Snowden, Manning and Tsarnaev: is the only difference a pressure cooker? (Part 2)

Title page from Joseph Priestley's Essay on a ...

Title page from Joseph Priestley’s Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(This is the second part of an essay, the first part, published earlier can be found here.)

If liberalism cannot satisfy the disgruntled individual, what will?

Manning, Snowden and Tsarnaev attack on America has revealed liberalism’s limits in the social media age.[1] The liberal democratic state appears at the limit of what it can deliver and still provide a system for orderly political change. It now appears that the government’s legitimacy depends more on each individual’s concept of justice rather than an agreed concept shared and expressed through the government. If the individual believes the government is illegal or immoral, then it is. The problem in its essence is not new as it is as old as the tension between the individual and the community. What is new, and problematic, are the methods used to express that dissatisfaction. How can long can the liberal democratic state cater to such empowered individuals?

Did their acts justify their ends?

In part one of this essay we discussed how Ms Manning, Mr Snowden and Mr Tsarnaev justified their actions. All three believed their personal preferences determined whether their acts were right or wrong. None of them consulted critical experts, or sought alternative methods beyond nominal efforts, or explored, beyond a cursory nature, the ways to change and influence their organisation or society. None of them examined their decision against a non-arbitrary standard. None of them showed an understanding of the government policy or the purpose of the American regime. In this they appear uneducated, which is *the* problem for the regime and for liberalism.

Educating the citizen is the state’s highest responsibility within the state.

The term uneducated, does not mean illiterate, stupid, or lacking skills. [2] The term means specifically that they lack a liberal education, an education into what the regime means, how it works, and its purpose. Their lack of education is the deeper problem that haunts the American regime. They are the harbingers of a democracy ill informed and out of control as a result of its young no longer being educated to be citizens. Without an education, citizens are guided by public opinion, or their own appetites, and expect the government to cater to these appetites. Without an education they can be neither human, because they do not know who they are, nor a citizen, because they do not understand their relationship to their community and country. Instead, as individuals they rely upon public opinion for their identity.[3]

Has liberal education failed to educate individuals to be citizens?

When a regime educates its citizens, it turns individuals into citizens and ensures the regimes survival. The regime enables the individual to be educated in culture either at a minimum, the culture of the regime, or at a maximum, the culture of the mind. Here I mean both, as they are linked, but the reality is that without the former, the latter is impossible. A regime can only survive if a citizen will obey the laws.[4] A citizen will obey the laws, when they understand their purpose and the process by which they are made. In the process, we see the regime express that which sustains it beyond any one generation, the constitutional order that endures. Even if a citizen disagrees with the laws, they must obey them. They will obey them because they understand the purpose of the law and recognize the legitimacy of the system that made the laws protects them and nurtures them. From that understanding they would consent to the law and the rule of law, which in turn provides for their freedom. The constitution and the laws, rather than their conscience, create a non-arbitrary standard and process for judging the rightness of the regime so that they can consent to its goodness. However, neither Manning, Snowden nor Tsarnaev were educated to understand or articulate a non-arbitrary standard by which to judge the regime’s legitimacy and by which they could consent. Their standard was the extent to which it catered to their appetites or they agreed with it. If they agreed, they consented. Once they disagreed, they removed their consent which suggests that they do not appear to understand themselves or their role as citizen within a liberal democratic state. The regime is not simply good because they consent; rather it is good which is why they consent. Instead, their methods and intent betray a naivety, ignorance, or even hatred for liberal democracy and the education required to sustain it.

Without an education, individuals fall prey to demagogues who attack the government and sow distrust, discord, and dissension. They attack the laws which express the common good because by eroding a belief in the common good expressed by and within the constitutional political order. When a belief in the common good erodes the virtue needed to sustain a democracy declines. In America the government is of the people, by the people, and for the people so distrust or hatred of the government, which has grown in recent years, means that self government becomes uncertain. Self-government is precarious because it can only exist in relations to a robust democratic society. Self government and government are not mutually exclusive or at odd with each other. The alternative to self-government through a democratic government is either slavery or tyranny. Lincoln warned against this danger. He argued that if the public has lost faith in the laws and the government the country will fail because the possibility of self-government is lost. Even as the government tries to protect them, Americans seem intent on renouncing their responsibility to self government and demand a government strong enough to cater to them as autonomous individuals, yet weak enough not to hinder their appetites. However, Self government requires sacrifices and tradeoffs. Yet, Manning Snowden, and Tsarnaev seem to operate under a guise of a libertarian freedom. All appetites can be enjoyed so long as the government gets out of the way. What we find is that they reflect is an education that is no longer liberal.

Liberal education is already two tiered; a deeper inequality than wealth

America has become a two tiered country where some are liberally educated and the rest lack access to, or an awareness of, a liberal education. This does not mean Americans are less patriotic or have become unpatriotic. Those who are liberally educated seem unaware of, or removed from, the regime’s founding principles, purpose, and what is required from them to sustain the regime.[5] Consider Harvard University, America’s top school, where the average grade is now an A. Graduates leave the school uneducated in virtue assuming that life outside the university will provide similar rewards. They are not educated in virtue.[6] Today an education in virtue seems a faded memory, a quaint idea, in a technological age.[7] Virtue has been replaced by a faith in technology. Students are not taught to be human. They leave school with a stunted understanding, a technological understanding, of what makes us human. Man becomes and is encouraged to be a standing reserve to be consumed, to be used to satisfy the appetites, instead of an intrinsically worthy being, exiting within the laws of nature and nature’s God. Politics is either a libertarian self-interested model, or a hedonistic system that masking nihilism, where humans live to enjoy their appetites because nothing else matters.

In the second tier, a liberal education is overlooked or forgotten. It is not a priority because people no longer know what it means. There is no time or leisure to consider what it means to live a liberally educated life. Even the term liberal in popular culture creates confusion if not outright disdain. The intellectual and moral ground is no longer fertile. The modern citizen can no longer imbue the ethos of the regime and understand what makes it great and what is required to make it great and beautiful. Instead they consume the American symbols but not their meaning. Where they do have an “education”, it comes from public opinion. A public opinion shaped and nurtured to teach them to be cynical, sceptical, resentful and angry towards the government. They are told, and believe, that the government is the problem.

Both tiers find an unintended common ground in the technological society but for their own reasons. In the technological society people no longer interact in places where their rough edges are smoothed by rubbing shoulders and elbows with different citizens. On the net, everyone is isolated and alone, they are pure individuals neither part of a group nor citizens. On the net, they live without borders and without a country. They are individuals beholden to no one but themselves, their own ideas, appetites, and prejudices. Where they are part of a group it is to reinforce and identify themselves by their appetites and prejudice and neither seeks out what is common to them as citizens. Where they do seek that common ground it is in pleasures and leisurely pursuits rather than in activities that require them to interact or to compromise within their community for a higher purpose that is the common good.

Where a liberal education does occur it is almost by happenstance, or by familial tradition, neither of which can sustain the regime much longer. A liberal education is more than going to university because a liberal education is a way of life, an education to a way of life, the life of citizenship. Above all it is an education to recognise the great and beautiful within each other and the common good. Through the common good, we share as citizens in something greater than ourselves. Without that education, a citizen’s virtue fails. Without a citizen’s virtue, democracy fails. Thus, we see the true pressure cooker that haunts America

The pressure cooker at the end of the liberal state

Western society faces two pressure cookers. The first is the pressure cooker of the next homemade bomb.[8] The second though is the deeper more pressing problem. It is the pressure cooker of an uneducated citizenry. The pressure from both is growing within liberalism. Liberal democracy, that expresses the political hope of liberalism, appears unable to contain the incessant demands created by a technological individual. The technological vision of democracy where the state must act like a service provider that respond to each individual without sacrifice or trade-off and all laws are to be understood like computer code betrays liberalism’s origins. The atomized individual requires no sense of the common good that sustains the regime and no sense of shared purpose. Each individual sees themselves as determinative rather than seeing themselves as part of, and involved in, the common good. They want what they can get from the state or the system. We see this expressed, in part, but not exclusively in the financial system. The system was corrupted by citizens unable to believe in the common good or who, if they acknowledged the common good, believed their behaviour, no matter how corrupt, served it. Citizenship was reduced to an economic transaction where as long as you did not get caught you could get away with it. Manning, Snowden, and Tsarnaev indicate that liberalism and America are losing their ability to resolve the demands of the technologically empowered autonomous individual who is uneducated in liberal democratic virtue. IT is not their acts nor their reasons for acting, but rather what they imply that is the larger problem that needs to be addressed. How this problem is addressed will determine America’s and liberal democracy’s fate.

[1] For an introduction into the multifaceted understanding of liberalism look at Stanford University Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia.

[2] Although all the individuals had received some education beyond high school and some university or college level training; the individuals could not be considered to have had a liberal education. However, that fact raises a deep question for the regime because it suggests that the regime cannot educate its citizens properly. The liberal education required to sustain a liberal democratic state is not available nor offered to all citizens. Even for the ones who are given a “liberal education” it would appear that it is no longer sufficient to sustain the regime.

[3] Please note that this does not make them inhuman or even subhuman. Instead, it is to suggest, like Hamlet, they are incomplete, because they do not know who they are.

[4] I explored this idea in greater detail at this post on Edward Snowden and America’s Suicide.

[5] Take for instance the following article that asks why insider trading is illegal. In the article the author suggests that there is no illegality because there is no victim. He questions whether society should enforce its moral sentiments on anyone. In contrast to Manning, Snowden, and Tsarnaev, the author is well educated, he has an advanced degree beyond university, and has a position of power and influence, and he is a Senior Editor at If someone with his position of power and influences lacks an understanding of liberal democratic justice, then it raises questions about the education towards citizenship and ethics required to sustain the legal system and the regime.

[6] To an extent, Professor Mansfield, who brought this issue to light, teaches his students virtue through his grading system, which reflects, perhaps, his understanding of Cyrus.

[7] My point is different from Allan Bloom’s who expressed concern about a university education. I am concerned with education in its fullest sense, which includes the education outside of the university, the education of the citizen.

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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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4 Responses to Snowden, Manning and Tsarnaev: is the only difference a pressure cooker? (Part 2)

  1. Ian says:

    Educating for citizenship and life whilst surely important can also become part of the problem within today’s environment. Whilst issues emanating from the personalised services brought about by such things as the early stages of big data began to be perceived as a difficulty which morality/ethics and politics needed to learn to manage they also appeared to have had an early influence within education.

    Such comments such as:-

    “If someone with his position of power and influences lacks an understanding of liberal democratic justice, then it raises questions about the education towards citizenship and ethics required to sustain the legal system and the regime.”

    can be perceived as requiring education to facilitate an understanding by the subject the interpretation of what type of understanding would seem to rest with the person interpreting. I.e. Is the subject expressing a particular idea whilst attempting to start a debate in that area – Or – is the subject expressing a personal preference about the object under discussion?

    So to my question,

    If governments take to direct education of the masses, will the result be personalised services delivered electronically and open to the potentiality of abuse highlighted in:-
    The type of education will clearly affect the outcomes of education and whilst most states do and will provide education which sustains them, should that be the be all and end all of education, or does more potential exist?

    • Ian,
      Thanks for the thoughtful response. My apologies for the delay in responding. In brief, the state already educates its citizens. My concern is that it does not educate them to be citizens any more and potentially not even to be human. We take for granted, in a way that the Ancient Athenians did not, that such concerns are secondary to the full development of the citizen.
      We can always worry about a fear of bias, but what is a political community but a cave, a closed community, that demarcates itself from others. This is not to say that it is automatically xenophobic, but rather states and communities define their membership for the purpose of survival. They are a community not just for survival but something more which is bound up with that identity. In many ways, our current political systems allow us to enjoy the benefits of various communities without requiring us to understand the need for allegiance to a community. The closest we see this is with the military as you cannot be a soldier for two armies at the same time. The military have a core identity and mission that separates them from other communities and in this they teach their members about their organisation.
      The western liberal democratic model does allow us to judge our communities by a higher standard, yet to make that judgement, to say that the community is wrong, means that one also accepts to be bound by that judgement. In other words it is not an arbitrary standard by which we can judge a community. By accepting a non-arbitrary standard, though, even one we propose, we have to live with it and moreover we accept that such standards exist, which can be discovered, shared, and followed for the good that it brings.
      In a certain sense, education of the truest sense is reserved to a few but it can only be reserved to a few if the society still educates its citizens to be citizens and to be human. For to be educated in the truest sense starts and does not finish with what it means to be educated to be human and it is this understanding that technology actually inhibits rather than encourages because it confuses information and skill with knowledge and education.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Dear Lawrence Serewcz:k

    Thank you for sending a link to your article which I can honestly say is one of the best pieces I have read regarding Snowden, Manning and their supporters. Manning, Snowden and Tsarnaev are different of course but as you point out there are similarities as well, a profound alienation from their government and country. One part of your article that stood out for me was where you write “The regime is not simply good because they consent; rather it is good which is why they consent”. But as you say, Snowden, Manning and Tsarnaev never knew enough about American history, the Constitution, how laws are made etc to develop an informed view of the US and so their libertarian/anarchist outlook took over.

    You write about how so many of our institutions have broken down, religion, family, knowing your neighbors and liberal education where topics like virtue and a really good grounding in US and world history used to be taught. The high school and college education of 60, 70 years ago was probably superior to what it is today. Here in the US for exampl, you stop people on the street and most will know the President is Barak Obama but ask them who the Vice President is or the Governor of their state and you run into trouble.

    A part of your article that was ironic was Snowden’s comments about why he decided to leak the documents. He said something about how there are people who can sleep comfortably in their beds each night as more and more of their freedoms are taken away but others are willing to risk everything to fight the oppression. I mean does he have a clue of where he’s living now?

    From what I have read another factor in why Snowden, Manning and Tsarnaev did what they did may be their family structure. Manning in particular had an upbringing that was really child abuse. I sense alot of chaos and moving around in the Tsarnaev family and Snowden’s childhood I also wonder about. Doesn’t excuse what they did but its another example of the times in which we live.

    Thanks again for your article and I will continue to check your blog and tweets for future articles which have given me much to think about.



  3. Pingback: Should we follow Aaron Swartz’s example on civil obedience to the laws? | Philosophical Politics

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