands of "Stop Watching Us." As he puts it:

"Political change requires choices and compromise, as well as action. If too many young organizers focus entirely on privacy and security and abandon the front lines on crucial economic issues, civil rights and inequality, the rights of workers, criminal justice reform, environmental regulation, and the pursuit social justice, their gains will be too little and society’s loss too great."

Watson wants "young organizers" to stop focusing on those libertarian-oriented issues like privacy: America’s emerging police state is a marginal issue when compared to "the pursuit of social justice."

In short, you don’t have to stop watching us – if you give us free stuff. This is really the essence of Watsonism.

Watson is consistent: you have to give him credit for that. He is a longtime enemy of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, having devoted thousands of words to attacking Assange’s character, actions, and politics. “WikiLeaks is resolutely anti-engagement, anti-development, anti-cooperation, and anti-peace," he declares, “And virulently to its very DNA, anti-democratic." According to Watson, Assange was little more than a tool of the Taliban for releasing supposedly vital US intelligence on Afghanistan – and never withdrew his charge when it became clear that not a single US soldier was ever endangered by WikiLeaks

Instead, he escalated his attacks on the pioneer whistleblowing organization, denouncing Assange when the WikiLeaks founder went on "Russia Today" to interview the leader of Hezbollah: not only was he a tool of Putin, but also a tool of The Terrorists. According to Watsonian "logic," Assange revealing the secrets of governments is just like Rupert Murdoch’s reporters hacking into the phones of private individuals. The years-long state persecution of Assange that forced him to seek asylum is described by Watson as a "self-inflicted hibernation" in Ecuador’s embassy. As you might imagine, Watson really went ballistic when Assange described the libertarian wing of the Republican party as America’s last best hope.

Watson hates Edward Snowden almost as much as he despises Assange: when Snowden sought asylum in Venezuela, Watson joined with various neoconservatives in snarking on Twitter:

Here’s hoping Edward #Snowden can bring the same national conversation on surveillance state to Venezuela that he has to the U.S.

Disparaging Snowden’s revelations as "sensationalistic," mischaracterizing Glenn Greenwald’s reporting on NSA data collection as "allowing instant domestic surveillance of millions of people every minute," Watson here takes the line that it’s much ado about nothing. In the same Forbes piece, he claims Greenwald’s charge that Obama has been the President hardest on whistleblowers is "hard to judge accurately": apparently the sheer number of Espionage Act prosecutions of whistleblowers undertaken by this administration – more than all other Presidents combined – fails to impress him. To top it off, he complains that Snowden’s actions "haven’t created the kind of unified networked moment that typified the rise of WikiLeaks, the case of US Army Private Bradley Manning, or the Occupied movement" – but now that such a network has come into being, and is even holding a Washington rally, he’s against it!

While in his Salon piece Watson claims to be an admirer of Glenn Greenwald, he viciously attacks him for his "angry scorn for Obama – and for liberals who dare to disagree with his pure civil libertarianism." Greenwald, we are told, uses "ridiculously divisive language" – unlike someone who likens his ideological opponents to pedophiles.

But there’s more than an ideological motive at work here: Watson’s attempt to smear the burgeoning civil libertarian movement and the campaign against America’s emerging police state complements his professional and financial interests. Watson is the founder and CEO of "CauseWired," a consulting firm with a vague mission of "social activism," one that touts its nonprofit credentials but also has some pretty heavy-hitting corporate clients.

Among these is a company specializing in managing philanthropic donations for big corporations, the "JK Group," which, as one source puts it, is in possession of "unsurpassed payment processing and global legal compliance capabilities, including the USA Patriot Act and a wide range of international regulations."

A whole industry now exists centered around Patriot Act compliance – and, of course, owes its very existence to such legislation. Repeal of the Act would put an end to this little niche of rent-collecting parasites, and Watson could lose a client – unless, of course, he can launch an online "activist" campaign to head such a movement off at the pass. One of the JK Group’s big clients is Wells Fargo – which perhaps explains Watson’s horror at the libertarian proposal that banks should actually compete with one another.

Watson is the ultimate fraud: a "progressive" who shills for the Surveillance State, a supposed "online activist for social change" who disdains the really existing online movement for social change. He’s a partisan sock puppet – here he hails Obama as the conqueror of Afghanistan – one with some dicey connections and an authoritarian mindset that clearly identifies him as an enemy of liberty.

Only a broad-based left-right coalition can bring down the Surveillance State, restore the Constitution, and smash the authoritarian axis of absolutism that runs from "social democrats" like Watson on the left all the way to neocons like Bill Kristol and the Cheneyites on the right. The sectarians at Salon have been running their anti-libertarian campaign for months now, along with the Regimists at MSNBC and the "mainstream" media outlets so recently enamored of "moderate" Republicans like racist bigot Rep. Peter King and Gov. Chris Christie, who thinks libertarians are "dangerous." But they are on the wrong side of history: a new generation is arising, one that is challenging the Establishment of both parties and leaping over the constraints of the outmoded "left/right" paradigm. Now that’s a real movement for "social change" – one that is rolling over sectarians like Watson and leaving them in the dust.

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).

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