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The Emperor Strikes Back


Governments abhor transparency, and governments lie.  To keep them (comparatively) honest, an engaged and informed citizenry is indispensable.

That requires media that are aggressive and probing, and that are not afraid to speak the truth.  We have precious little of that in the United States today.

Government media policy, bought and paid for by corporate interests, has done the cause of transparency incalculable harm.  The Internet driven decline of print media hasn’t helped either.

Investigative reporting is now on the ropes, along with almost every other facet of genuine journalism.

Feature writing on apolitical subjects fills some of the void.  It keeps our “quality press” from becoming useless. But mind-numbing fluff, long the stock and trade of the Fourth Estate, is the media’s currency of choice.

At the same time, however, more hard information than ever is out there; and it is available around the clock.  For that, ironically, we also have the Internet to thank.

But effective ways to put it together and to spread the word are becoming increasingly rare.

To find them and learn from them requires effort.  Metaphorically, therefore most people nowadays share the plight of the Ancient Mariner: “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”

And to make matters worse by orders of magnitude, we have the Obama Administration’s war on leakers – not their own of course, only the ones who cause them embarrassment.

By subjecting whistle blowers like Bradley Manning to punishments that exceed anything that the words “cruel and unusual” suggest, they do their best to intimidate anyone who might have something useful to reveal.  They strike fear in the press corps as well.  This, more than anything else, is what has chilled investigative journalism almost into non-existence.

Like so many of Obama wars, his war on leakers – and on government transparency generally — is undeclared.  It is also well disguised.  To hear him speak, one might almost imagine that he is on the other side.

In thinking about Obama, it is always timely to remember one of the epigrammatic German War Primer poems Bertolt Brecht wrote as World War II unfolded:

When the leaders speak of peace

The common folk know

That war is coming.

When the leaders curse war

The mobilization order is already written out.

What holds for war holds for media freedom too, but with a certain qualification.  Obama and Company are not against freedom of the press per se; just against the conditions for its possibility.

This is why it is perilous to speculate about what, for example, Obama’s government is doing to strike back at Edward Snowden.  Those who know, won’t talk; and those who talk, don’t have a clue what they are talking about.

The only sure thing is that the Administration is in full-fledged disinformation mode.

It is also plain that Obama and his inner circle, along with the military and national security establishment bigwigs whose offenses to democracy risk exposure, are mad as hell, and determined to get Snowden, no matter what.

Historians will eventually figure out what is going on.  It will be especially interesting to learn what No Drama Obama is doing to lean on friend and foe alike.

A particularly odious example was the closing of French air space to the plane on which Bolivian President Evo Morales was returning home from Moscow – because, maybe, Snowden was onboard.

French “Socialists” are a notoriously dastardly lot, but this is low even for them.

Could it be that the French are now determined to justify the Bush-era name change of “French fries” to “freedom fries?”

Or did Boss Obama make them an offer they couldn’t refuse?  The answer is obvious, but the devil, as it
were, is in the details; and we won’t know much about them any time soon.

This is because what passes for a quality press these days is all but useless, along with public radio and television.  What they are good for is passing on the government’s line.  The cable news networks are even worse.

At least there is a Guardian.  Glenn Greenwald and the people helping him bring Snowden’s revelations to light are heroes, almost as much as Snowden himself.

There is a certain irony in Americans needing to turn to British newspapers for good old-fashioned muckraking; in the Anglophone world, that used to be an American thing.

The post-9/11 world is full of similar ironies.  Remember how demonstrators used to greet police with chants of “Sieg Heil,” and how anything that seemed authoritarian – Arizona’s “papers, please” laws are a recent example – were associated if not with the Third Reich then at least with the Teutonic penchant for Ordnung.

Remember when “the American way” meant freedom from authoritarian nonsense?   Evidently, old stereotypes die hard; they outlive the circumstances that occasioned them.

By now, Germany, in comparison with the United States, not only is, but is also widely perceived to be, a paragon of liberal protections and civil rights, just as surely as The Guardian has taken up the kind of reporting for which The Washington Post and The New York Times used to congratulate themselves – and incongruously sometimes still do.

But The Guardian can only do so much, and without the kind of homegrown media that is essential for democratic governance, it can be hard to figure out what is really going on.

But we can discern general patterns.  The Obama Administration’s anti-Snowden crusade reveals several.

  • *

Because governments cultivate secrecy, they have always abhorred (unauthorized) leakers, and they have always gone after them to the degree that political circumstances allow.  The Obama Administration is the most recent in a long line.

There is a difference however: Obama has ratcheted up the level of repression – enough to make a mockery of formerly sacrosanct Constitutional constraints on government intrusions into individuals’ lives and behaviors, including First Amendment protections for freedom of the press and Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable” searches and seizures.

Surely, Obama knows what he is doing.  An intelligent man who taught Constitutional law in another life could hardly fail to have noticed how over the top his persecution of whistle-blowers is.

Over the top, but not out of the blue.  American governments have been guarding secrets zealously – and sometimes lawlessly – for as long as they have had secrets to guard.

In times of war, they at least had a plausible rationale: “lose lips sink ships” – a tight rein  on information that the enemy might exploit is a military necessity.

To the extent that they believe their own propaganda, it is therefore understandable that the Obama Administration would fall into the “loose lips” line.

Al Qaeda may hardly compare with the Axis powers or the late Soviet Union, and the so-called War on Terror may have more to do with projecting imperial power than traditional warfare.  But no matter: the steward of the empire must be ever vigilant.

Moreover, Obama has a public image to maintain – for running a tight ship.  And he has a legacy to protect.  It is not a pretty one, but he has made it his own.

He got into it late, and his contribution may never quite measure up to George Bush’s or Dick Cheney’s.  But Obama has left his mark on our post-9/11 perpetual war regime; and, before events get out of control and the empire splinters apart, he wants to make sure that the world will not forget.

Too bad for him, therefore, that the loose lips line rings hollow.  For reasons that hardly need repeating here, the most egregious examples of Obama-style repression have nothing to do with anything that might lead to sinking ships.

There is no plausible construal of “espionage” according to which Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden or, before them, whistle-blowers like Thomas Drake are spies; quite the contrary, like Julian Assange and other Obama targets, their goal is and always has been only to inform “we, the people.”

Despite an avalanche of government lies, and despite the corporate media’s efforts to shape public opinion to accord with the government’s designs, there is no way to disguise the fact that what the Obama Administration is doing vastly exceeds the bounds of reasons of state.

There is no way to justify its machinations.  And, at this point, with the public kept so much in the dark, there is not even any way to make sense of it, beyond what should be obvious to students of pop psychology.

Readers of, say, Parade Magazine will see right away that Obama and Co. are insecure; that would account for their hyper-secretiveness.  It would even go part way towards explaining their hostility towards those who embarrass them by showing them disrespect or, worse, by revealing their foul deeds to the world.

They take that as an affront, and they take it personally.

Affront the emperor, and feel his wrath.  Obama, more than other Presidents before him, is like a parent who is outraged when his children act out.  He lacks the wisdom to wait them out, and his anger overwhelms him.  His instinct is to kick them out the door.

The difference is that with whistleblowers, there is no analogue to the parent-child bond, and therefore no reason to expect an eventual reconciliation.

In his interview with Glenn Greenwald, Snowden was eloquent in describing how powerless whistle blowers are when offended superpowers set out to do them in.  He was right.

At first, it looked like he might nevertheless outwit the world’s most powerful security services.  That could still happen; it is hard to say because the government and the media make finding out what is going on nearly impossible.

Not unrelatedly, they are also doing their best to obscure some longstanding features of American foreign policy that cohere seamlessly with Obama’s insecurities.

In his dealings with domestic whistle-blowers, Obama is off the charts.  But when it comes to dealing with the empire’s wayward dependents, acting like a foolish, offended parent is the norm.

A case in point: before exiles from revolutionary Cuba became a force to be reconciled with in southern Florida and, from there, in national politics, Eisenhower and Kennedy targeted that former semi-dependency of the American imperium and the American gangster class.

Cuba’s crime, at first, was not Communism; that happened later, partly in reaction to American hostility.  It was the island’s rebelliousness that drew the empire’s wrath.  How dare they!

Wiser and more mature politicians, serving the same class interests, would have indulged the rebels, and even respected their rebelliousness.  They would have realized that, in time, the old dependencies could probably be restored in ways that would redound to the empire’s advantage.  Witness, for example, how Charles de Gaulle dealt with victorious Algerian revolutionaries.

To be sure, imperial powers cannot appear vulnerable; bullies never can.  Successful defiance is therefore always a threat.  But there are wiser – and, not incidentally, also kinder — ways to bring rebels back into the fold than the ones Americans habitually fall into; and they are generally more effective.

However, our political class is dense; changing course for strategic reasons is beyond their ken.  And so our politics vacillates between more and less awful – typically, though not always consistently, along party lines.

This is why the United States treats countries that won’t get with the program the way Obama treats Manning and Snowden; why it does the diplomatic equivalent of kicking them into the street and writing them out of the will.

There is, of course, one conspicuous exception: no matter what it does, American governments let Israel have its way.  This is not because, like a favored child, Israel tugs at our leaders’ heartstrings.   It is because the Israel lobby has Congress and the White House – and the shapers of opinion in the corporate media and the education establishment — in its grip.

Still, it is extraordinary how shamelessly the Netanyahu government plays the President of the United States – and how brazenly it humiliates Obama’s deputies and the President himself.

Perhaps the most extreme example was the announcement in March 2010, in ample time for the mid-term elections, of new settlement construction in the Occupied Territories, just as Vice President Joe Biden, the most abjectly pro-Israel politician in the Administration, arrived to try (for a change) to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Other recent examples are nearly as egregious.

It is telling, though, that, despite trying since 1987, neither the Israeli government nor the Israel lobby have been able to get the United States to free Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard from the American prison system.

Evidently, the feelings of the “intelligence community” trump all.

And when they and an insecure Commander-in-Chief, full of pent up rage, are in league, the combination can be terrifying.

Edward Snowden educated himself about the nature and timbre of transparency’s – and therefore democracy’s — enemies before he decided that he was morally and politically obligated to reveal to the American people, and to the world, what the American government makes of what has long been considered a priceless right, the right of privacy.

And so he blew the whistle on NSA surveillance.

According to many accounts, he was especially cognizant of what the American government is doing to Bradley Manning; and aware of what would be in store for him too, if he too did the right thing.

He went ahead anyway.  For this, the entire world is in Edward Snowden’s debt.

But the hero’s reward, if Obama et. al. get their way, will be terrible to contemplate.

That, for now, is the price one pays for folding back the empire’s veil of secrecy, calling down upon the emperor some of the shame that is his due.

But times change.  The whistle-blower’s consolation is the judgment of history; there is no doubt what that will be.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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