From Hagiography to Obloquy

There’s a broad­er con­text to this, one I feel too fatigued to delve into at the moment, but I want to take note of this New York Review of Books essay on Edward Snow­den that just might be the first piece of skep­ti­cal jour­nal­ism about him from a pres­tige New York out­let in near­ly five years.

I make note of this not because it appears to be part of a bare­ly year-old genre of crit­i­cism about the fig­ures cen­tral to a peri­od of anti-gov­ern­ment intel­li­gence leaks, from jour­nal­ists final­ly going #metoo about the years of alle­ga­tions of sex­u­al abuse against Wik­ileaks insid­er Jacob Appel­baum, to peo­ple final­ly real­iz­ing Julian Assange is a nar­cis­sis­tic prick who cares noth­ing for pro­gres­sive val­ues, to the slow real­iza­tion that Glenn Green­wald is an out-of-touch elit­ist who cozies up to white suprema­cists while draw­ing a $500,000 salary to write a week­ly col­umn.

Rather, this is worth tak­ing note of because of how it eras­es the crit­i­cal push-back many of us led against Snow­den’s leaks at time — and, on a per­son­al lev­el, also eras­es the extreme per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al dam­age many of those lead­ing fig­ures of the leaks move­ment enabled and encour­aged in the process. I’ve writ­ten before about how it isn’t com­fort­ing at all to see peo­ple, years after I’d faced pro­fes­sion­al sanc­tion  for point­ing out a cor­rect thing, final­ly acknowl­edge and dis­cuss that cor­rect thing as if it had been obvi­ous all along. By now, it almost feels like a relief to know that all the tor­ment heaped upon me for say­ing unpop­u­lar things at the time was mean­ing­ful because I was right. But it does­n’t feel right. Hell, I’m not sure if I should even pub­lish this because that expe­ri­ence made me so para­noid about any­thing I post to the Inter­net under my own name that the idea fills me with anx­i­ety.

It can be extreme­ly demor­al­iz­ing to find peo­ple who were wrong nev­er­the­less reward­ed because they fluffed up the right gate­keep­ing per­son­al­i­ties, while peo­ple who were right per­ma­nent­ly exclud­ed from any sort of pro­fes­sion­al advance­ment because the gate­keep­ing per­son­al­i­ties found it incon­ve­nient at the time. But the way this new genre of “recon­sid­er­ing” the events of 2013 also eras­es mul­ti­ple cam­paigns of vicious libel, in some cas­es of blood libel, of homo­pho­bia, of attacks on my per­son­al data and my bank account, to the point where fed­er­al law enforce­ment was looped in, is heap­ing injury atop insult.

Just one month after Snow­den’s first doc­u­ment leaked to the pub­lic, I wrote a long essay for Medi­um about how there was a mass awak­en­ing of geeks, and how this rep­re­sent­ed a new nexus of polit­i­cal activism.

The rise of both orga­ni­za­tions, Wik­iLeaks and Anony­mous, has sparked some­thing of a Geek Awak­en­ing. Ini­tial­ly inter­est­ing fringe groups known more for their atti­tudes than for mean­ing­ful­ly shift­ing polit­i­cal dis­course, both now sig­ni­fy an Inter­net cul­tur­al move­ment that is chal­leng­ing tra­di­tion­al notions of gov­er­nance…

Edward Snow­den, Anony­mous, Wik­iLeaks, and [Chelsea] Man­ning — all emerg­ing around the same time and espous­ing sim­i­lar ideals of rad­i­cal anti-gov­ern­ment trans­paren­cy — rep­re­sent some­thing remark­able: a renais­sance of sorts in geek cul­ture, with hack­er ethics shift­ing into main­stream pol­i­tics and tar­get­ed leaks defend­ed not as mere patri­o­tism but as vital polit­i­cal expres­sion. Edward Snow­den is not some aber­ra­tion in the nation­al secu­ri­ty estab­lish­ment. He is a har­bin­ger.

The piece in the NYRB has this to say about the same peri­od of time:

Regard­less of his per­son­al inten­tions, though, the Snow­den phe­nom­e­non was far larg­er than the man him­self, larg­er even than the doc­u­ments he leaked. In ret­ro­spect, it showed us the first glim­mer­ings of an emerg­ing ide­o­log­i­cal realignment—a con­ver­gence, not for the first time, of the far left and the far right, and of lib­er­tar­i­an­ism with author­i­tar­i­an­ism. It was also a pow­er­ful inter­ven­tion in infor­ma­tion wars we didn’t yet know we were engaged in, but which we now need to under­stand.

To put it gen­tly: there is not­ing ret­ro­spec­tive about it. This was obvi­ous at the time, and pre­tend­ing it was not is not pre­cious nor is it inno­cent. It is a deflec­tion from blame in the uncrit­i­cal fawn­ing that Snow­den inspired amongst the New York media elite (The New York­er’s John Cas­sidy flat out say­ing jour­nal­ists are either with Snow­den or against him is the clear­est exam­ple). This uncrit­i­cal fawn­ing — and the jour­nal­is­tic mis­steps that result­ed — are acknowl­edged now, years after the fact, after the dam­age has been done. But at the time? Those of us who point­ed out the glar­ing fac­tu­al incon­sis­ten­cies and mis­lead­ing fram­ing in the reportage faced a bar­rage of hate every­where we turned.

I have writ­ten about this in fits and starts, but it bears repeat­ing: tar­get­ed bul­ly­ing on social media is a form of cen­sor­ship. I not­ed this when Glenn Green­wald sim­ply made shit up about me in order to mobi­lize his fan club to harass me into silence (it did­n’t work). I not­ed it when an abu­sive writer again made shit up about me when we dis­agreed over the body­count from a labor protest bru­tal­ly sup­pressed in West­ern Kaza­khstan (in that case, he wrote a 10,000 word blog­post that dug up a delet­ed live jour­nal from my under­grad­u­ate years to accuse me of being a clos­et­ed school shoot­er). And a cou­ple of years lat­er, when gov­ern­ment lawyer Matt Bru­enig was let go from a think tank for misog­y­nis­ti­cal­ly attack­ing women of col­or over dis­agree­ments about labor pol­i­cy, his wife, Wash­ing­ton Post reli­gion colum­nist Eliz­a­beth Bru­enig, false­ly accused me of “ruin­ing her life” because I would not take her phone call while her every tweet filled up my own Twit­ter feed with new instances of graph­ic homo­pho­bia, threats of vio­lence, and dox­ing attempts against me.

While right wing hate-rage on social media gets a lot of atten­tion, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing that these three inci­dents came from the left, and they hap­pened well before the rise of Don­ald Trump and his army of rage-bots on Twit­ter. But that phe­nom­e­non is a dis­cus­sion for anoth­er time.

Back to this NYRB essay: what’s fas­ci­nat­ing isn’t what it says, for it says noth­ing new on the issue. The anti-pol­i­tics Snow­den and Assange preach, steeped in utopi­an tech­no-lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, has been a stud­ied phe­nom­e­non for decades, one I wrote about for Talk­ing Points Memo in 2013. (The prob­a­ble co-opt­ing of Wik­ileaks by the Russ­ian secu­ri­ty ser­vices is anoth­er sto­ry I broke in 2013 that every­one seems to acknowl­edge but for which I get no cred­it.) And their mobi­liza­tion into an anti-estab­lish­ment move­ment with no guid­ing prin­ci­ples beyond being against the man, man, is sim­i­lar­ly noth­ing new — what con­struc­tive val­ues does some­one like Glenn Green­wald or Lau­ra Poitras actu­al­ly talk about? Their only input to the dis­course is crit­i­cism about how bad it is that air­ports screen pas­sen­gers and a spy agency engages in spy­ing. There is noth­ing wrong with that, per se, but after so many years, it isn’t clever to do so. It’s just whin­ing.

It is easy to say that flare ups on social media don’t mean any­thing, but that’s false. The fall out from these inci­dents fol­low you around on search engines, which affects your rep­u­ta­tion, which affects your capac­i­ty to find work. After these inci­dents, when I still lived in Wash­ing­ton, DC and was seek­ing to work in the pol­i­cy com­mu­ni­ty, friend gen­tly told me that I was unhirable — essen­tial­ly black­list­ed because years before an angry mob was shriek­ing lies at the behest of a per­son drunk with their own pow­er.

I wor­ry this comes off as pout­ing. But any pos­si­ble career I could have ever had in either jour­nal­ism or pun­dit­ry or pol­i­cy­mak­ing was killed in that year, in 2013, when all this was hap­pen­ing. It was killed by the peo­ple who are only now, in 2018, hav­ing their lega­cies “recon­sid­ered” in light of the enor­mous dam­age they foist­ed upon us, for which they have been rich­ly remu­ner­at­ed. And I’m not look­ing to get it back — my expe­ri­ence with this excom­mu­ni­ca­tion was har­row­ing, to say the least, and watch­ing scions of the craft, who talk a big game about their love of prin­ci­ple and truth and fact, but who threw that out the win­dow because leak­ers are sexy and they want­ed to get a piece of the biggest sto­ry in years, has more or less per­ma­nent­ly turned me off from the indus­try. None of them cared who got tram­pled in the scram­ble for clicks on the leaks; they and their friends were in lock­step push­ing the agen­da.

Move­ment trans­paren­cy is, in what half-formed way it can be called a belief sys­tem, utter­ly rot­ten to its core. It’s great that the same tiny cir­cle of New York-based edi­tors and their friends who brought it to such a pow­er­ful role in our soci­ety are final­ly start­ing to grap­ple with that rot­ten­ness. But that does­n’t repair any of the dam­age they did, or the way their behav­ior led to a cul­ture of self-cen­sor­ship and bul­ly­ing on forums like Twit­ter. Why would they care? None of their friends got hurt.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.