David Brooks had a NYT Essay on Edward Snowden, The Solitary Leaker. I don't follow the news at all and have no opinion on Snowden and his leaks. I haven't paid enough attention to offer anything new about whether his actions are good, bad, or murky.
I liked the essay fairly well as I was reading it. Believers in Western Civ like the idea of "mediating institutions" of society, and the perspective they give one when contemplating moral acts. It ties in with some of hbd*chick's ideas about the reduction in clannishness and embrace of larger institutions having some salutary effects on society. But I had a few quibbles with the essay, and to offer some minor counterpoint I started looking at Brooks's ideas in the context of broader sweeps of history.
I was going to point out that his tying of Snowden's ideas to some libertarian strains which set themselves off from larger society neglected to notice why that might be. Libertarian paranoia, if such it is, is not entirely self-created. Some folks might indeed be congenitally inclined to be suspicious and separate. Yet that percentage is presumably constant, so ebbs and flows in the total have some other forces behind them. Specifically, I was going to wonder what the current (meaning the last fifty years, the last twenty years, the last five years) American powers and elites have done to increase the suspiciousness of those they rule. Brooks doesn't seem to think this has any part in it. Just irritating, fragmenting, atomising citizens who won't get with the program.
As soon as I looked at that, the whole sweater sort of unraveled. When was this unfragmented time in American history when there was some institutional consensus and lone actors did not rise into prominence in such fashion? Would Brooks mind mentioning to the black citizens of the nation when that time was? Because I think it may have escaped them as it went past. Christian fundamentalists were largely a separate culture until Jimmy Carter's campaign, with their own entertainments, colleges, and music. They didn't involve themselves in politics and national issues much. Hispanics might also be curious as to when it was, exactly, that they weren't separate. That's a pretty solid percentage of the population already, but more groups will suggest themselves to you if you think about it.
Without realising it, Brooks is engaging in some false nostalgia, toward a time when the white elites, which had just grudgingly accepted Catholics and Jews, sold us an idea that we are all in this together, and David contrasts that with our own time. We have not become increasingly fragmented in recent years unless we can put that in a perspective of "compared to what? when?" The last time we had an imagined consensus was the 1950's, which led, we may remember, to the 60's, which accused the previous decade of some faintly totalitarian, nazi-echoing attitudes and moved to overthrow it. Read in that context, Brooks's words have something of the same echoes - it's just that there is a different elite consensus now. In the 40's-50's, it was Alger Hiss or the Rosenbergs and a whole passel of people calling themselves folksingers - that was sorta true, but even so not a traditional mediating institution - that decided their moral decisions were independent of the American mainstream. Not quite equivalent, but the parallels aren't ridiculous.
Yes, that 40's-50's supposed rigidity and intolerance, and the supposed liberating features of the 60's-70's were much exaggerated, and serve only as the broadest of outlines. But they do have some value and some truth. Snowden may be wrong, but he's not un-American if we consider Norman Thomas, Charles Sumner, John Brown, or Madelyn Murray O'Hair to be legitimate examples of the feared but accepted edge of American discourse.
Worth remembering, if we are going to kick a certain brand of libertarians now. Who? Whom?*
Amy Davidson at the New Yorker has a talkback to Brooks that is not unrelated to this, David Brooks and the Mind of Eric Snowden.
*Kto kogo? "Who does what to whom?" is the central question of all politics, according to Lenin. And he should know, eh?