Justin is under the weather, his column will return Wednesday.
George Packer, resident egghead-journalist at the New Yorker – and Iraq war supporter-turned-"anguished" semi-recanter – is the latest "liberal" to turn his guns on Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald for their alleged devotion to libertarianism. A whole genre has grown up around this subject: Sean Wilentz, writing in The New Republic and the boys over at ThinkProgress are exemplars of the form. They compete with neocons like David Brooks and the Weekly Standard gang to see who can demonize the Snowden-Greenwald team in the most damning terms. And to these folks, the "l"-word – libertarian – is the twenty-first century equivalent of calling someone a Communist in the darkest depths of the McCarthy era, a term of opprobrium reserved for society’s pariahs. It’s a compliment I only hope the libertarian movement can come to deserve.
Packer starts out with the usual psychologizing: Snowden is "an old American type," kind of like Henry David Thoreau – "a solitary individual" "who withdrew to a cabin," and defied the law in favor of following his conscience. Snowden, to hear Packer tell it, "lives in the hyperconnected isolation of the Internet." Contempt for the Internet courses through the length and breadth of this diatribe, which is perhaps to be expected from someone who works for that epitome of the legacy media known as The New Yorker – sadly degenerated from its salad days, never having recovered from becoming Tina Brown’s plaything.
The Thoreau imagery is completely made up, along with the rest of the mythology generated by Packer & Co.: Snowden did not retire to a cabin, he wasn’t a loner, he didn’t just live on the Internet. Indeed, he had a life, a relationship with a woman – whom Packer, like the creep he is, describes as a "pole-dancing girlfriend" – he had friends. He was, in short an ordinary American, which is precisely why his actions are so admirable to the average person – and so offensive to the political elites and their "intellectual" hangers-on, who hold ordinary people in contempt.
After setting up this phony image of an eccentric hermit encased in a cybernetic-cabin-in-the-woods, Packer then attacks Snowden for not living up to the Thoreauvian straw man ideal: Thoreau, after all, took his punishment for defying authority, while Snowden "fled to Russia." The fact is that Snowden was stranded in Russia by Packer’s beloved Obama administration, which took away his passport and physically blocked his flight to South America. And as to why Snowden has this alleged moral obligation to deliver himself up to the Surveillance State, which not only jails but tortures its perceived enemies, this is a deep mystery: I guess Packer feels cheated at not being able to enjoy the spectacle of a virtuous man being tortured by his enemies. The Pharisees were never very nice people, but the Snowden-haters – who universally echo this bizarre demand – make them look like humanitarians.
The libertarian-baiting is heavy:
"Politically, Snowden’s views fall into a related American tradition, going back to Thomas Jefferson and the even more radical founders, though in a distinctly contemporary form. Snowden is a libertarian whose distrust of institutions and hostility to any intrusion on personal autonomy place him beyond the sphere in American politics where left and right are relevant categories. A temperament as much as a philosophy, libertarianism is often on the verge of rejecting politics itself, with its dissatisfying but necessary trade-offs; it tends toward absolutist positions, which grow best in the mental equivalent of a hermetic laboratory environment. Libertarianism has become practically the default position of young people who work in technology, especially the most precocious among them. It also reflects, though not completely, the political outlook of Glenn Greenwald."
Packer, the vaunted advocate of "objective" journalism, is too lazy to do the most basic research. As Vanity Fair reported:
"Snowden says today that he is amused by reports of his ‘right-wing politics, based on what seem to be Internet rumors and third-hand information, and I have read it with some amusement…. I support a guaranteed basic income, I think we should take care of sick people, I believe women can make their own choices, and that the government is at its best when it’s building bridges instead of bombs. Does that sound right-wing? But I also think it’s common sense that people have individual rights, a right to be left alone, and a right to protect our families from violence…. Personally, I’d describe my political thought as moderate.’"
Yet even if Snowden was a libertarian – so what? What does that have to do with what he has revealed about the illegal and clearly unconstitutional activities of the US government – none of which are even remotely described, let alone discussed, in Packer’s rant? And that’s the significance of this psycho-political smear job: look over here, not over there. Forget the revelations – the execution of the NSA’s maniacal mission, which is to abolish the very concept of privacy – and let’s talk about Snowden. And let’s talk about Greenwald – who is, by the way, no kind of libertarian.
Isn’t it interesting that when the NSA’s intellectual Praetorian Guard goes after Snowden and Greenwald, their real target turns out to be libertarianism? It’s a doctrine they hate and fear – and with good reason. Because when we come to power – and yes, we mean to take it, if only to destroy it – people like Packer will be marginalized. That is, if they are still in the country. Libertarianism represents a mortal threat to Regimists like Packer because its success will pop the hot air balloon of their elitist airs, their lord-of-the-manor we-know-what’s-best-for-the-hoi-polloi pretensions, which the snobbish readers of The New Yorker eat up.
Speaking of the New York media, Packer is incensed by Snowden’s contempt for the New York Times, that bellwether of elite opinion. How dare he not bow before the wit and wisdom of Judy Miller, whose fabrications lured Packer and his fellow neocons into ginning up the worst disaster in American military history! How can he doubt the beneficence of Bill Keller, who held up publication of articles exposing the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping? So what if the Times is "beholden to the government" – isn’t that what American journalism is all about?
When he does touch on the actual revelations themselves, Packer avoids any mention of spying on Americans, and tries to show that Snowden is undermining supposedly "legitimate" spying on all those damned foreigners.
"The trove of now-public documents disclosed by Snowden includes accounts of American hacking of Chinese computers, a presidential directive for cyberwar against specifically named countries, and details of surveillance used for drone strikes in Pakistan. What’s constant isn’t Snowden’s scruples about leaking, but his contempt for the New York Times. The shifting reasons matter less than the abiding distrust of the leading newspaper in America."
While Packer seems obsessed with defending the honor of his home town newspaper, the reason for disclosing the Pakistan operation is that it’s killing scores of innocent people, as Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill show here. Such trifles don’t matter to Packer, the Iraq war enthusiast: what matters is Arthur Sulzberger’s status as America’s "leading" publisher. This gives new meaning to the concept of parochialism. That much of the foreign spying is for economic reasons is something Packer no doubt finds unobjectionable: after all, we have to enrich ourselves at the expense of the rest of the world, by fair means or foul. Because how else will all those ads for expensive items no ordinary person can afford, advertised in the slick pages of The New Yorker, be marketed, sold, and paid for? How else will the New York elite prance around in their Southampton mansions, living off the fat of everybody else’s land?
It isn’t until the first 5,000 or so words of this stemwinder have violated our consciousness that we get to the real argument – if it can be called that. Packer writes:
"Greenwald believes that the US government uses monitoring to suppress internal dissent in an era of economic pain and political anger. ‘Mass surveillance’ keeps the public docile by instilling fear of a ubiquitous government that doesn’t just watch people’s every move but ‘kills dissent in a deeper and more important place as well: in the mind, where the individual trains him or herself to think only in line with what is expected and demanded.’ The economic crisis began in 2008, while the NSA programs date back to the years following 9/11 – but chronology is only the most obvious flaw in this vastly overblown argument. By Greenwald’s reasoning, he himself is responsible for making the public afraid by exposing the breadth of the NSA’s monitoring, which had previously remained unknown and therefore incapabale [sic] of creating widespread fear."
The economic crisis may have begun for Packer and his upper crust patrician friends in 2008, but for the rest of us it began much earlier. Indeed, it began right after 9/11, an event that closed the New York Stock Exchange, staggered the markets, and cost the economy over $3 trillion. Naturally, Packer and his wealthy circle of friends didn’t feel the effects immediately, if they did at all, but out here in the real world people were (and are) suffering. And indeed we know the political class was scared to death of a popular uprising if the whole structure came down: they discussed food distribution and “emergency measures” to keep order, albeit only among themselves.
Aside from that, however, the ultimate absurdity of blaming Greenwald, and not the reality of the Surveillance State, for spreading a blanket of fear across a formerly spirited public discourse is just obscene – and indicative of Packer’s willful ignorance. For the the monster lurking just beneath the surface of American society reared its head many times prior to Snowden’s revelations: remember "Total Information Awareness"? Does Packer recall New York Times reporter James Risen’s exposé of the "Stellar Wind" program – which "America’s leading newspaper" finally published in 2005? Does he even care to acknowledge the atmosphere of fear and intimidation created by President Bush – "you’re with us, or with the terrorists!" – and his neocon friends, who were intent on ginning up a war Packer thought was a glorious crusade for "democracy"?
Greenwald, Packer avers, "has no use for the norms of journalism." And thank the gods for that – for those "norms" involve a phony "objectivity" that masks an obsequious deference to government officials, a swallowing whole of their most transparent lies, and ill-concealed disdain for anyone who questions them.
The worst is yet to come, however. Here is a man whose entire "journalistic" career has been one long act of fellatio in service to the Powers That Be – whether they be the neocons he sucked up to during the Bush years or the "progressive" gang presently inhabiting the White House – accusing Greenwald of "a pervasive absence of intellectual integrity"! Chutzpah doesn’t quite cover it.
"Of course everyone has biases," Packer pontificates, "which is exactly why the effort to think and report in spite of them is important. Without objectivity as an aspiration, the correctness of a political line comes before a fair consideration of facts: the facts follow the line, not the other way around."
This is nonsense: one doesn’t reinvent oneself each time a new fact comes to the fore, and this is as true of journalists as it is of ordinary mortals. One comes to the table with biases and then tries to integrate newly discovered facts into one’s worldview as it has evolved up to that point. New facts may lead you in a new direction – for example, discovering that Walter Durante’s glowing accounts of Stalinist Russia in "the leading newspaper in America" were hiding the gulag, and the murder of some 60 million people. Yet it isn’t just the nature of human beings but also the structure of reality itself that imbues every thinking person with a point of view. The real crime against journalism, and against reason itself – of which Packer is one of the guiltiest – is to ignore the facts when they contradict that bias.
Now comes the real mud-balling, which, after all that verbiage is something of a relief – a series of accusations that have as much basis in fact as the preceding:
"Greenwald asserts that Snowden ‘had not taken all possible steps to cover his tracks because he did not want his colleagues to be subjected to investigations or false accusations.’ But he doesn’t mention the Reuters article showing that Snowden borrowed logins and passwords from colleagues in order to gain access to more files. The article reported that ‘A handful of agency [NSA] employees who gave their login details to Snowden were identified, questioned and removed from their assignments.’"
Packer is a liar: there is no other way to put it. Snowden insisted on revealing his identity as quickly as possible precisely because he didn’t want to implicate anyone else. He knew what past NSA whistleblowers had gone through – having their homes ransacked, their freedom taken away from them with heavy jail sentences, their families harassed, their lives ruined. He didn’t have to reveal himself, and yet chose to do so – thus making himself the most wanted man in the world. Snowden denies having stolen anyone’s passwords, saying in an online question and anwer session that “I never stole any passwords, nor did I trick an army of co-workers.”
A colleague of Snowden’s from the NSA also told Forbes it wasn’t true.
"[Greenwald] scoffs at the Washington Post for hesitating to send a reporter to meet Snowden in Hong Kong out of concern that their conversations might be monitored by Chinese state intelligence. But when [Laura]Poitras won’t speak openly in a Hong Kong taxi for fear that their driver might be an undercover US agent, Greenwald thinks that she could be right."
This is laughable: there was no reason, at that point, for the Chinese to take any interest whatsoever in the activities of two Americans who – for all Beijing knew – were just ordinary tourists riding around in a taxi. The story hadn’t gone public yet. But the US government knew something was afoot: they had already shown up at Snowden’s Hawaii residence, and were no doubt actively looking for him. Aside from which the files he had were encrypted, in effect invulnerable: they couldn’t have cracked them even if they had known about them.
"John Burns of the New York Times writes an unflattering profile of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks leader, whom Greenwald intensely admires. Burns is described as ‘pro-war reporter John Burns.’ But Snowden is never ‘pro-war leaker Edward Snowden’; nor indeed is Greenwald ever ‘pro-war columnist Glenn Greenwald,’ though the preface to his first book says that he did initially support the war in Iraq, before changing his mind after the invasion. In a paragraph of agonized qualifications, he wrote that ‘to the extent that I was able to develop a definitive view, I accepted his [the President’s] judgment that American security really would be enhanced by the invasion.’"
Unlike Packer, and his ex-Trotskyist-turned-neocon Svengali Kanan Makiya, who spent the early years of the war extolling the "shock treatment" visited on Iraq, Greenwald never publicly advocated for the invasion: he was still a lawyer, and had not yet started blogging. While Packer has spent the last decade or so hand-wringing over the lost "idealism" of the let’s-bomb-Iraq crowd – which he still insists was engaged in a "noble cause" – Greenwald has learned the lesson of those years and done much to instill it in the American people.
There is more to Packer’s attempt to assassinate the character of the two people who have done the most to let the American people in on the ill-kept secret of Washington’s maleficence, both at home and abroad, but enough is enough. After all, a writer capable of making excuses for the mass murderer Robert Bale, who systematically exterminated sixteen Afghan civilians – most of them children – is really too evil to be dwelled on at any great length.
Suffice to say here that Packer is the epitome of the "respected" American "intellectual" – a Court Intellectual so busy defending the state structures and socio-political conventions that make his status possible that he doesn’t even know or care he’s going to burn in Hell for all eternity. Packer’s place in that fiery realm is near certain: he’ll be relegated to the eighth circle, where frauds are imprisoned, and specifically the sixth bolgia (or pit) where resides "the hypocrites listlessly walking along wearing gilded lead cloaks, which represent the falsity behind the surface appearance of their actions." Another "anguished" liberal, like his friend and fellow warmonger Paul Berman, who’s just another neocon useful idiot.
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.