Three broad things going on here.
1) Yes, there are legitimate concerns about a security state overreach in the US, particularly after September 11. Conservatives and libertarians spend a lot of time bemoaning the growth of government. The prospect of government growing in secret, creating a chilling effect on free speech, eroding people’s privacy, subjecting them to endless, illegal search is something to be worried about. In this regard, the recent debates in congress, with pledges of real reform to come, are needed.
2) But on the flip side, there is something about the nature of the internet that fuels conspiracy theories. Moreover, the internet, which can bring people together, creates a highly personalized experience of the world. It’s self-reflexive. If you look for tyranny, tyranny is fed back to you. If you look for hot rod enthusiasts, hot rod enthusiasts are fed back to you. It’s worth considering this point when thinking about Julian Assange and to a lesser extent Ed Snowden. Alex Jones (pictured) is an example of the popularity of conspiracy in this age:
Assange and Snowden see the world through a single prism of individual liberty. In Snowden’s case, it’s very much the American libertarian variety which has reshaped US politics in recent years, and is the subject of a big debate today among Republicans – notably between Rand Paul and Chris Christie. Much of this debate would be lost on Assange, who also espouses a libertarian in cyberspace philosophy.
Seeing the world through this online prism allows people like Snowden and Assange, both of whom have grown up on the internet, to look past all other issues. Assange, who I believe, hasn’t spent much time in the US, would probably be surprised to learn of the philosophical link between crumbling bridges, failing schools in the US, criminally lax regulation of US corporations and libertarianism.
Likewise, with Snowden free to wander Russia, he will no doubt get a good look at an individual’s freedom there. It’s a shame Snowden and Assange’s followers, looking at the world through the single prism of data leakers and those who
prosecute them, can’t see the wider picture of the countries involved.
I doubt if the desire for privacy and transparency on the part of Snowden and Assange will have an effect in places like China and Russia that they do in the US. This takes me to point three.
3) If Snowden and Assange stand for freedom why are countries like Russia and China, which have much worse records on rights than the US, acting as a platform for these guys? You don’t have to look too far back in history to see why. Whoever Snowden and Assange are for the West, for the East they are what are known as
“useful idiots.” That is, their zeal for the cause, leads them to advance the
goals of a vastly different political interest, much as the left intelligentsia did during the Cold War.
Just today a Russian communist party described Snowden as a hero who was “like a balm to the hearts of all Russian patriots.”
It’s really something to reflect on.
Just as the US has ramped up pressure on China to stop stealing US trade secrets, the Chinese are handed the gift of Snowden. Now discussion of economic cyber theft is muddled. In Russia, the domestic message is that the “CIA and the FBI violate human rights just like everybody else.” But that doesn’t mean, they are like a Russian police state. As a friend explained, although the US is the bad guy, it doesn’t mean Russia and China are good guys.
… I imagine there will be more non-state actors like Wikileaks, and blinkered libertarians like Snowden in coming years. But if there are, let’s have some clarity about real purposes and who is using who.
These seem to be the three separate parts to what’s going on in the news today: Post-9/11 surveillance state excesses, conspiracy theory comic book morality, and the co-opting and subverting of idealists from one country to advance the propaganda goals of another.