I once called David Brooks the Twit-In-Chief among pundits. But his column today is so profoundly stupid that I have to wonder if I was being kind. I can’t call him a moron, I’ve resorted to that designation too many times, usually by way of conjuring the latest idiocy of Niall Ferguson. So I’ll just say that the man is a disgrace to his profession, and by that I mean not just journalism but the larger enterprise of thinking on behalf of something beside your own interests.
As you know, the column is about Edward Snowden, the young man who leaked the NSA documents to Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian.
According to Brooks, Snowden is the “ultimate unmediated man”—a pure self, an isolate individual. He has no education, no family, no neighbors, no colleagues, and thus no social connections that might, by this bizarre accounting, have constrained him. He’s apparently the product of “the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences,” you know, the really obnoxious guys who are always playing video games rather than speaking earnestly and directly to you across the armrest or the coffee table about, uh, politics and religion.
Brooks casts Snowden as someone untouched by all those “gently gradated authoritative structures” us older folks can take for granted—here the columnist moves swiftly from family to world by way of neighbors and churches to define these “structures,” but, in good conservative fashion, he doesn’t bother to remind us that these are your standard issue small-town stand-ins for social control of untoward ideas. So he can conclude that this guy Snowden must believe in the absence of society as such: “it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.” Where’s Burke when you need him?
Brooks makes the turn at paragraph 6, where he acknowledges the specter of Big Brother, and then dismisses it on the grounds that the bigger danger is the “rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric, and rise of people who are so individualistic that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.” If we had a real society out there, solidarity would prevail against the state’s intrusive innovations!
So you see, Edward Snowden betrayed society, whatever that is, because he was never part of it: “For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedure.” Then comes the very specific list of betrayals. In this order, Brooks announces, Snowden betrayed oaths to his friends, his employers, “the cause of open government,” “the privacy of us all,” and finally, the Constitution itself.
All right, then. The oaths of political office and military service require that you uphold the Constitution and refuse to carry out orders that contravene the imperatives of that document, the laws of war (including the Geneva Conventions), and/or your conscience. Snowden’s actions validate these oaths.
He didn’t betray his friends—a cohort Brooks equates with “young people”—by leaking these documents. He liberated them from the unconscionable confinement of violating the Constitution and collaborating in the commission of war crimes by showing them, very carefully, what has been done in the name of freedom from “terrorism.”
He didn’t betray his employers, Booz Allen and the CIA, and their respective “honor codes,” as Brooks ascribes them to these mercenary entities. Instead, Snowden demonstrated their depravity, and forced us to rethink the extent to which we want secret proxies fighting the wars we haven’t declared.
He didn’t betray the cause of open government. The “powers that be” will now close ranks, to be sure, but they can’t limit this debate unless craven journalists like Brooks decide that their access to government sources is more important than the 1st and the 4th Amendments.
He didn’t betray the privacy of us all. Unlike Eric Schmidt and the friendly geeks at Google who want to suture your browser and the war on terror, Snowden made us ask what privacy is, and how much we need.
And he didn’t betray the Constitution—he bravely upheld it. The founders did, in fact, create the United States so that “some solitary 29-year-old” like Edward Snowden could challenge the words and the policies and the beliefs of government officers. In print, in public.
How to say this? I’m actually wishing that William Safire, the only writer who could make William Buckley sound like a prose stylist, was back in the saddle at the New York Times. David Brooks and his benignly fascistic sentiments would then be confined to the print ghettoes of the News Corporation.