Thursday, October 24, 2013

Snowden's Real Crime

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

Despite military crisis in Syria and fiscal terrorism in the United States, Edward Snowden continues to haunt American and global politics. He has exposed and unnerved the American national security establishment, its partner in international crime, Great Britain, and disrupted their planetary surveillance networks, which are far more extensive and menacing than previously realized, or even imagined. The NSA (assisted by GCHQ) not only aims to surveil, literally, the entire world with and without its cooperation; it also regulates and shapes the production and circulation of encryption standards and encryption software to facilitate its limitless eavesdropping. Snowden’s actions took officials by such surprise that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress, with impunity, about the scope of NSA skullduggery in an effort to limit the “damage” of Snowden’s revelations. He, of course, has Barack Obama’s full support.

guy kinda looks like mike from breaking bad
At right: James Clapper
Snowden’s status is much in dispute. Most Americans approve of his efforts on behalf of democratic transparency,to inform the American public about what is done in its name, and consider hima whistleblowerThe government, unsurprisingly, deems him a criminal, disloyal, a traitor who aids and abets the enemy. The latter charge is especially critical to Obama Administration efforts to criminalize investigative journalism and buttress the inter-national security state. This kind of effort is already paying off, as Glenn Greenwald has documented. Mainstream media mimic the official state line, having been effectively cowed and co-opted over many decades by insider access and standing. NBC’s DavidGregory is perhaps exhibit number one. Jeffrey Toobin could be considered exhibit number two.

Edward Snowden should be thought of as a democratic citizen with the courage of his moral and political convictions. He belongs in the distinguished democratic dissident tradition exemplified by Chelsea Manning and Daniel Ellsberg and their heroic efforts to disclose American perfidy in Iraq and Vietnam. He is paying a terrible price for brave political decisions made for the good of democracy, rendering him a political prisoner (as is Manning).

One of the principal objections to Snowden’s whistle blowing is that he allegedly caused irreparable harm to the United States, endangering national security and placing lives at risk. In the wake of charges against (then) Bradley Manning that included aiding and abetting the enemy, this comes as no surprise. The common phrase heard early on regarding Manning was that he has much blood on his hands. Officials later retreated from such claims, but the work they do in slandering whistle blowers and whistle blowing remains.

Invoking the specter of death has long been the default response of the state to exposés of its secrets. During the Cold War instances of Soviet espionage involving American agents (Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, etc.) were followed by extravagant claims of unprecedented damage inflicted against the country’s national security interests, which, it was always said, would take a great deal of time to unravel and catalogue. Ironically, they were so enormous that they defied any specificity. People were simply supposed to believe government assessments without any evidentiary showing. There never were any such showings, of course, and the claims could not be taken seriously, though they would be made over and over again. Somehow, the republic never fell despite all the repeated damage cited. Only the Soviet Union collapsed—before the disbelieving eyes of American intelligence professionals.

What’s more, if American national security, aiding and abetting the enemy, or responsibility for lives gratuitously lost were really of concern in Snowden’s case, (now former) President George Bush would have been tried and convicted long ago for invading Iraq, which contributed to hatred of the United States across the globe, and gave al Qaeda its greatest recruiting tool and boost. President Barack Obama likewise would find himself in the dock for his global drone campaign that has murdered hundreds of innocent women and children and created untold mortal enemies in the process. These presidents have killed and murdered with impunity and have real blood on their hands, making the United States less safe in the process.

What really matters to the Obama Administration and other governments is Snowden’s audacity—that he would take it upon himself, as a citizen, to force a conversation on not just transparency but also on democracy itself, a conversation that people like Obama say they favor but do nearly everything possible to avoid, postpone, subvert, or derail. Democracies do not value citizens such as Snowden; they fear, police, intimidate, and do whatever it takes to control, contain, domesticate, and discourage them. (Julian Assange remains the target of secret grand jury proceedings in Virginia.) Rather, citizens in democracies must know their place in the political order of things and stick to it. This is why Vladimir Putin initially insisted that Snowden curtail activities “against” the United States before considering asylum. Putin did not want Russians to view Snowden as a model. Think of this as the infantilization of citizenship. It could be seen in the streets of New York City during the 2004 Republican National Convention; it could be seen in the brutal police reaction nationwide to Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and 2012.

Yet few things are as democratic as the people themselves not just defending but taking and exercising their rights as citizens. This may, on occasion, entail problematic consequences. In the United States, at the founding, Americans vandalized the homes of royal tax collectors to defeat enforcement of revenue policies. In the 19th century, a group of Boston citizens refused to let Anthony Burns be forcibly returned to slavery by a United States Marshal, who was killed in the process. Frederick Douglass defended the killing of the marshal, a kidnapper, in the name of self-defense and the right to life. These actions are not automatically condemned because they involve violence and blood. They are considered part and parcel of America’s patriotic tradition. They involve citizens, aware of the potential consequences, taking actions on behalf of a new democratic order yet to come. You can hear the infantilization at work when it is asked, rhetorically of course: Who is Edward Snowden to take such action on his own? The answer is: who does he have to be? He’s a democratic citizen.
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Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Racial Innocence of John Roberts

Jack Turner

Jack Turner is associate professor of political science at the University of Washington. He is the author of Awakening to Race: Individualism and Social Consciousness in America (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Chief Justice Roberts is on a mission to dismantle public policies that correct the aftereffects of de jure white supremacy. Civil rights lawyer William Taylor warned us of Roberts’ softness on white power on the eve of his confirmation: “The most intriguing question about John Roberts is what led him as a young person whose success in life was virtually assured by family wealth and academic achievement to enlist in a political campaign designed to deny opportunities for success to those who lacked his advantages.” Taylor chronicled Roberts’ early career in the Reagan administration where he worked energetically to strip federal courts of the power to desegregate schools through busing; Roberts also worked energetically to block the 1982 re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act and to deny public education to children of undocumented immigrants. During the confirmation battle, Roberts maintained that he was simply following the orders of superiors. But through an analysis of legal memoranda from the period, Taylor demonstrates that Roberts took positions more hostile to the rights of African Americans and Latinos than those of his superiors.

Taylor’s worries about the implications of a Roberts Court for racial justice have been vindicated. In Parents Involved v. Seattle (2007), Roberts led the Court’s majority in striking down the use of a “racial tiebreaker” in the allocation of spots in oversubscribed public schools. In Ricci v. DeStefano (2009), he joined the majority in upholding the validity of a civil service exam that had a demonstrable racial bias in favor of whites. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), he led the Court in striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), rendering the Justice Department powerless to prevent states and localities with a history of racial discrimination from infringing citizens’ right to vote. What interests me is not just the pattern of Roberts’ race jurisprudence. It points clearly in the direction of a colorblind constitutionalism that protects white advantage. What most interests me is Roberts’ self-assured style of opposing race consciousness. That style bespeaks both a racial innocence born of privilege and an investment in an American “meritocracy” that just so happens to tilt in favor of whites. By analyzing this self-assured style, we get a window into the mindset of those who work to preserve racial stratification while congratulating themselves on rigorous adherence to the principles of liberal democracy.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Roberts propounded in Parents Involved. Though the formulation is forceful, the logic is old. Since the 1960s, conservatives have framed race-conscious remedies for racial injustice as morally equivalent to racial slavery and segregation. The logic turns on the idea that racial discrimination—in the weak sense of distinguishing racial groups—is morally repugnant in its own right and the first step down the slippery slope of racial oppression. The logic is appealing because it exploits a partial truth: reflexive racial categorization of people is a crude and often degrading form of social interpretation, and all systems of racial oppression require drawing distinctions among racial groups. Proponents of colorblindness thus portray themselves as heroic defenders of racial justice who tough-mindedly attack racism at its root. The logic’s weakness lies in its obfuscation of the fact that we live in historical time, and that centuries-old systems of oppression leave aftereffects even after those systems have been formally abolished. Refusing to take notice of race becomes a principled basis for refusing to track how the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow differentially affect the lives of citizens, conferring advantage on some and disadvantage on others.

This blindness to historically cumulative racial power could be an innocent intellectual mistake and therefore susceptible to correction. Or it could be the whole point: colorblindness leaves the material inequalities produced by slavery and Jim Crow intact, and makes them the presumably just baseline of our political life. The fact that African Americans make 60 percent the income of white Americans and possess just 10 percent of the wealth becomes an unfortunate phenomenon whose origins are mysterious—whose causes may even be “cultural”—instead of a predictable byproduct of longstanding failures to provide equal education to black citizens, to prevent discrimination in the workplace, and to ensure equal opportunities to own homes and accumulate wealth. (If Roberts is not convinced that these conditions are traceable to Jim Crow, he should do his homework—starting with Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro’s Black Wealth / White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality [rev. ed. 2006]).

Source: Edward N. Wolff, "Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze—an Update to 2007," Levy Economics Institute of Bard College Working Paper No. 589, March 2010, Tables 10 and 11. - See more at:
This strategy goes hand in hand with a triumphalist narrative of racial progress that holds that America was born in racial sin but redeemed itself through the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which purged the sins decisively (excepting, of course, some final racist holdouts who can be dismissed as atypical). Roberts’ opinion in Shelby County v. Holder expresses this triumphalist narrative: “Our country has changed,” rendering the VRA’s current coverage formula an unjust imposition on states’ “equal sovereignty.” Roberts ignores empirical evidence vindicating the coverage formula. More striking is his failure to acknowledge the force of the VRA’s “bailout provision,” which enables any covered jurisdiction to relieve itself of Justice Department supervision by maintaining a clean record on voting rights for ten straight years, and which therefore addresses his concern about unwarranted federal impositions.

Roberts is exasperated by the fact that the preponderant number of covered states are states of the Old Confederacy; his pique seems directed at the very idea that the racial geography of slavery and Jim Crow is still morally significant. Acknowledging that significance means entertaining the thought that slavery and Jim Crow have afterlives that implicate whites in systems of racial advantage—systems that undermine white claims to merit and self-reliance. Could it be that Roberts’ anxiety over the idea that the racial past is “not even past” is deeply personal—an anxiety rooted in his own investment in his personal narrative of meritocratic success? If he is magnanimous enough to acknowledge that he benefitted from his whiteness somewhere along the way from private boarding school to Harvard College to Harvard Law to Hogan & Hartson to the Supreme Court, must he still cling to the idea that the system is basically just—that even when people like him benefit from whiteness, the magnitude of their merit eclipses all the little ways social systems dole out injustice? If the system is basically just, is not the primary task for the man of clarity and principle to preserve that system, and purge it of so-called correctives that indict both it and its beneficiaries? Must not the man of clarity and principle also insist that the situation of blacks and whites in America is morally symmetrical, notwithstanding any remaining inequalities?

Roberts’ acceptance of the idea that the situation of blacks and whites is morally symmetrical underwrites his hostility to race-conscious public policy. Relinquishing that idea would mean confronting his own placement at the pinnacle of American racial hierarchy. The notion that the playing field—even if occasionally rough and muddy—is basically level, and that the winners on that field have real reason to congratulate themselves, may be the primary source of Roberts’ hostility toward race-conscious public policy. For in attributing injustice to the system, such policy questions the merit of the winners. Losing his identity as a winner is too much for Roberts to tolerate.

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