I posted this exchange at Facebook, but it might come in handy here as well:
Jelani Cobb I appreciate your perspective here regarding the applicability of the civil rights and antiwar movements though I can’t agree — you’re essentially saying that Snowden has less leverage in 2013 than poorly educated black laborers in 1950s Alabama. That is, in any case, not the crux of my argument. The problem is not solely that Snowden took flight but that he did so while seeking shelter in two regimes with some of the most abysmal track records on the very civil liberty issues he allegedly wishes to address in the United States. It’s in that context — and specifically that context — that I point out that he should’ve stayed in or returned to the United States. This is not a matter of degrees — Putin’s regime kills journalists. So how do we get to a place where we can muster vast indignation at the trampling of American freedoms but not so much at the taking of lives beyond these borders.
Jelani Cobb What I find troubling here is the refusal to recognize that in so doing and in so advocating [exile as against return to face trial], the inescapable moral conclusion here is that our freedoms are somehow more important than those abroad. The choice to remain “free” on Snowden’s part cannot be removed from the stewards of his freedom are directly responsible for similar or worse abuses. That this seems unimportant in the calculations is a tacit endorsement of American exceptionalism.
James Livingston @ Jelani Cobb again, I think the differences here are more practical than principled–less theoretical (as in the specter of exceptionalism) than pragmatic. Our freedoms can’t be any more important than those abroad, but, historically speaking, Americans as such have had, or been able to demand, more access to the institutional apparatus of freedom, and have typically insisted on the UNIVERSAL applicability of constitutionally determined (civil) rights. So they have always led the fight for human rights even while the state that acts in their name has violated them in the interest of white supremacy or “national security.” But the practical question now is, how do you assert–merely articulate–the right of privacy, or, to get pre-Constitutional about it, the right of habeus corpus, if the state can sweep away your claims to humanity and citizenship because the cause and the conditions of a “war on terror” require and justify it? Where can you hide? You’re right, the “stewards of his freedom” at present and in prospect are not paragons of civil liberties–although Venezuela makes Russia look like hell–but if Daniel Ellsberg had to face Snowden’s choice of venue after disclosing the Pentagon’s secrets, my bet would be on exile. MLK never had to face that choice, because nobody except J. Edgar Hoover thought that he was endangering “national security” by measuring the gap between the people’s founding principles and the nation’s pathetic performance of them. Or maybe, like Malcolm, he did. But by the time that choice would have become pressing, he was already a leader of a substantial social movement–not, like poor Snowden, the object of liberal condescension and contempt.