A suggested summer reading list for Edward Snowden

Lithograph of the Assassination of Abraham Lin...

Lithograph of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Mr. Snowden,

I realize that you have a lot of time on your hands so I thought I would suggest a summer reading list for you. The various books, speeches, dialogues and letter may prove educational and useful in the coming months and years. I hope they stimulate you to think deeply about what America means.

Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois
Abraham Lincoln
January 27, 1838
In this speech, Lincoln argues that a healthy respect for the laws and our political institutions are the foundations for our liberty. Without this respect, we as citizens are sure to fall prey to tyranny and fail in the great experiment that is self-government. One would hope that more Americans would reflect upon Lincoln’s speech before they believe that government is the problem. However, even Lincoln understood there could be bad laws, which brings us to the next selection.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King Jr.
16 April 1963
Martin Luther King struggled against injustice and unjust laws. He understood, in this powerful and prophetic letter, that an unjust law is not a law. He spoke of an appeal to a higher law, a law beyond the positive or written law of the community. He appeals to the natural law for justice. We as Americans live by the Declaration of Independence and its promise that all men are created equal. Yet, King did not come to his choice of civil disobedience lightly or without long trials and tribulations. He understood the gravity of what he was proposing as it would change America forever because he was forcing America to live up to the promise of Lincoln and America’s founding. We can refuse to obey an unjust law, because an unjust law is not a law. However, we must be able to show its injustice is more than our mere preference or our appetite. We must show that the law is unjust because it corrupts the common good properly understood. King understood the power of the common good as he appealed to a law higher than the state, which brings us to the next item on the list.

One day in the live of Ivan Denisovich
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
November 1962
I thought you would find this work of fiction interesting. Solzhenitsyn, who survived the Russian prison camps, shows the power of the state over an individual and the danger from a state that is not founded on the principle that all men are created equal. Denisovich has to struggle against an inhuman and brutalizing bureaucratic state. The non-fiction account of the same experience is the Gulag Archipelago. The Soviet state was totalitarian state and its work was to destroy the individual’s conscience and replace it allegiance to the party. The Soviet state did not see a limit to its power over the individual, which is contrasted to the next three selections.

John Lock John Locke, The Two Treatises of Government: in the former, the Fulfe Principles, and foundation of Sir Robert Filmer, and his followers, are detected and overthrown, the latter is an Essay on concerning the true original, extent and end of civil Government
John Locke
[1689]
Locke proposed the idea of a government limited to the goal of securing the individual’s life and property. He wrote in a time when press censorship was a reality, so his understood the consequences for criticizing the government.

The Leviathan or the Matter, forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil
Thomas Hobbes
1660
Hobbes wrote in the midst of the English civil war. He proposed a political system to avoid the horrors of civil war in the future. He initiated the idea that the citizen pursued their self interest, which would mean they give up their natural rights to form a government that would provide peace and security.

The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right
Jean Jaques Rousseau
1762
In this work, Rousseau attempted to understand how man can we live together and yet remain free. The question was whether by living together we inevitably had to rely on force and fraud to make citizens obey. He proposed that citizens would submit their individual will to the collective will.

All three of these works need to be considered together. Although they are important in their own right and often times contradict each other, together they offer an understanding of the “social contract” and the basis for liberalism and our liberal democracy. In your interview you said that one of the reasons you chose to act was because you did not want Americans to live with comfortable self-preservation and ignorant of government surveillance. Yet, Locke is the founder of comfortable self-preservation. You would do well to reflect that liberalism succeeds to the extent that we have comfortable self-preservation. Liberalism properly understood is an alternative to the world that Hobbes feared. Life without government is one that is violent and nasty. You may find Rousseau interesting for his famous phrase about man being born free but everywhere he is in chains. What are those chains? If government is seen as a chain or a constraint, can freedom be achieved without government? Are we free only to the extent that government exists to allow us to fulfil our highest aspirations as man and citizen? You may wish to consider the Federalist Papers since they were inspired by these writings. You will want to consider how Federalist 10 and 51 set out the ways in which government can succeed. Yet, all these writers owe their beginning to Socrates or rather Plato who wrote the dialogues involving Socrates.

Crito
Plato
360BC
Plato shows what it means to obey the laws and why we obey the laws because they are literally our parents. He had a choice, which you did not make, to leave or stay and he chose to stay and won an eternal victory for philosophy over politics. Here we see the earliest version of the social contract theory.

Gorgias
Plato
380 BC
You would benefit from this when considering the motives of your interlocutors and those who wish to benefit from your decisions. Are they teaching you the good or have they persuaded you of what they perceive to be the good but are not in your interest? Moreover, Socrates says that the greatest misfortune would be to do a wrong.

Meno
Plato
380 BC
The Meno may appear theoretical and does not apply to you. In this work, Plato created the archival paradigm for memory. You mentioned that the state’s power to remember everything is what frightened you into your decision to steal the documents. Yet, the stolen documents were publicized through the social media, which provides the strongest evidence of an alternative view of memory offered by the web. Through the web, people can connect and create knowledge that challenges the archival and hierarchical access to memory. You may also be interested or at least relieved to note that even Meno could learn about virtue.

If after reading these pieces you still believe that America is on the brink of tyranny and not worth saving, then please let us know the alternative. Is America not worth saving? Do you help your cause by refusing to face trial, to face your accusers, and make the injustice you believe plain to all to see? Is America so corrupted that her citizens no longer need respect her laws? Have our political institutions, founded to preserve our liberties, become our oppressors? If there is another land that offers the promise of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, please let us know.

Drop me a line when you get a chance. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss these books with you.

Your fellow American citizen,

Lawrence Serewicz

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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