Edward Snowden and America’s Moral Complacency

Today, Edward Snowden is my hero. More importantly, he is my father’s hero. And he speaks for us both, among others.

In 1976, my father was appointed to the Church Committee, which had been convened to review (and rein in) US intelligence gathering practices. Its findings resulted in the establishment of the secret court system by which the National Security Agency has now obtained – with Patriot Act as lever – so much digital information about Americans’ private lives.

During his time on the Committee, my father was both shocked by what he learned and heartened by the substantive measures taken to guard American citizens’ privacy. And my father was not an easy man to surprise or mollify. He was a student of the unfolding Cold War, a fluent speaker of Russian who had lived in St. Petersburg, where his Vietnamese classmates had scrawled anti-American invective on the blackboards. His closest friends from St. Petersburg eventually undertook a sudden, dangerous defection to the United States. My father knew what the world’s most advanced intelligence gathering apparatuses could do, how arbitrary and vindictive their agendas could be, and how deeply enmeshed their domestic incursions could become with Cold War insecurities and paranoia. Then, he took some comfort in technology’s limits. A friend working for the NSA once reassured him that the technology needed to efficiently gather and review a large volume of broadly-targeted phone records simply didn’t exist. My father was relieved. If that kind of broad intercept were possible, it would strike at the heart of our freedom of association, already grown so frail.

My parents were both liberal DC beltway attorneys of the come-to-do-good variety. I was therefore enrolled in a so-called progressive primary school, which was selective and expensive. The teachers there shared my parents’ professed politics, and the school possessed its trivial emblems of indifference toward mainstream education, a carpeted gym chief among them. But these were the children of the wealthy and influential, their ruthlessness preternatural and imperturbable (mine, within its own lights, was no exception). Only the precocious were liked by their peers: athletes, musicians, children with savant-level math ability. The rest were legitimate targets for harassment that often took on subtle and sinister dimensions, in large part due to the above-average intelligence and sense of entitlement that pervaded our environment.

The occasional African-American student – whose parents were often conspicuously less bourgeois than the rest – was treated with detached disdain, the detachment a feature of adult enforcement: the ‘white’ children knew that any overt criticism of their darker-skinned peers would be considered beyond the pale. But our teachers could only place so many fingers in so many dikes: black students often struggled or left the school, and slur-riddled graffiti showed up on the door of our only black teacher’s classroom, directed toward her black Muslim intern.

Though none of us could articulate it then (and none would dare once we were old enough to understand what had happened), we didn’t care about our peers’ race at all. But in our quietly vicious way, influenced, perhaps, by our parents’ constant articulation of meritocracy – that most hollow of liberal adornments – we knew these children were not marked for success, and we knew that their presence among us signaled our school’s finely tuned sense of guilt about that very fact. In our own childlike way, we resented having our parents’ sense of shame and stratification thrust onto us, who were yet innocent, wealthy and bright.

Today, I understand the good intentions and tremendous financial sacrifice that underlay my parents’ decision to enroll me in that school. And I understand the rewards my expensive education has allowed me to reap. But I still begrudge my parents that decision. Partly because they chose the progressive school over an admittedly less liberal bilingual institution, a choice which robbed me of my fragile Spanish fluency: I had been raised by my Ecuadorian nanny, Matildé, whose hundred-hour-per-week presence in my household was another ambivalent feature of the highly-disciplined system of “middle class” self-sacrifice my parents had to comply with in order to – as David Simon might have put it – get paid, make friends, and have a future.

But above all else, my bitterness about my formative educational experience arises from an ever-sharpening memory of my teachers’ watchfulness, and their concomitant, fundamental dishonesty. The adults saw everything. We saw that they saw. And we saw that, in spite of all the humanistic rhetoric they daily hung on us, they never really spoke. We saw, though we lacked the vocabulary or class consciousness to articulate it, that if our teachers wanted to keep their jobs, they had to avoid the eminently punishable good deed of identifying the futility of their task: using progressive education as a do-as-I-say enjoinder against the pervasive competitiveness and atomization that defined the society we were preparing to join, even in its liberal reaches. In this manner, moral complacency was role modeled for us, as it was for so many children in so many milieus – educational and otherwise – across the country. Since, almost all of us have proven ourselves to be excellent pupils.

I have had this conversation with my parents, and often begrudge my father his complaints – though they aren’t really so numerous – about the time and place where we live. I remind him that it was his generation, in spite of the tremendous momentum generated during the ‘60s and all the resulting moral authority they claim, who are responsible for today’s America. Once, in response, my father laid bare the impatience and naiveté underlying the notion that any one group of people – even an entire generation – could be responsible for something so enormous. “I challenge you,” he said, “to find anyone my age who’s willing to say that today’s world is the one they wanted, or even the one they envisioned.” He was right. The world is not something that happens, much less something that is made to happen. It is something that accrues, as much through an absence of action as through action itself, over the course of history.

After Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, my father was the last Democrat out the door at the Department of Justice. For his non-partisan efforts to facilitate the department’s Carter-to-Reagan transition, he received a framed letter from the Gipper himself, which he managed to restrain himself from burning for as long as it took him to lose track of it. He then joined the ranks of liberal political operatives jockeying to maintain their relevance until Americans voted in another Democrat. This was not a fair, humane or even meritocratic competition, and thus began my father’s disillusionment, whereby he learned how little a professed morality – or a beloved platform of noble goals – means when weighed against the American dream’s unadorned core: who gets what job.

Eventually, he learned to laugh at the more ridiculous moments. For instance, an acquaintance’s blunt refusal – as a guest at my parents’ dinner table – to so much as entertain the notion of helping my father network, so rudely put and so bald-facedly self-interested that her boyfriend later called my parents to apologize and cemented the apology by dumping her. The guest in question was Zoë Baird, later nominated to be Attorney General by Bill Clinton.

At the time, however, such moments severely disoriented my father, who suffered from a sense of fair play learned during a childhood that, for all its imperfections, manifested a social mobility so elusive – and yet so culturally resonant – that, if it were tangible, would probably be in a museum by now. The first in his family to attend college, he transcended his working class background by studying his way into Princeton, and then Harvard Law School. Because he was that rare individual whose life had unfolded accordingly, my father embraced the American mythos that has been used to delude so many people of modest means into neglecting or antagonizing their own political interests. In fact, I believe my father rarely questioned American values as such until his only sibling, who was openly gay, died of AIDS in 1989, adrift in the generous bile so many Americans found it in their hearts to spew while their brothers suffered and perished.

Zoë Baird, by the way, withdrew her 1993 Attorney General nomination after revelations about the nanny and chauffeur she’d hired – both illegal immigrants whose social security taxes she had evaded. The incident, dubbed Nannygate, took on a personal dimension for me: it illuminated the subtle moral differences that separate social strivers like Baird from honest white-collar laborers like my parents, regardless of their common profession. My parents had always been assiduous in assisting Matildé – both legally and practically – with her immigration status, which required borrowing against the time they usually reserved for getting ahead in their jobs. That hard work later resulted in Matildé’s naturalization as an American citizen, a process I participated in by helping her study for her citizenship exam. When Matildé took her oath, my mother and I were the two guests she invited.

Now I, too, am an immigrant, who in turn spends his time working with immigrants. I report on Japan’s tiny African expatriate community for Tokyo’s daily English-language newspaper. Most of Japan’s African immigrants are Nigerian, and most of them are Igbo, which is to say they are members of an ethnicity whose fierce individualism and egalitarianism (traditional Igbo culture recognized no kings or chiefs) was smashed by missionaries who imposed a hierarchical social system, which makes for a much more efficient control mechanism. Today, Igbo people inhabit a nation whose boundaries have been delineated according to the West’s whims, visible in the geopolitical subtexts of the war fought over Biafra – the independent Igbo state declared in 1967.

The resulting nation is cursed with a heart made of oil, and its petrodollars are subject to massive chicanery. Imagine Texas at its oil-producing peak, except 90 percent of the money winds up hidden under an elaborate network of mattresses. American oil companies are deeply embroiled in this state of play. Of these companies’ many thousands of employees, one assumes that at least a small handful are dimly aware of the details, and that their awareness might even vitiate the otherwise unadulterated joy they experience when they punch in.

My Igbo friends with enough historical consciousness (usually the result of education, which is usually the result of affluence) bemoan the contemporary outcome of all this cultural meddling and foreign “investment.” Igbo individualism has been twisted to accommodate the morality of success, thereby producing a culture whose defining characteristic is a fixation with material prosperity. Even better than Americans, the more critically-minded of my Igbo friends are intimately acquainted with the dangers of individualism made slave to self-interest. And they know the two have not always been considered identical.

Recently, an Igbo friend of mine who owns a bar in Tokyo’s red light district walked me to the train station near his home. We had just finished dinner in his apartment, with his Japanese wife and bi-ethnic children, in view of his family’s Buddhist altar. Bullet trains had been visible and audible through the apartment’s screen windows, which looked out onto the other quintessential components of the contemporary Japanese vista: ball fields peopled by playing children, massive apartment buildings looming in the distance, their interior lights flickering to life as the daytime waned.

We talked about his conversion from missionary Christianity to Zen Buddhism. We discussed what had brought us to Japan, and why we wanted to stay. We both possessed vivid memories of wars our respective countries had waged. We both remembered what it was like to walk in the cities of our homeland and not feel safe from the violence that is both a symptom and cause of hopelessness. We could readily agree on three words to describe our own hope, which, to us, felt unimpeachably universal. “A peaceful life.”

My friend’s hope, he said, must have come from his parents. Mine, too. I thought about the moments when my father helped to shape that sensibility in me, and what kind of person I might have become if he instead had told me that I deserved what so many people – influential and otherwise – believe they deserve: to win, even at the expense of others’ rights and dignity. It would have been easy enough for my father to make me – out of casual neglect – into a vessel for his own frustrated ambitions, to see his responsibility toward his children as a matter of cumulative, upward motion. Many parents do. I thought about this while my friend and I walked. And I thought about how, in his own way, in spite of everything, there were moments in my father’s life when he had truly spoken. I thought about how I might try, in spite of inducements toward silence, to someday speak as clearly.

But today, at a moment when we have discovered that technology’s advance has made the seizure and storage of our lives’ every detail a sudden, jarring reality, my father and I find ourselves positioned only for muteness. I have traded the opportunity to live in the nation of my birth for the chance to reside in Japan, where – with history in mind – I almost never wonder if the country where I make my home will pre-emptively invade another nation, and where the women in my life can comfortably walk on a city street at night. And, like everyone else, I make compromises to advance my career. These include the routine dismissal or avoidance of serious ethical questions that I encounter in an inconvenient professional context.

My father is planning for retirement. When I spoke with him last, he explained how American economic analysts have determined that one million dollars of savings is a mere fraction of the advisable amount for a couple to retire on. I am certain my parents legal careers’ (modestly compensated by attorneys’ standards) have not permitted them to save nearly that much, but my father’s incredulity contained a pertinacious undertone. If this was the world’s new demand, he would rise and try to meet it. Even as America’s middle class (which existed meaningfully for the flicker of an instant) is confronted with less and less reasonable expectations – unto annihilation, perhaps – my father is determined to prove himself by earning, saving and forbearing. Amid his ongoing quest for stability, he has misplaced his whistle. That such an outcome has befallen him – a person adventurous and radical enough to direct his formative intellectual energy toward a nation, language and culture whose mere mention took the air out of many American rooms – indicates just how effectively financial anxiety now robs even relatively wealthy people of their impulse toward courage.

In light of all this, neither my father nor I are surprised by the government’s actions. Misconduct by government intelligence agencies has been de rigueur since Hoover. Today’s revelations are more of the depressing same. My father jokes that the only difference between abuses of power in Democratic and Republican administrations is the quality of the prose contained in the accompanying legal memos. Neither can I profess much shock at the notion that this has occurred during a Democratic presidency. Such indignation strikes me as symptomatic of a kind of NPR liberalism, wherein possessing a liberal frame of mind excuses us from making any gestures beyond the purely interpretive: when shit happens, make a documentary.

What is much more alarming – and much more contemporary – is the amount of collective complacency that must have been necessary for this program to remain undisclosed for so long. Not just among lawmakers who occasionally hinted at its disturbing dimensions. But among the hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of private citizens who must have acquired at least partial or circumstantial awareness of the program at some point, in their capacity as employees of the various digital firms who complied with the government’s requests for data. These individuals – and their lack of action – present a portrait of contemporary morality rendered at a much higher resolution, all ugliness laid plain. Their cowardice commands my attention because it is also my own, and it is also my father’s. Some of my primary school classmates work at these firms, most of them avowedly liberal. I wonder if they knew, and how that knowledge affected them. I wonder if knowing – but not saying – reminded them of the many adults who role-modeled practical and exigent behavior for us when we were too young to imagine what kind of wreckage such behavior would leave inside us.

Such reflection is among the luxuries I may claim as a child of relative privilege. But for my parents, the impact of the current domestic spying regime, had it been known to exist when they were young, would have been tangible and ruinous. Having learned that the 4th and 1st Amendments could not protect him, my father might have ceased communicating with his friends in Russia, especially the two who later defected. My mother, who assisted foreign nationals seeking political asylum, would have come under further scrutiny (the FBI had already opened a file on her after she attended campus demonstrations against the Vietnam war). All of their attorney-client contacts would have been caught in an immeasurably broad net. When my uncle was sent to a military prison for his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War in 1970 and commenced a hunger strike, records of the telephone calls my grandfather, who was a World War II veteran, made in an attempt to secure his release would have landed in a government database. None of this was illegal, but much of it would have been chilled if my family members knew the US intelligence apparatus could review it with the click of a mouse.

James Baldwin often said that if one person is prevented from speaking about one thing, soon no one will be able to speak about anything. Today, courage belongs to the one person who has spoken, a person whose affluence did not rob him of moral impetus, and who has not confused individualism with self-interest. I write today to express a coward’s gratitude for his actions. My parents add their gratitude to mine. My Igbo friend who walked me to the train station asks that I thank Edward Snowden on his behalf, as well. I believe that Matildé, had she not died shortly after achieving American citizenship, would thank him, too. Today, our only regret is that Edward Snowden, in spite of his courage, has almost certainly sacrificed any possibility of achieving that which he believes we are all entitled to: a peaceful life.

Dreux Richard is an American writer, journalist and literary translator living in Tokyo.