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.