The NSA disclosures are disturbing but they don’t portend a totalitarian stateby George Packer / May 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
Edward Snowden is a child of the internet and at the same time an old American type—the solitary individual whose religion is conscience, and who follows his own regardless of where it takes him. The type goes back to the English Protestant dissenters who settled the New World in the 17th century. Its most eloquent exemplar was Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in “Civil Disobedience” (1849): “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” Thoreau withdrew to a cabin on Walden Pond, and he refused to pay taxes in protest against the Mexican War and slavery. Snowden lives in the hyperconnected isolation of the internet, and in June 2013 he committed what might have been the largest breach of state secrecy in American history, exposing the extent of internet and phone surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA).
In the famous hotel-room interview in Hong Kong that revealed his identity on video, Snowden said: “If living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept—and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature—you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large pay cheque for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.” It sounds like the quiet desperation Thoreau attributed to most of his fellow men. But if, like Snowden, you can’t rest until you’ve tested the courage of your conviction by taking radical action, then “you realise that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is.” As things turned out this proved not to be quite true—instead of returning to the US to face trial and the possibility of a long jail term, Snowden fled to Russia and sought asylum. But what matters more is that this is the kind of person he wanted and imagined himself to be.
Not caring about the outcome is what Max Weber, in “Politics as a Vocation,” called “the ethic of ultimate ends,” in contrast with “the ethic of responsibility.” There are many reasons to criticise this ethic and the uncompromising Thoreauvians who wear it as a…