A Necessary Third Open Letter to Melissa Harris-Perry


Dear Melissa,

I did not have access to MSNBC while in Asia over the past week. But the mother of a former student of mine, a very progressive woman, was thoughtful enough to pass on to me a clip of your “Open Letter” to Edward Snowden. It was only a partial clip and I’ve augmented it with text found online.

I think I’ve accessed the whole thing, reprinted below with (necessary) comments.

My first thought was that your Open Letter might be an indirect response to my two open letters to you, in which (in —what I thought was—principled, measured language), I took you to task for trashing a young man who did what he thought was right—exposing the degree of government surveillance of the people (of this country, and the world), taking actions that despite all your efforts and those of your media colleagues, most people in the U.S. see as appropriate whistle-blowing.

But I would not want to indulge in narcissism. I am an insignificant, marginal figure in academia who occasionally writes for CounterPunch. I will assume you have not read my two letters and that they have in no way influenced your thinking.

But anyway, just at the off-chance that during your busy schedule you’re paying attention…

As you know, the Obama administration is deeply, deeply embarrassed by the Snowden revelations. It is indeed frightened by them, and by what is to come. Just today Glenn Greenwald—the Guardian journalist whom you ought to admire, because he is what you should and maybe could be (that is, a careful analyst of reality)—told an Argentine newspaper, “Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had. The U.S. government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare.”

The information is not just in his laptops but has been distributed, apparently, insuring that the truth will eventually out.

The nightmare is in mid-course as we speak. The Chinese, castigated by the U.S. for cyber-spying on the U.S., have learned that they themselves have been subject to infinitely greater violations. The Russians have learned that President Medvedev’s conversations were monitored. Germany’s Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany under Stasi rule, is outraged at the degree of U.S. spying on European allies. Normal people in this country are shocked that service providers Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple have been forced to share their metadata with the U.S. government.

Has it not occurred to you that maybe this is all wrong? Why is it your instinct to rally to the side of the spy, and to attack the whistle-blower? Think about that, please.

Do you think that just because Obama is, like yourself, half-African-American a new age has descended upon us, in which the U.S. government is suddenly good no matter what it does? No matter how much it continues the old badness, and in fact relentlessly builds upon it?

Let us look at what you said in your Open Letter to honest Edward Snowden.

“It’s me, Melissa. I hear you’re looking for a country. Well, wouldn’t you know, I have an idea for you! How about…this one? I know you’re not super pleased with the government these days–and I feel you. “

Hmm….. Do you really feel for him, Melissa? It seems to me that what you feel for him is anger, and indignation that he has so embarrassed the president by exposing him as a Dick Cheney clone.

And why the flippant tone? This is serious stuff, Melissa. Not a time for levity, much as I like your smile and excellent dental work.

And isn’t it kind of narcissistic of  you to begin with “It’s me, Melissa”? Do you really suppose that in his Moscow exile (imposed by Obama, who’s willing to down planes to prevent his movement) Snowden is following your rich contributions to his story? Pleeeeease, Melissa.

“The information you revealed about surveillance raises serious issues about the behaviors of our leaders and how they justify and hide those practices from the public.”

Ok. That much is good. You have to say that, acknowledging “serious issues,” don’t you? Because the alternative would be to say you don’t care about “the behaviors of our leaders” (pre-eminently Obama) and the practices he hides. You have a liberal-progressive reputation to uphold, and somewhere in your head resides a small conscience uncomfortable with what you learned.

But —dear Melissa—why haven’t you addressed any of those “serious issues”? Why have you devoted 99% of your energies to attacking the man raising those serious issues? Why are you so—as we say—“kiss-ass”? I just have to ask.

“But, here is the deal: it’s time to come home and face the consequences of the actions for which you are so proud.”

Who, Ms. Pomposity,  are you to tell him what “the deal” is, or what “consequences” he should face? Surely you have enough empathetic ability to—just as a thought experiment—put yourself in his place. He knows enough about justice in the land of Trayvon Martin to want to avoid the U.S. court process. He probably doesn’t crave life imprisonment. It’s all well and good for you to invoke models of civil disobedience such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but here we’re talking certain doom. And you from your pulpit of privilege are telling him to just accept that doom. Good job Prof. Harris-Perry.

Ask your poli sci students if they agree with you on this shit. (They won’t.)

Maybe your intentions were completely altruistic–it’s not that you wanted attention, but that you wanted us, the public, to know just how much information our government has about us. That is something worth talking about.”

Well then, Melissa, why don’t you talk about it? Why do you avoid it? What’s the real story here? Criminal government misconduct, the vitiation of the Fourth Amendment, or one man’s whistle-blowing?

And why, having conceded that the man’s intentions might be “completely altruistic” do you persistently without any evidence argue otherwise? Have you studied journalism at any point in your life?

“But by engaging in this Tom Hanks-worthy, border-jumping drama through some of the world’s most totalitarian states, you’re making yourself the story.”

Excuse me, Melissa, but Hong Kong is not “one of the world’s most totalitarian societies.” (Do you travel much? Have you been there?) I don’t like the term “totalitarian” because it is so imprecise, but I’d say it applies to a host of U.S.-backed regimes—including some recently established through U.S. military force—more than to Hong Kong or Russia.

And how does a flight to Hong Kong and an interview with Glenn Greenwald, a respected constitutional and civil rights lawyer, author of three books about government violation of privacy rights, constitute “drama”? Or a subsequent civilian flight to Moscow in this post-Cold War era?

“We could be talking about whether accessing and monitoring citizen information and communications is constitutional, or whether we should continue to allow a secret court to authorize secret warrants using secret legal opinions.

But we’re not. We’re talking about you!”

Well, Melissa, is the fact that you’re dwelling on him his fault? I personally find him quite self-effacing. And the volume of verbiage he’s devoted to himself since June 5 pales in comparison to the verbiage in your tirades against him.

“And flight paths between Moscow and Venezuela, and how much of a jerk Glenn Greenwald is.”

Excuse me. Who precisely is talking about Greenwald being a “jerk”? I certainly don’t think he is.  Several real jerks have called for him to be tried for treason. Are you on their side? If so, why?

I understand that fascism appeals to some people for deep-seated psychological reasons, but…you?

“We could at least be talking about whether the Obama administration is right that your leak jeopardized national security. But we’re not talking about that, Ed.

We’re talking about you. I can imagine you’d say, well then stop! Just talk about something else. But here’s the problem, even if your initial leak didn’t compromise national security, your new cloak and dagger game is having real and tangible geopolitical consequences. So, well, we have to talk about…you.”

Again: the fact that you, and others in the media, are talking about Snowden rather than his “leaks” is not his fault. Indeed he protested in one of his (few) communications since the Hong Kong interview that people were talking about his youth and his girlfriend rather than the issues of surveillance he put before the public.

As for “geopolitical consequences”….why must you side with the Obama administration in its relations with the world? Do you think everyone in this country should identify with the State Department calls “national interest”? Have you ever participated in an antiwar demonstration? Sometimes I positively welcome setbacks to the State Department’s geopolitical goals. (Should I not have that right? Or should I, like you, automatically embrace those goals without even thinking about them?)

“We’re talking about how maybe now you’re compromising national security by jumping from country to country, causing international incidents and straining U.S. relationships with Russia and China.”

From country to country? There have been precisely two countries. He was urged to leave Chinese Hong Kong and did, and has been immobile in Sheremetyevo International Airport. Why are you exaggerating?

And what do you mean by “national security”? Anyone using that intimidating term should define what it means, precisely. My security is not, in my mind, abetted by NSC surveillance of the population of Germany.

“Causing international incidents?” How many? Of what nature? The man has taken two flights, dealt with two reactions in two countries, trying to be low-key. You make it sound like he’s setting off bombs.

“Relations with Russia and China, really important relationships, and we’re talking about how you praised countries like Russia and Venezuela for standing against human rights violations and refusing to compromise their principles. Seriously, Ed, where do you even come up with that? What are you thinking?”

Umm…I imagine he’s thinking it’s a good thing that Russia hasn’t handed him over to what you call U.S. “justice” both because he has violated no Russian law and because public opinion in Russia and globally is overwhelmingly on his side. And he’s appreciating the fact that Venezuela has expressed willingness to grant him asylum with fewer procedural steps than required by Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. Seriously, Melissa. Who’s writing your stuff?

Your emotional rhetoric strikes me as an effort to really, really show how loyal you are to the system, to Obama, to Comcast. Is this a misinterpretation?

“Now, I understand you don’t want to come back. I mean, to do so would be giving up your freedom. That’s [inaudible] trial and likely for several months or years or after. I get it! It’s prisons in the U.S. who commit actual human rights violations. We just talked about it. More than 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement, some for years, some indefinitely, despite the fact that solitary is cruel and psychologically damaging.  I know.”

Okay, fine. You’ve acknowledged a significant piece of the problem. You’ve shown you have some recognition of the horrors of the U.S. gulag. But didn’t you just answer your own question?

Just how are you expecting to be persuasive here? Don’t you hear the contradictions swirling around in your head? Can you sleep with them there jangling, night after night?

“Those aren’t the human rights violations though, Ed, that you were complaining about.” 

Oh? I myself find a certain  continuity between placing people in inhuman prison conditions and raping their identities through metadata surveillance. It’s all bad. But what is your point, Melissa? That because Snowden is exposing (“complaining about”) government surveillance rather than prison conditions he should willingly submit himself to the U.S. prison system?

You’re being weird, you know. You’re not making sense.

“But you might have nothing to worry about anyway.”

Might not? Like that’s good enough? Bolivia’s President Evo Morales “might not” have had anything to worry about making the normal flight from Moscow to La Paz. But something really unusual happened.

“Because unlike most of the people in solitary confinement, including Bradley Manning on trial for giving data to Wikileaks, you’ve cultivated for yourself a level of celebrity and that celebrity itself may just act as the protection, a kind of—another kind of—cloak if you ever find yourself in a U.S. prison. You have made quite a spectacle of yourself, and the Obama administration will be very careful about how it treats you, unlike how states treat all those other prisoners. What’s goin’ on man? Then we can talk about something else.

Sincerely, Melissa.”

Please, Melissa! How in Snowden’s very occasional, restrained statements has this man you’ve decided to address in the familiar diminutive (“Ed”) cultivated “celebrity” for himself?

Do you not understand that, in the first few days following his revelations, the spin-doctors incensed at his whistle-blowing, searching around in their fevered minds, opted to portray this very low-key guy as an ego-driven publicity seeker?

I mean, you seem to be asking, by default: why else would a person in a position to know about what you yourself call “information…about surveillance [that] raises serious issues about the behaviors of our leaders and how they justify and hide those practices from the public” reveal that information, other than to draw attention to himself?

Is there no such thing as old-fashioned morality? And selfless attention to what’s right? And in this case, doing the right thing at colossal personal cost?

You’re not making sense, Melissa. All you’re doing is swearing a loyalty oath to people who do not deserve your loyalty. You’re known for fighting against harmful stereotypes of black women that make it difficult for them to assert their political rights. (Bravo.) But you are using your own rights and privileged access to the camera to promote the character assassination of a young man whose sole crime has been to offend “your” president—the one who has now eight times invoked the World War One-era “espionage” act to punish whistle-blowers.

You’re the bully here. Snowden’s not picking on you; you’re picking on him, and apparently relishing it. Feels so good, doesn’t it, standing up for the system like that, being so safe?

What’s goin’ on, woman?

Shame on you, making a spectacle of yourself like this.

Wake up and re-think, Melissa.

With best wishes,


GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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