Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Jay Rosen on "The Toobin Principle"


Jay Rosen of NYU has a nice essay on the inability of pundits like Jeffrey Toobin to tolerate support for Edward Snowden. Here are some of my thoughts:

Despite the appearance of contradiction (and while there is a tension), one can be consistent in thinking that the debate resulting from Snowden's leaks is good although Snowden's actions themselves are bad.

Jeffrey Toobin seems conservative to me. He certainly falls within the spectrum of standard American thinking where actions are justified instrumentally — by virtue of the good outcomes those actions produce. (The most dogmatically held example of this in the US is the conviction that enormous inequality is justified by the 'trickle down' effect.) So if the debate resulting from Snowden's actions is a good thing, Toobin must believe there is some overriding negative outcome that makes Snowden's actions bad. This could be a coherent argument, but neither Toobin nor others attacking Snowden make it because there is little real argument nor any wish for such in the mainstream about Snowden.

My suspicion regarding Toobin's (and others') distress over Snowden's leaks is threefold:

  1. Toobin and many journalists, scholars, observers like him (e.g., Matt Yglesias, Chris Hayes, David Gregory, etc.) deeply, personally identify with power, especially Washington ("This Town", as Mark Leibovich has described). They have powerful incentives to do so; their wellbeing as pilot fish depends on that of the sharks.
  2. They therefore see criticism of Obama or the US government as criticism of themselves.
  3. They are profoundly unable to conceive of the possibility that American leaders, in government or business, might be guilty of really awful wrongdoing. This is why years ago, for example, Toobin could casually attack OJ Simpson before the facts were in, but cannot criticize any American leader, like Obama, as a plausible candidate for war crimes charges.


Snowden or Wikileaks generate cognitive dissonance for the Toobins in America. They resolve the dissonance with just-so stories that exonerate American power. If they actually thought about it, they could construct a coherent argument. They are unaccustomed to doing so because the US culture is one that bitterly rejects challenges to power, fashion, wealth, fame.

"[D]emocracy here at home must be balanced against the requirements of security." What would be the response to: "Security here at home must be balanced against the requirements of democracy"? The notion that democracy brings demands seems to have been lost.

How would Obama or Sen. Feinstein or any of those who endlessly defend government abuses react if there were a broad, deep public demand for democracy, defense of rights, and an end to massive surveillance? If we have not already reached the point of no return, we are rapidly approaching one where a surge in public opposition would provoke a constitutional crisis worse than that seen in the Civil War. The crisis will likely never arise because the public is so misinformed, so deceived, and so dogmatic in its faithful attachment to American power that the demand will never be made.

Lest this seem like conspiracy theorizing or just handwaving, recall that in the Nixon years, calls by some within the administration for more troops in Vietnam were opposed because it was thought those troops might be needed in the US to quell domestic unrest. Recall also that both Bush and Obama made legal moves that would, in principle, undermine posse comitatus and allow use of US troops within the US.

Finally, despite racist hostility to Obama or malicious GOP opposition to anything Democratic, Americans are still overwhelmingly of the view that we owe obedience to political leaders. Americans identify the powerful in America with America itself. And they suffer under the delusion that they, any day now, will win the lottery and join the powerful.

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