Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Absolutists ignore context

The question as to whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a villain for his massive leak of the National Security Agency’s terrorist hunting programs is interesting in itself.  But, to me, the leaks illuminate a different point – that those on the ideological edges see the world in absolute terms without reference to context. 

To 4th Amendment absolutists, the government’s use of powerful computer programs to track communications of Americans is a de facto violation of the Constitution.  In addition, some on the far right wing see Obama as a tyrant, just as some on the far left saw Bush as a tyrant.  Both presidents authorized powerful computers to find and stop terrorists.  To the 4th amendment absolutists, it’s a straight up violation of the Constitution.  To the right wingers it’s a straight up imposition of tyranny.

But what about the context? 

The context is that the government needs to find and stop terrorist attacks on America.  These powerful computer methods help do that.  The problem is that finding the terrorists is an exercise in finding needles in very large haystacks, and these powerful computer methods find the terrorists.  There is an attempt by the government to use big data mining to locate suspects and then go to the FISA courts to get authorization to take it to the next step and actually eavesdrop and investigate individuals.  In overarching theory, this seems legitimate to me.  Have there been abuses along the way? I suppose so, but perfection is unattainable, it seems to me.  Should the government give this approach a lot of oversight? Sure. Carry on.  But I don’t condemn the program as a violation of the 4th amendment, nor do I see it as tyrannical oppression of political opposition.

Context helps explain a lot about the IRS scandals as well.  The Supreme Court decided, rather foolishly it seems to me, that it was possible for very political organizations to avoid taxes and avoid revealing donors as long as they met certain criteria.  Frankly, meeting these criteria is most likely just a shuck and jive.  So, the IRS decided to dig in and find out more.  This all happened during a time frame (context) where there is an explosion of Tea Party political organizations applying to get relief.  Had this happened in the ‘60s there would have been an explosion of “progressive” and “peoples’ something or others” or other identifiers of left wing political organizations applying for exemption.  To see this as the left wing Obama administration suppressing the right wing Tea Party ignores the context, or so it seems to me.  Paranoia is its own context, unfortunately, and the political extremes seem to live in contexts of paranoia – brings in lots of donations of time and money.

As to Snowden, he is clearly The Hero in his own mind, and I’m sure he expects to go down in history as a noble person.  But, I think he made the fundamental mistake that absolutists make – he ignored the context of his actions. 

By exposing terrorist hunting methods, he told the terrorists what to cease doing, and, as I understand it, the terrorists are modifying their behavior accordingly.  I don’t think I want to thank Mr. Snowden for helping the terrorists avoid detection.

By fleeing to Hong Kong and then Russia, he ended up giving up pretty much all that he knows and has access to to the Chinese and to the Russians.  Mark Theissen, conservative Washington Post editorialist, points out that he had four laptops stuffed with highly classified secrets with him, and it is obvious that both the Chinese and the Russians have captured all of that info, either having been given it by Snowden, or by taking the computers from Snowden, or by hacking into his computers against his will.  This could be amazingly damaging to the government and the people of the United States.

Absolutists can only see their own obsessions, and cannot see the contexts. 

Is killing wrong?  To the absolutist Quakers it always is, but in the context of self-defense surely it is not.  Is failure to protect an embassy wrong?  Sure, but in the context of limited military resources or human mistakes perhaps it is at least understandable.  Is going after a reporter as a co-conspirator to publish leaks wrong?  Sure, but in the context of trying to keep covert activities covert it is again somewhat understandable.  Is getting weapons into the hands of drug cartels in Mexico wrong?  Sure, but the context is an effort to track them and fight the drug wars, and that is at least understandable.  Is killing fetuses wrong?  In the context of a woman having power and control over her own reproductive life, I think it is not.  Is going to war in Iraq based on false information wrong?  Sure, but I believe the context was one of being mistaken rather than lying. Was abandoning habeus corpus by Lincoln during the Civil War wrong?  Not in the context of the U.S. Civil War where this was a necessary temporary need to protect democracy itself.

I am trying to look at the world in other than absolutist terms.  I am trying to look to the larger contexts to better understand what people are doing.  But, I am also trying very hard to disregard the paranoid contexts that the extremes on both the right and the left live in.  That is a path to a life of perpetual righteousness and dismay.

As for Snowden, is he a hero or a villain?  I think he is a fool - fooled by his own sense of grandiosity and nobility into handing over extremely vital and secret information to terrorists dedicated to killing Americans and Westerners, and to China, and to Russia.  There is nothing noble about the outcome of his self-identified heroic acts. 

I think Snowden’s heroism is the heroism of an adolescent mind which can only see the world in black or white absolutist terms.  But doesn’t that kind of explain today’s politics in general?  Glenn Beck, please meet Glenn Greenwald at the adolescent absolutist café and share drinks of paranoid accusation and righteousness.  Unfortunately, they have turned America into that adolescent absolutist café.  I’m kind of sick of it.