The Snowden revelations are a wakeup call for the United States. He and his promoters have preached a jeremiad, but not the one most people believe they are hearing. Most people will believe they are trying to wake America up to the NSA’s out of control activity and the government’s predatory nature. On the surface such an understanding will satisfying the public’s prejudices. We need to look deeper. Otherwise, we mistake a cause from a perceived effect. Once we look beyond the popular prejudice, or what is being promoted as the popular prejudice, we see the concern about government and surveillance reveals a deeper issue- the problematic relationship between the citizen and the government.
A nation of laws or passions?
The issue is whether America is a nation of laws and whether the citizens respect and support those laws. When we move beyond the surface, we see the decline of a reverence for the laws. Snowden chose to break many laws to expose what he believed, but had not confirmed, as illegal behaviour by the NSA and the government. He claimed he was breaking the law because a higher duty, a duty to the people, required it. Many people lauded his behaviour and some have argued that his theft and revelations were an act of civil disobedience.
Personal preference is civil disobedience?
When we look closely at that proposal, we find that Mr Snowden falls far short of Martin Luther King’s ideal. Even if he is not a Martin Luther King, a rather high standard to achieve, he is certainly not acting in the tradition of civil disobedience. He may claim he is, he may even believe he is, but that does not make it so. Even a cursory glance shows that he lacked the preliminary purification and prompts that led Dr King to act. Snowden has not done the preparatory work that King and others did before they came to civil disobedience. King in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail explained what was needed to justify direct action. He examined his soul, he sought out alternatives, and he attempted to negotiate.
Snowden by contrast decided there was an injustice and that his illegal act was the only means available. He did not like it so the NSA and the government must be wrong. However, the idea of civil disobedience, while important, is secondary to the central issue concerning the relationship of the citizen to the government.
If you do not obey the laws how can you expect others or the government to obey it?
Snowden’s behaviour and the support for that behaviour suggest the basic agreement; at the heart of American democracy-, the agreement to obey the laws, is in jeopardy. If citizens are not to obey the laws, why should the government? If the government is not to obey the laws, why should the citizens? If obedience to the laws is waning, then an act of civil disobedience to those laws seems almost meaningless. It is here that I think America’s suicide has begun. Instead of showing illegality on a wide scale by the NSA or a disdain or disregard for the laws, we have found the opposite. The NSA has complied with the Constitution and congressional oversight. Critics may argue that this is not enough. However, they have to admit that what they perceive to be insufficient is still an attempt to obey the laws and act within the Constitution. This is not to say that mistakes were made, is any system perfect? It is not to say that greater oversight is unwelcome, what system of oversight is sufficient? On the contrary, to argue otherwise would be to suggest an unpalatable view of democratic due process. However, the alternative proposed by Snowden, and more vociferously by his main supporter WikiLeaks, leads to outright lawlessness and destroys America’s political and civil covenants.
To distrust the government is to distrust ourselves
The seductive desire to disobey the law that Snowden reveals has been growing over generations. WikiLeaks did not create Snowden. Snowden and others who have followed this ideology were produced over generations not overnight. They have been created by the distrust, and in some cases outright hatred, for the government that has been growing for the last two generations. Over the past two generations, since 1968 trust in the government has decreased precipitously. The graph, copyright of the PEW foundation, shows the decline over 50 years.
On the surface, this may not seem very significant. People usually do not like to pay taxes or to be told what they can or cannot do. The graph presents a powerful message to the viability and fate of a country that is dedicated to and only survives because of the idea that America has a government of the people, by the people and for the people. In 1863, Lincoln explained that America was fighting a bloody and vicious civil war to answer this question. Could a government dedicated to the proposition that self-government be possible? He worked to save the Union that protected the Constitution, which ensured that his generation answered this question with a yes.
Each generation must answer the call to renew America
Lincoln understood, though, that the civil war did not settle the matter. He knew before the war that America’s political institutions had to be renewed and strengthened by each generation. What would destroy America would never be a foreign emperor leading a conquering army. Instead, he warned in his Lyceum address (1838) that lawlessness and a disregard for the laws by American citizens would be the cause of America’s defeat. In particular, he warned that the lawless in spirit would become the lawless in deed. The goal of those lawless in spirit was to destroy the government because that was the final arbiter of law and order.
“the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint but dread of punishment, they become absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations, and pray for nothing so much as its total annihilation.”
The problem was not simply lawlessness or man’s unrestrained appetites. These problems have existed since the dawn of civilisation. What he argued was that for America to survive its people had to remain attached to the government. They had to be faithful to the idea that it was a government of the people by the people and for the people. When the people lose faith in the government, they lose faith in themselves. When this occurs, as Lincoln warned would happen unless Americans acted to reaffirm their faith in America, the laws and themselves, America’s ruin was certain.
“I know the American People are much attached to their Government;–I know they would suffer much for its sake;–I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.”
Would Lincoln be able to describe Americans today as attached to their government? Instead, America increasingly seems held together by the caprice of the mob. The mob is in the digital domain where Mr Snowden embodies a new form a lawless that is upon the land. The net is full of dark conspiracies and the deep web is a place of lawlessness dedicated to the idea of living beyond the rule of law. Even the social media is a place of twitter mobs and vigilante behaviour where people are tried and convicted by public opinion without a trial. Opponents are silenced by labelling them trolls and encouraging one’s twitter followers to follow suit. The powerful censure those they dislike. However, the problem did not start with Mr Snowden for he is only a harbinger.
Our individual lawlessness devours the common good
America has lost its reverence for its laws. The lawlessness among citizens is growing in proportion to their distrust and even hatred of the government. The desire is to see what we can get away with and how much we can get before we are caught. We have thieves idolized. They are portrayed as victims of overzealous and out of control prosecutors. We have those who betray the public interest celebrated as “truth tellers”. They claim that the political system is corrupt because they dislike what it does. We have those who hurt and sabotage the government lauded as “heroes”. We are not talking about a political debate over the size of the government. We are not talking about whether government spending should be reformed. We are not talking about how regulations stifle capitalistic freedom. We are talking about a dislike, a distrust, and even an outright hatred of the government. Let us not confuse this with an esoteric debate that seeks to parse the nuances of distinguishing the government as an agent separate from the people and so it becomes a legitimate target of scorn and fear because it acts on its own interests. We are beyond such arguments as a Marxists superstructure or a bureaucratic administrative agent. We are talking about a threat to the very proposition that Americans are capable of self-government and what that idea requires of them and their government.
Self-government is hard, slavery is easy.
Self-government is not a right, it is a not a certainty, it is a proposition that must be answered anew by each age and by each citizen. If we are to live together as one people, Americans, we have to understand that it is as one people, united and expressed in the common good, which is a government of a people, by the people, and for the people. As that idea dies and we find it acceptable and even praiseworthy to disobey the law and attack the government, we must confront an ugly truth, the alternative is not freedom but tyranny. This is not a tyranny imposed by violence or the government, but a tyranny of the easy slavery to our appetites and private pleasures. Self-government was our last best hope to shake off the shackles of slavery before a tyrannical sovereign. We had a chance to be our own sovereign, to practice self-government, and that chance has begun to fade into memory. The fire that should, must, burn in the heart of every citizen has dimmed to a faint glow, a fleeting memory only remembered by a few. Our account is now running and we must face the grim truth that we have failed to answer the question that Lincoln asked.
The lawlessness has grown over the past two generations.
As Machiavelli warned, evil does not occur immediately, but over generations. Over two generations, the people can lose their understanding of what is good for the country and needed to sustain the institutions that keep them safe. When the decisions by the people are no longer guided by a type of virtue that recognises the common good as being best for the individuals, the problems begin. What we find are decisions are made for a group, an institution, or an individual at the expense of the common good. As citizens lose an understanding of the common good, the country begins to suffer. Such a decline only takes two generations. The illness does have a cure. Machiavelli described this problem well.
Will you reignite the flame of self-government?
Recourse to political parties or political slogans will not reignite the flame of self-government. The libertarian alternative only exacerbates the problem with a drive to self-interested behaviour that fails to understand that law is founded on a belief in the common good, something larger than the individual and something more than a cynical transaction between the citizen and the state. The only way we can reignite the hunger for self-government is if we educate our young to be citizens, to be human. They need to understand that the fullest human expression is not in private pursuits of their pleasures, it is found within a community and a country that supports their opportunities.
To paraphrase Aristotle, to live beyond the walls (the laws) of the city, a man must be either a beast or a god. Inside the city, the walls, man finds his fullest expression. Such a view is not communistic nor is it socialistic, it is a basic democratic idea that the people together can determine their destiny and as citizens they owe it themselves and to each other to act to support those ideals. Either we return to the idea of self-government or we prepare ourselves for its alternatives anarchy or tyranny. What will you choose? What have you chosen?