September 2013 | Status: Third Draft
In “The Solitary Leaker”, David Brooks criticizes Edward Snowden for undermining the fundamental structure of our society. Huh, that sounds like a pretty serious crime.
For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.
In “The Banality of Systemic Evil”, Peter Ludlow analyzes the kind of hyper-conservative mentality that Brooks’s accusation exemplifies:
[Brooks’s] complaint is eerily parallel to one from a case discussed in “Moral Mazes,” where… the complaint against the accountant by the other managers of his company was that “by insisting on his own moral purity … he eroded the fundamental trust and understanding that makes cooperative managerial work possible.”
Well, if you’ve been reading my blog, you know where I stand on these issues. If moral purity undermines your favorite tradition, fuck that immoral tradition.
Taking Nothing for Granted
Welcome to the hyper-individualistic, hyper-critical, post-communitarian world where nothing is taken for granted: not tradition, nor ideology, nor any existing social institution. Everything is now open to critical scrutiny, and nothing that fails such scrutiny will receive anyone’s respect.
Gone are the days when “institutions”, “common procedures” and “cooperative managerial work”, for example, were universally assumed to be valuable things in themselves. Now they need to prove their own worth, or else. Because if they turn out to have little or no intrinsic moral worth, it becomes much more difficult to blame someone for “eroding” them.
I don’t know whether there really is such a thing as “Generation W” as Ludlow says. But if Snowden and Swartz are its holotypes, then I have rather high hopes for it. Not because I expect a whole lot of whistleblowing in the foreseeable future, nor because I think the current generation is particularly interested in politics (they aren’t), but because they’re probably the first generation to ascribe absolutely no intrinsic moral worth to the “System” in “systemic evil”.
The System, whether it’s a corrupt industry, a corrupt three-letter agency, or your country, has finally lost the romantic halo ascribed to it by traditional assumptions. It has been revealed to be just another arbitrary social convention, with some (in fact, lots of) instrumental value, but zero (and perhaps even negative) intrinsic value.
How the System Lost its Allure
The baby boomers, of course, also had their moment of subversiveness in the form of the civil rights movement. But the U.S.A. in the 60s and 70s was affluent enough to leave them with lifetime jobs, nice suburban homes, and enough money to watch Fox News on their four-foot TVs for the remainder of their retirement. Those perks are now gone, and with it the last traces of the System’s romantic halo. All that is left is a rotting infrastructure with questionable instrumental value at best.
So perhaps for the first time in human history, a large number of people are now mentally prepared to judge the “System” solely on its instrumental value. Instead of asking whether or not their actions will help preserve the System, people can now honestly ask whether certain portions of the System are worth preserving in the first place.
Remember the theoretical physicist in that famous story who, when asked how his research contributes to national defense, replies that his research makes the nation worth defending? Only sometimes, it might not be worth defending. Or perhaps even worth destroying. That’s how the scientific mind works. It’s ruthlessly objective. It doesn’t romanticize.
It is no surprise that the Obama administration has a reputation for prosecuting more whistleblowers than nearly every other administration before it. Previous administrations had no need for massive prosecutions, the population behaved itself. But the population won’t behave anymore. The only psychological bias that kept them at bay has dissolved away, and I suspect that it’s gone for good.
And like a lot of people who have warm fuzzy feelings about Snowden, I think that this quiet but irreversible change in humanity’s sociopolitical lookout will turn out to be a Very Good Thing (tm) in the long term. Another superstition trampled under the relentless feet of reason.
Discussion in this HN thread.