Jackson Lears on Edward Snowden

I don’t agree with everything in this editor’s note on Edward Snowden by historian and Raritan editor Jackson Lears—I actually think the traditional left/right distinction is still of value and relevance, even on this issue; I’m not so partial to the framers of the Constitution; and I’m not big on calls for restoration, even (especially) a constitutional restoration of the framers’ vision (Seth Ackerman’s views here are closer to my own)—but on the fundamental question of the surveillance state I could not be in more agreement. Besides, reading anything by Jackson is always a treat. So check it out. And then subscribe to Raritan. It’s one of the best journals around.


  1. edward scott July 20, 2013 at 9:49 am | #

    I like to emphasize one of Lear’s points regarding the ability to collect data on everyone, data that can be mined in the future to solve and predict crimes not yet committed, or to suppress, persecute, preempt or smear opposition. The latter abuse of this technology is a certainty.
    The fourth Amendment is relevant

    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon proba- ble cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

    I’ve often thought public conservations on abuse of power needs to include very strong and enforceable dissuasions, yet the public conservation hasn’t risen above the petty thought quandary of how strong oversight might demoralize the enthusiasm of police.

  2. troy grant July 20, 2013 at 2:03 pm | #

    The train has left the station and the emergency brake won’t stop it. The only way to control it is to let the surveilled surveil the surveillors too.

  3. Hey, Prof, it is I, the Combatant. I have not been inserting my two cents recently because I am currently immersed in “Reactionary”. I am both a very slow reader and a very fast one; I am re-reading the chapter on Hobbes – I plan to use it to win an argument. Anyway, I bring up that chapter up now because of the links to the writings of Lears and Ackerman in your post. It is hard to avoid the impulse to think that Hobbes’ writings in his day to do an end run around whatever democratic/anti-despot impulses the English may harbor, may now find some faint shadow of his arguments in the structure and strictures of the American Constitution.

    So here is the question: what is your take on the tension between Lear’s use of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment as a bulwark against the surveillance state and Ackerman’s openly pointing out that the Constitution is, among other readings, a document designed to protect the opulent from the majority?

    I will concede that I may be the only one who senses this tension, and that could be the case likely only because your current post happens to provide links to both Lears and to Ackerman’s respective writings, the former quite wistful in its call to action, with the latter telling the reader, in clear-eyed fashion, who that document REALLY protect. And this because earlier “constitutionalist” reactionaries (like the Tea Party, now) in their often bizarre extrapolations, may have understood the Constitution’s provenance better than progressives ever did.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg July 23, 2013 at 3:23 am | #

      The part of the constitution that intends to protect the “minority of the opulent” from democracy is the structure of power — the election of senators by state legislatures, the balance of power between the houses, the requirements for amendments, the electoral college. Not the bill of rights. (Except perhaps the takings clause insofar as it protected slavery.)

      • Your point is well taken (and factually accurate). My question turns more on the matter of why it is that progressives will turn to the Constitution to protect and expand democracy while reactionaries turn to it to stop democracy in its tracks and, if possible, reverse it. Grossly speaking, who really “gets” the Constitution? I’d say that Mr. Ackerman’s reading of its use in American political culture by the right is more than merely enlightening.

  4. neffer July 24, 2013 at 10:48 am | #

    I think that there has to be a reasonable consideration here of the distinction between what is private and what is public. People who put, for example, their garbage on the street in garbage bags have little basis to complain of an invasion of privacy if someone opens up the garbage bag. The same goes if I have a conversation with someone else on a city street; someone might be listening to the conversation in that public setting.

    So, with respect to the telephone, we give a lot of data about phone calls rather willingly to the phone company and have done so for many decades. You can get a log of your calls from the phone company. How is that really something private? The fact that an outside party has that data makes it, by definition, less than private. The big question here – and for, say, the same sort of issue with email data held by Internet companies – is how much less than private.

    I note this point as, in fact, that has to be question one. While the 4th Amendment is not expressly tied to the word “privacy,” it is difficult to make sense of the wording without considering the distinction between what is private and what is not: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects …” What does protection from government intrusion does the reasonable person need in order to be secure as to the noted concerns (i.e., “in their persons, houses, papers, and effects”)?

    It is not clear that collection of things already and for decades available to third parties is necessary for security. However, I do not think that is the end of the question. New technologies make it all so easy for people to learn about your private concerns. The 4th Amendment, in this regard, thankfully does not use the word “privacy.” That allows the 4th Amendment to create a layer beyond the merely private in order to protect that which is really private. So, it seems to me that the question here is whether the government has gone so far that a layer beyond what is strictly private needs to be erected. And, can such a layer, if it is appropriate, be supportable under the Constitution as it has been understood?

    As for Mr. Ackerman’s article, I thought it was rather shallow. After WWI, he acts as if things went well outside of the US, with the US going off on some horrid reactionary twist from the European norm. Well, the US may have turned too far to the right after WWI. However, Europe was no model for anything. Things did not exactly go well there. In fact, things went far worse there. So, perhaps our restrictive Constitution played a role in saving us from what occurred in Russia and Germany and Italy and Spain and Portugal, etc., etc.

    Moreover, he is remarkably arrogant to believe that his preferences for how to rule are the democratic choices while those of people who disagree are not. Hogwash. Our system certainly makes it difficult for the majority to get its way. But, that hardly mean that the public does not believe such approach to governing is, before any given legislative program to address this or that problem, what they want.

    As for the Lears article, it is ridiculous. Snowden may or may not be right in opposing the collection of data. However, both from a practical and a moral perspective, you face the music if you want to be taken seriously. He ought consider that, whether our legal system is good or bad at the moment, it is a lot better than the legal system that put Socrates to death. And, as anyone who reads Plato knows, the very issue of escape was placed before Plato’s Socrates, who opted to take the hemlock and die, on moral grounds that he did not oppose the moral right of his city’s government to implement its laws; the opposite would be far worse. Hence, fleeing, even from an unjust decision, is the moral low ground.

    In the case of Mr. Snowden, there is also the question of where he has chosen to flee. It is difficult to take seriously someone who, in the name of protecting personal privacy, runs to China and then Russia and hopes to end up in a place like Ecuador. That, frankly, is a joke, which is why, while Mr. Snowden may (or may not) have things otherwise correct, he is the wrong messenger for his message.

  5. Cat Food July 28, 2013 at 2:14 pm | #

    Well, it turns out Snowden is actually a rightwing nut job who wanted to shoot leaders who snitched on the Bush administration. Things just got awkward real quickly, huh?

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