David Brooks’ piece on Snowden the best column I’ve seen in years

David Brooks’ Monday column in The New York Times (which The State ran today) is the best column of any kind, by anyone, that I have read in years. (People whose thoughtfulness I respect keep bringing it to my attention, and I say, yes, thanks; I saw it — and intend to say something about it.)

Basically, you need to go read the whole thing. And then read it again. I can’t quote everything in it that is awesome without stomping all over the Fair Use standard, but let me describe briefly what the piece does.

It explains exactly what is wrong with Edward Snowden and what he did. Brooks accomplishes this in spite of the fact that we lack the common vocabulary in this country to express such things in a manner that everyone can understand. People who sort of get that what Snowden did is wrong, and that his actions reflect something fundamentally wrong with Snowden himself, don’t know how to explain that wrongness. So they either clam up, ceding the floor to the more simple-minded cheerleaders for Snowden’s brand of “transparency,” or they use a word that gets them dismissed, as John Boehner did when he resorted to “traitor.”

In explaining what is wrong with Snowden, Brooks explained something fundamentally wrong with our society and our politics today — something that is eating away at our ability to be a society governed by representative democracy, because it’s eating away at basic civil. social assumptions that make it possible for free people to live together.

The piece is headlined “The Solitary Leaker.” An excerpt:

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.Brooks_New-popup-v2

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme. You’re more likely to donate to the Ron Paul for president campaign, as Snowden did….

After acknowledging that the procedures Snowden has revealed (or rather, revealed in greater detail than what we knew previously) could be abused at some future time, Brooks continues:

But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.

This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse.

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…

OK, that’s as much as I dare quote. But Brooks goes on to catalog the various personal, social and institutional betrayals of Edward Snowden, and the ways that such betrayals unravel the social fabric that allows a healthy civilization to exist.

It is a very, very good piece. Please go read the whole thing.

34 thoughts on “David Brooks’ piece on Snowden the best column I’ve seen in years

  1. Doug Ross

    Subtitle “Old White Guy Who Didn’t Grow Up With Technology Says ‘Get Off My Lawn!'”

    I wasn’t born a cynic nor a libertarian. I responded to the events around me over time. Watergate and Vietnam changed this country (and me). The ability to rapidly disseminate information and varying points of view via media and the internet accelerated the pace. Now we have the ability to know more faster, to filter out the marketing hype from reality, to analyze reams of data instantly to determine if what someone says is true or not.

    We aren’t going back to what you and Brooks think was a better time. Get used to it. We may be headed toward a better time when truth trumps marketing/spin/propaganda. I want a society that exposes people who are not doing the right thing.

    1. Doug Ross

      People like Snowden are not indoctrinated into some worldview. It develops organically. It’s the polar opposite of group think that gave us such apathetic, ignorant voters in the past.

  2. Karen McLeod

    I am inclined to agree with you, Brad. At the same time, we have experienced so much of what at least is perceived as betrayal by government and its officials (start with Mr. “It’s legal when I do it” Nixon, go through “Iraq has WMD’s” and continue through some of the foolishness revealed by Wikileaks), and many people begin to believe that their government is actively lying to them, and that they need more disclosure to protect themselves. I heard one speaker today on NPR (I can’t remember who, but the segment was on between 10 and 10:30) who stated something I believe to be important. He said that our nation will not be able to survive with so few people voting. He pointed out that with so few people voting, extremists of one variety or another are much more likely to win, because they have a core of supporters who are motivated to get out and vote. If it’s a good sized group then that person will win, no matter how extreme he/she is. I see more and more people getting elected on sound bites and slogans. I’ve heard people say that they aren’t going to vote because both parties are bad, and no one can win unless he/she is a democrat or republican. They don’t seem to realize that leaving only the core sycophants to vote makes each party more extreme. Nor do they realize that the difference between bad and worse can be much more important than the difference between good and better.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    “I want a society that exposes people who are not doing the right thing.” So do I. I kinda devoted a 35-year career to a profession that does that.

    But let’s examine that word, “expose.”

    I expect a lot of people to misunderstand what Brooks is saying (and he’s not some guy who is nostalgic for some halcyon days; he’s a guy who is putting his finger right on the problems of the present day with tremendous insight), especially when he criticizes Snowden for “the fervent devotion to transparency.”

    Don’t we all have a fervent devotion to transparency? I certainly do.

    But in recent years, we’ve seen political extremists twist the cause of transparency (good example close to home: Nikki Haley campaigning on the issue, but demonstrating by her actions that she wanted transparency for everyone but her).

    For instance, take the SC Policy Council’s blog, The Nerve.

    Its tagline is “where government gets exposed.” Well, of course, government should be conducted openly, and wrongdoing should definitely be “exposed.” But the word, “exposed” implies that was is being exposed is inherently a bad thing.

    The Policy Council isn’t saying, “Where BAD government gets exposed,” or “Where waste gets exposed.” No, their tagline assumes that government itself is a bad thing that needs to be “exposed.” And everything they publish seems consistent with such a worldview. Like a stopped clock that is right twice a day, they sometimes “expose” stuff that needs it, and good for them. But their overall mindset is highly destructive.

    Snowden is of this same mindset. He’s “exposing” government, because government is something that must always be exposed. There should never be such a thing as a secret. This is mindless.

    This goes to the core of why I am so deeply opposed to ideologies. They take good, general rules and apply them with ruthless consistency, never employing judgment to see when an exception must be made.

    No nation that seeks to continue to exist can get by without SOME secrets in the area of national security. Yes, we can argue forever whether this or that particular fact needs to be secret. But in the absence of complete unanimity on the subject (which is impossible), we have to trust the processes which our Founders put in place for making decisions about what will be legal and what will not, including the dynamic of giving each branch some oversight over the others.

    Everything I’ve read about this indicates that the system is working as it should. Shouldn’t it tell you something that people on both sides of the aisle — people who will take ANY opportunity to make the other side look bad — are taking the politically risky position of saying that they are satisfied that this program is not only necessary but sufficiently constrained and respectful of Americans’ liberties?

    To me, it’s meaningful that among the people in the government, who have access to more information than I have and ample motive to raise a stink, the outrage over this comes not from mainstream Democrats and Republicans, but from folks like Rand Paul. I know that to you Rand Paul does not represent the political fringe, but to me he does, and his own logic on this is unworkable on its face.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I set great store by op-eds written by politicians. To use the word of the day, they “expose” themselves so completely in that format.

      When they’re given the opportunity to write out their thoughts in such a form, they can’t complain of being quoted out of context. They’re providing their own context. No, a 600-word op-ed isn’t as good as a book, but it’s plenty enough space for expressing an idea or two clearly, and giving people a clear impression of the clarity of your thinking, or the lack thereof.

      In any case, I found Mr. Paul’s piece quite illuminating of the flaws in his approach to this issue…

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    Tom Friedman also had a good column on the subject. An excerpt:

    So I don’t believe that Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this secret material, is some heroic whistle-blower. No, I believe Snowden is someone who needed a whistle-blower. He needed someone to challenge him with the argument that we don’t live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real, not imagined, threats without using big data — where we still have an edge — under constant judicial review. It’s not ideal. But if one more 9/11-scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be so much greater.

    A hat tip to Andrew Sullivan for linking on his blog to an essay by David Simon, the creator of HBO’s “The Wire.” For me, it cuts right to the core of the issue.

    “You would think that the government was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole being tossed about,” wrote Simon. “And you would think that rather than a legal court order, which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame. Nope. … The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the F.B.I. and N.S.A. are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. … I know it’s big and scary that the government wants a database of all phone calls. And it’s scary that they’re paying attention to the Internet. And it’s scary that your cellphones have GPS installed. … The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. … The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is unsupervised. And to that, The Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection are noticeably silent. We don’t know of any actual abuse.”

  5. Mark Stewart

    I still think that mental health is playing a major role here with Snowden. It’s great that so many thoughtful minds are trying to explain the impulses that may have lead him from nawing concern to worldwide exposure; but sometimes there just isn’t any way to rationally bridge such spans. This feels like one of those times.

    I think we would do ourselves all a service if we stay focused on the facts of what the government was, or was not, doing. The more we try to find a way to determine (let alone analyze) Snowden’s conceptualizations, the more frustrated we will likely become.

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    There was a good piece, making points similar to this one, at the WSJ today: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324634304578539352505500298.html

    It was headlined, “Who Voted for Snowden?” An excerpt:

    “Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, has set off a maelstrom of debate over the virtues of various types and degrees of surveillance—what works and what doesn’t at nabbing potential terrorists; which methods represent acceptable incursions on civil liberties (the precise delimiting of which is a whole debate in itself) and which don’t; and so on. Those are important debates for any democracy to have, but there’s a problem. America already has a method for resolving these questions, and Edward Snowden has entirely undermined it. He and whistleblowers like him infringe the civil rights of everyone else.

    “What civil rights? The vote, for one. The Founding Fathers in their wisdom intended that the policy questions that so trouble Snowden should be hashed out chiefly by the elected branches of government. The theory is that questions of balancing security and liberty are so important they should be decided by all voters, acting through their representatives.

    “In this sense, Edward Snowden has just put his right to participate in deciding this issue ahead of mine. It appears that the legislation authorizing the NSA programs at issue here were the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments, and the 2012 reauthorization of those amendments. Both times, the law received ample public attention and significant debate. And in both cases, all three of my representatives in Congress supported the bills.”

  7. Doug Ross

    ““In this sense, Edward Snowden has just put his right to participate in deciding this issue ahead of mine.”

    No he didn’t. He exposed the program. Congress can decide to keep it or change it. He provided information only to help decision makers (and voters) decide.

  8. Phillip

    Sometimes the right thing is done by the wrong person or for the wrong reasons. I really could care less about Snowden, think him neither necessarily a hero nor a villain. And if the American public really examines or re-examines this kind of program and confirms that this is what they want, then so be it. But anything that brings the reality of this potentially new kind of society we live in, anything that brings the actual difficult debate of the security-vs.-civil-liberties tradeoff types of questions to the forefront of national discussion, well I think that’s healthy for our society. I don’t view that as a negative.

    By the way, I also don’t think anybody that supported the Iraq invasion has any right whatsoever to moan about the rising tide of cynicism, or widening distrust.

    While it’s true that overblown comparisons of current federal surveillance and meta-data gathering programs to truly authoritarian or intrusive police-states is absurd and can only lead to well-deserved mockery of such an argument, it is also true that debates about this kind of issue in the United States cannot be made to wait until such time as we reach that dire state of equivalence. As I’ve often pointed out to you on this blog, the US must be held to a higher standard, if we really claim to live out that values that supposedly make us “exceptional.” Therefore, this—not waiting until a far more deeply advanced situation of government surveillance and data-gathering has established itself—is the moment and the point at which to have this spirited debate.

    There is never a bad time to have a vigorous and contentious national debate about the tradeoffs between security and liberty. To suggest otherwise is itself a clear manifestation of the most profoundly cynical attitude towards “the American idea.”

    1. Mark Stewart

      We must hold ourselves to a higher standard.

      Americans are not exceptional, but we have inherited an exceptional form of government; we owe it to those who came before us to uphold those ideals.

  9. Brad Warthen

    Well, since I have no “right whatsoever” to be distressed by the cynicism of others (a remarkable assertion), allow me for a moment to be cynical. It seems to me that those cheering these revelations are simply dissatisfied with the results of the deliberate debates on these issues thus far, and are hoping revelations such as these will generate a tide of misunderstanding hysteria and, yes, fear among the public, so that they can accomplish their goal that way.

    1. Mark Stewart

      Nobody would ever count me as among those who were dissatisfied with the previous post 9/11 debates. But what I see now goes far beyond what was debated then.

      I saw yesterday that Snowden was telling the Hong Kong press how the US snoops on the world. That is what I thought we were doing, and unacceptable for him to have said so. But these revelations about massive domestic spying? Those are new to me. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention; but then maybe I should not have been expected to either in this country.

      Some right and wrongs are absolute; but most are by degrees. It is okay to have as varied responses to evolving situations.

      I still can’t believe that I am reading Brad say that sunlight, at the policy level, is an infringement on his rights as a citizen. Sunlight enables checks and balances to regulate our system of governance. Good governance never occurs in the shadows – just look at the SC legislature…

    2. Doug Ross


      When you say “deliberate debates” were held on the issues that have now surfaced, when was that? Was Congress aware of all the details of the programs that were implemented? Were they informed of any modifications to the parameters of the surveillance over time?

      This is the same Congress that changed the healthcare system of the United States without many members even reading the bill they signed. If you’re telling me Jim Clyburn or Joe Wilson could present a full explanation of what PRISM and FISA are about to their constituents to gather up the collective “will of the people” then I think you’re further off the reservation than I thought.

      1. Scout

        Doug – you make a good point, perhaps incidentally.

        You point out the difference between being aware and being informed among our elected officials, and among the general public for that matter. For the system to work right, we all need to be engaged and make ourselves aware of the information that is made available to us.

        If Congress enacts bills without reading them – does that mean the system is at fault or the congresspeople are at fault. If Joe Wilson and Jim Clyburn were given the information but can’t explain PRISM or FISA, is the system at fault, or are they at fault.

        To me it means they aren’t doing their jobs and we need to hold them accountable. If people are just going through the motions instead of holding the proper debates then it is our own fault for not being engaged ourselves and holding people accountable. Like Philip says, I can acknowledge that this is a good conversation to be having, whatever caused it, but some part of me is still offended by the actions of this guy – I think because it feels like he just arrogantly thought he knew better than everybody else and didn’t go through proper channels to address his grievances but instead addressed them in a way that probably provided some instant gratification for him but will have consequences that he can’t control or even imagine, and that he probably didn’t consider. It is a very selfish point of view. Selfishness always annoys me.

        And the fallout to the people associated with this guy and to the ability of the country to trust it’s institutions so that they can function properly is troubling to say the least — especially if it turns out our institutions were functioning properly and protecting us all along, which seems possible. This is a genie that will be hard to put back in the bottle – since we’ve become a nation that gets outraged at the surface details without taking the time to understand the underlying complexities and tons of short sighted self interested parties lie in wait to take advantage of that and fan the flames of outrage to their own ends, which rarely coincides with the good of the country.

        1. Doug Ross

          It’s the difference between the ideal and reality. Congress is full of people who are run the gamut of levels of intelligence. Yet they each have an equal vote. Do I want Joe Wilson making any sort of decision that requires an understanding of data mining? Absolutely not. His skill is pressing the flesh and constituent service. He’s a back slapping, hand shaking, “How’s your mama?” guy.

          We don’t vote for the defense department or Homeland Security bureaucrats. We vote for a President who, at best, picks some people who select other people who select other people to fill important roles.

          Our government… teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. ~Louis Brandeis

    3. Phillip

      I actually had Brooks in mind with that statement. But how about if I just modify the language, say, to a Stephen Sondheim quote…”Isn’t it rich” for those who supported the Iraq invasion, an act (and all that derived from it) that contributed so mightily to cynicism not just domestically, but internationally in terms of respect for the United States, to then bemoan the rise of cynicism? One makes one’s bed, one has to sleep in it.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        You know what, Phillip? I don’t feel responsible in the slightest for other people’s cynicism. They’re the ones who decide to be that way. Their cynicism is unjustified, but they believe otherwise, and I’ve learned that there’s no changing their minds. All my efforts meet with more cynicism.

        So I did not make the bed; the cynics did. And they can lie in it…

        Oh, if only that were possible. But it isn’t. I am affected by their cynicism. We all are. “If a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse.” (Smart guy, that John Donne. If only he could have spelled.)

        Now… all of that said… I accept service on responsibility for other people’s cynicism in one way… I think we media types have played a HUGE role in fostering cynicism. We didn’t intend to. We thought we were doing our jobs. We reported on things that were wrong in government, because that’s what we were supposed to do, and a weird thing happened out among the public…

        Readers came to believe that the anomalous flaws and wrongdoing we were reporting on were the NORM. When, by definition, they were not. If they had been the norm, they wouldn’t have been news.

        We knew that most people in government service do the best they can in good faith, and that the bad actors were exceptions to the rule (which, once again, is what made them NEWS). But increasingly over the years, I heard readers say “They’re all like that.” An impression they had gotten from us.

        So in THAT respect, we bear some blame for what has happened…

        1. Doug Ross

          If South Carolina’s state government were a private business with about $23 billion in revenue is would be comparable to Heineken Holding Co. Heineken employs about 65,000 people while the state of SC employs about 77,000.

          How much news do you think you could generate about unethical behavior going on within Heineken Corp.? Enough to make people become cynical about beer?

  10. David

    “…are hoping revelations such as these will generate a tide of misunderstanding hysteria and, yes, fear among the public, so that they can accomplish their goal that way.

    How dare they intoduce fear into our national security and global war on terror debates!

  11. Bryan Caskey

    I think Brooks is doing a better job explaining what I said in a previous comment about how Snowden could have gone through other channels rather than just running to a newspaper. He could have informed a Congressman on the Intelligence Committee, he could have informed either Rand Paul or Ron Paul, he could have reported it to an AUSA etc…

    Choosing to just take something that is a clear government secret and run to the newspapers should be the last thing you do, and only after all the legitimate avenues have been tried, and only when it’s something that rises to a high level. That was my earlier point, but I think Brooks said it better than me. (Kind of).

  12. Juan Caruso

    Many of the conclusions drawn about Edward Snowden demonstrate discomfort with the programs he has exposed. Columnist Brooks has merely provide solace for those who, though unwilling to justify the dubious programs, are happy to pile on the messenger. Snowden is the modern version of Daniel Ellsberg (a non-lawyer with military experience), who also embarrassed a Democratich administration (LBJ’s).

    My problem with the Snowden revelation is that it was too pat. It indicates a high degree of preparation (a carefully worded and memorized script) by a member of the usual leaker class (you know, lawyers), a plan to evade detention ( all charges against Ellsberg were eventually dismissed, as well ), and careful timing.

    What we have here is lying by James Clapper and perhaps Obama, embarrassment for Washington, and an unidentified legal team in Snowden’s court.

    Snowden’s background, contrary to one columnist’s generalizations, indicate a well-rounded individual making decisions uncharacteristic of his years (Ellsberg was closer to 39 when he released the Pentagon Papers).

    I can hardly wait for the movie on Snowden’s Prism expose, but expect another 3 or 4 years to develop a script – the story is hardly complete yet. I would cast Ryan Gosling for the Snowden part.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Lawyers are the usual leaker class? Bradley Manning, Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, Karen Silkwood…..

      1. JUan Caruso

        “Lawyers are the usual leaker class?” [then sites exceptions to the rule, including some I had mentioned] -KF

        Not asking anyone to take my word for it, but consider the opinion of someone who knows from professional experience:

        “Almost all leakers are lawyers. That’s the bottom line.” – Howell Raines, former executive editor of the New York Times, shared some tantalizing, insiders’ knowledge with an audience at the Aspen Institute, an international organization dedicated to “fostering enlightened leadership, the appreciation of timeless ideas and values, and open-minded dialogue on contemporary issues.” When one audience member asked Raines about the role of media leaks, Raines offered up some arcane information of his own in 2006.

        More apropos perhaps…
        Jan 6, 2011 4:27pm (Reuters) Ex-CIA officer charged with giving reporter secrets – A former CIA officer was arrested on Thursday on charges of illegally disclosing national defense information about Iran to a New York Times reporter who wrote a book.

        “Sterling, a lawyer who worked at the CIA from 1993 to 2002, was arrested in St. Louis near where he lives.”

        Raines has credibility, and evidence substantiates it.

  13. Dave Crockett

    I still haven’t quite decided where I come down on this case. The Brooks piece certainly gives food for thought, as has this entire line of comments. Thanks to all.

    I just happened to wonder today if, even unintentionally, if Snowden has actually put some frost to the plans of the miscreants that PRISM is supposed to be ferreting out. If I were a terrifying terrorist (with apologies to Jeff Dunham’s ‘Ackmed’ character), I think that absolutely knowing that the US government clearly has the means and the will to monitor EVERYONE’s communications and is actively doing so…that I’d have to think a lot harder about perusing Al-Quaida websites, posting inflammatory rhetoric on the ‘net, or e-mailing/phoning my like-minded friends NOW than maybe I was last week. It would at least give me pause…

    Like I said, I still have to figure out where I come down on the civil liberty implications of PRISM, Snowden’s revelations beyond what Brad and others say was already public knowledge, and where we go from here.

    1. Dave Crockett

      Oh, and maybe PRISM’s public presence will put the kibosh on these Nigerian spammers and phishers out on the ‘net. I’d give up a bit of civil liberty if THEY could be put out of business…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Most respected sir,

        I am the widow of Mr. Abdullah al-Terroristi, Chief Jihadi for the Glorification of Senseless Religious Misinterpretation. My late husband was the recipient of €2,000,000 (Euros twenty millions) as a result of his heroic efforts. Alas, this reward is in escrow…..


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