in praise of edward snowden

Writing for The London Review of Books, David Bromwich summarizes the state of our union:

Since the prosecutions of whistleblowers, the abusive treatment of [Bradley] Manning and the drone assassinations of American citizens have been justified by the president and his advisers, a dissident in the US may now think of his country the way the dissidents in East Germany under the Stasi thought of theirs. ‘The gloves are off.’ Nor should we doubt that a kindred fear is known even to the persons who control the apparatus.

I offer the following thoughts in the nature of commentary.

Shortly after 9/11 Dick Cheney proclaimed that it will be necessary for us to be a nation of men, and not laws. Shortly after Edward Snowden disclosed the scope and extent of NSA surveillance, giving the lie to its sworn denial by the parties responsible for its execution, Barack Obama sought to reassure us that he wasn’t Dick Cheney. That is right, in so far as the limited surveillance of foreign communications advocated and implemented by Cheney, has been extended to all Americans under the Obama administration.

In the wake of Snowden’s disclosures, Obama has sought to reassert “the system of checks and balances” around NSA surveillance and to “set up and structure a national conversation” on cyber surveillance and civil rights. Ironically, up to now, the system of checks and balances has been stymied, as the Supreme Court shut down the last attempt to adjudicate the legality of NSA surveillance for want of standing. In other words, it found the plaintiffs unable to prove their injury by snooping so secret that it couldn’t be publicly acknowledged. Snowden has single-handedly removed this obstacle to judicial scrutiny. He cannot be faulted for the crimes he committed in doing so, just as he cannot be faulted for taking our manly overlords at their lawless word. In a system whose executive branch has arrogated the unalterable authority to execute its citizens without a trial, whose courts have renounced their power to deny any warrant or check any prosecution in the matters of national interest, an individual willing and able to expose the abuses of power under the color of authority, has every right to place himself above the law, even as the state loses its authority over a challenger to its corruption. That’s what it means to live in a nation of men, and not laws.

Eighteen years ago, Claire Wolfe observed: “America is at that awkward stage when it’s too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards.” I am grateful to Snowden for increasing our odds of fixing the system from within, before our bastards are fit to get shot.

newspaper publicity


Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936) as Mr Dooley
Vanity Fair, 27 July 1905
“Was ye iver in th’ pa-apers?” asked Mr. Dooley.

“Wanst,” said Mr. Hennessy. “But it wasn’t me. It was another Hinnissy. Was you?”

“Manny times,” said Mr. Dooley. “Whin I was prom’nent socyally, ye cud hardly pick up a pa-aper without seein’ me name in it an’ th’ amount iv th’ fine. Ye must lade a very simple life. Th’ newspaper is watchin’ most iv us fr’m th’ cradle to th’ grave, an’ befure an’ afther. Whin I was a la-ad thrippin’ continted over th’ bogs iv Roscommon, ne’er an iditor knew iv me existence, nor I iv his. Whin annything was wrote about a man ‘twas put this way: ‘We undhershtand on good authority that M—l—chi H—-y, Esquire, is on thrile before Judge G——n on an accusation iv l—c—ny. But we don’t think it’s true.’ Nowadays th’ larceny is discovered be a newspa-aper. Th’ lead pipe is dug up in ye’er back yard be a rayporther who knew it was there because he helped ye bury it. A man knocks at ye’er dure arly wan mornin’ an’ ye answer in ye’er nighty. ‘In th’ name iv th’ law, I arrist ye,’ says th’ man seizin’ ye be th’ throat. ‘Who ar-re ye?’ ye cry. ‘I’m a rayporther f’r th’ Daily Slooth,’ says he. ‘Phottygrafter, do ye’er jooty!’ Ye’re hauled off in th’ circylation wagon to th’ newspaper office, where a con-fission is ready f’r ye to sign; ye’re thried be a jury iv th’ staff, sintinced be th’ iditor-in-chief an’ at tin o’clock Friday th’ fatal thrap is sprung be th’ fatal thrapper iv th’ fam’ly journal.

“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, conthrols th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward. They ain’t annything it don’t turn its hand to fr’m explaining th’ docthrine iv thransubstantiation to composin’ saleratus biskit. Ye can get anny kind iv information ye want to in ye’er fav’rite newspaper about ye’ersilf or annywan else. What th’ Czar whispered to th’ Imp’ror Willum whin they were alone, how to make a silk hat out iv a wire matthress, how to settle th’ coal sthrike, who to marry, how to get on with ye’er wife whin ye’re married, what to feed th’ babies, what doctor to call whin ye’ve fed thim as directed,—all iv that ye’ll find in th’ pa-apers.

“They used to say a man’s life was a closed book. So it is but it’s an open newspaper. Th’ eye iv th’ press is on ye befure ye begin to take notice. Th’ iditor obsarves th’ stork hoverin’ over th’ roof iv 2978½ B Ar-rchey Road an’ th’ article he writes about it has a wink in it. ‘Son an’ heir arrives f’r th’ Hon’rable Malachi Hinnissy,’ says th’ pa-aper befure ye’ve finished th’ dhrink with th’ doctor. An’ afther that th’ histhry iv th’ offspring’s life is found in th’ press:

“‘It is undhershtud that there is much excitement in th’ Hinnissy fam’ly over namin’ th’ lates’ sign. Misther Hinnissy wishes it called Pathrick McGlue afther an uncle iv his, an’ Mrs. Hinnissy is in favor iv namin’ it Alfonsonita afther a Pullman car she seen wan day. Th’ Avenin Fluff offers a prize iv thirty dollars f’r th’ bes’ name f’r this projeny. Maiden ladies will limit their letters to three hundherd wurruds.’

“‘Above is a snap shot iv young Alfonsonita McGlue Hinnissy, taken on his sicond birthday with his nurse, Miss Angybel Blim, th’ well-known specyal nurse iv th’ Avenin’ Fluff. At th’ time th’ phottygraft was taken, th’ infant was about to bite Miss Blim which accounts f’r th’ agynized exprission on that gifted writer’s face. Th’ Avenin Fluff offers a prize iv four dollars to th’ best answer to th’ question: “What does th’ baby think iv Miss Blim?”‘

“‘Young Alf Hinnissy was siven years ol’ yisterdah. A rayporther iv th’ Fluff sought him out an’ indeavored to intherview him on th’ Nicaragooan Canal, th’ Roomanyan Jews, th’ tahriff an’ th’ thrusts. Th’ comin’ statesman rayfused to be dhrawn on these questions, his answer bein’ a ready, “Go chase ye’ersilf, ye big stiff!” Afther a daylightful convarsation th’ rayporther left, bein’ followed to th’ gate be his janial young host who hit him smartly in th’ back with a brick. He is a chip iv th’ ol’ block.’

“‘Groton, Conn., April 8. Ye’er rayporther was privileged to see th’ oldest son iv th’ Hon’rable Malachi Hinnissy started at this siminary f’r th’ idjacation iv young Englishmen bor-rn in America. Th’ heir iv th’ Hinnissys was enthered at th’ exclusive school thirty years befure he was bor-rn. Owin’ to th’ uncertainty iv his ancesthors he was also enthered at Vassar. Th’ young fellow took a lively intherest in th’ school. Th’ above phottygraft riprisints him mathriculatin’. Th’ figures at th’ foot ar-re Misther an’ Mrs. Hinnissy. Those at th’ head ar-re Profissor Peabody Plantagenet, prisident iv th’ instichoochion an’ Officer Michael H. Rafferty. Young Hinnissy will remain here till he has a good cukkin’ idjacation.’

“‘Exthry Red Speshul Midnight Edition. Mumps! Mumps! Mumps! Th’ heir iv th’ Hinnissy’s sthricken with th’ turr’ble scoorge. Panic on th’ stock exchange. Bereaved father starts f’r th’ plague spot to see his afflicted son. Phottygrafts iv Young Hinnissy at wan, two, three, eight an’ tin. Phottygrafts iv th’ house where his father was born, his mother, his aunt, his uncle, Profissor Plantagenet, Groton School, th’ gov’nor iv Connecticut, Chansy Depoo, statue iv Liberty, Thomas Jefferson, Niagara Falls be moonlight. Diagram iv jaw an’ head showin’ th’ prob’ble coorse iv the Mumpococeus. Intherviews with J. Pierpont Morgan, Terry McGovern, Mary MeLain, Jawn Mitchell, Lyman J. Gage, th’ Prince iv Wales, Sinitor Bivridge, th’ Earl iv Roslyn, an’ Chief Divry on Mumps. We offer a prize iv thirty million dollars in advertisin’ space f’r a cure f’r th’ mumps that will save th’ nation’s pride. Later, it’s croup.’

“An’ so it goes. We march through life an’ behind us marches th’ phottygrafter an’ th’ rayporther. There are no such things as private citizens. No matther how private a man may be, no matther how secretly he steals, some day his pitcher will be in th’ pa-aper along with Mark Hanna, Stamboul 2:01½, Fitzsimmons’ fightin’ face, an’ Douglas, Douglas, Tin dollar shoe. He can’t get away fr’m it. An’ I’ll say this f’r him, he don’t want to. He wants to see what bad th’ neighbors are doin’ an’ he wants thim to see what good he’s doin’. He gets fifty per cint iv his wish; niver more. A man keeps his front window shade up so th’ pa-apers can come along an’ make a pitcher iv him settin’ in his iligant furnished parlor readin’ th’ life iv Dwight L. Moody to his fam’ly. An’ th’ lad with th’ phottygraft happens along at th’ moment whin he is batin’ his wife. If we wasn’t so anxious to see our names among those prisint at th’ ball, we wudden’t get into th’ pa-apers so often as among those that ought to be prisint in th’ dock. A man takes his phottygraft to th’ iditor an’ says he: ‘Me attintion has been called to th’ fact that ye’d like to print this mug iv a prom’nent philanthropist;’ an’ th’ iditor don’t use it till he’s robbed a bank. Ivrybody is inthrested in what ivrybody else is doin’ that’s wrong. That’s what makes th’ newspapers. An’ as this is a dimmycratic counthry where ivrybody was bor-rn akel to ivrybody else, aven if they soon outgrow it, an’ where wan man’s as good as another an’ as bad, all iv us has a good chanst to have his name get in at laste wanst a year.

“Some goes in at Mrs. Rasther’s dinner an’ some as victims iv a throlley car, but ivrybody lands at last. They’ll get ye afther awhile, Hinnissy. They’ll print ye’er pitcher. But on’y wanst. A newspaper is to intertain, not to teach a moral lesson.”

“D’ye think people likes th’ newspapers iv th’ prisint time?” asked Mr. Hennessy.

“D’ye think they’re printed f’r fun?” said Mr. Dooley.

the last biggest lie

What are the five biggest lies?
    “The check is in the mail.”
    “I won’t come in your mouth.”
    “Some of my best friends are Jewish.”
    “Black is beautiful.”
    “I’m from your government, and I’m here to help you.”

— Blanche Knott (Ashton Applewhite), Truly Tasteless Jokes, 1983, p. 104

“I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

— William F. Buckley Jr., Yale alumnus, Rumbles Left and Right: A Book about Troublesome People and Ideas, 1963, p. 134