Thursday, June 27, 2013

Privacy and Secrecy

This is my statement of support for Glenn Greenwald, who is now apparently under personal attack for his journalism about how the state spies on and lies to its citizens.

"The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold," sings Leonard Cohen in "The Future" ("it is murder"), "and it's overturned the order of the soul."

What he might have meant is that the soul requires privacy. The modern "security state", like the police states of old, does not give the soul a place to exist (does not give existence a place to be, we might say), because it dissolves the distinction between public and private matters. We have long lived in a society where the State's interest in your private life is proportional to the efficacy of your public criticism of it. (I've written about how ridiculous this is before.)

"There'll be a breaking of the ancient Western code.
Your private life will suddenly explode," sings Cohen.

He was predicting what is happening to Glenn Greenwald, as well as Edward Snowden, of course. And he was no doubt informed by what Nixon tried to do to Daniel Ellsberg. But I'm not sure Ellsberg is completely right that state power "uses those tactics against anyone who dissents from or challenges it simply to distract from the revelations and personally smear the person with whatever they can find to make people uncomfortable with the disclosures." That too, no doubt. But the main thing is to show everyone else what happens when you criticize power in a way that actually has some bite. You better make sure your private affairs are in order. It is intended to discourage future whistle-blowing, not effect damage control.

And this is the deeply sinister force of such personal attacks. The intelligence apparatus (having co-opted a good portion of the media), which does now seem to be an entirely soulless machine, is unable to distinguish between privacy and secrecy. It makes no distinction between keeping things to yourself and having something to hide. Greenwald's legal issues in the past were none of your business yesterday and are none of your business now, no matter what he did. The journalistic impulse to find out "what he's hiding" is one that, as in all matters of basic decency, one has an obligation to restrain. His past is a private matter, not a shameful secret. There's a difference. Only those who have no sense of decency do not understand this.

Greenwald was not hiding anything from us, like the NSA was hiding Prism from us. He just lived with what should have been a reasonable expectation of privacy. It is sad (but of course demonstrably true) to read that he was "fully expecting those kinds of attacks since [he] began [his] work on these NSA leaks." Note what it implies. Greenwald knew, going in, that to expose state secrets is to give up your personal privacy. That's because the State thinks that its counterattack is just two people playing at the same game. It probably thinks there is only one game.

The journalists who are attacking Greenwald (and Snowden and Assange and Manning and...) personally are napalming what Rosmarie Waldrop called "the lawn of the excluded middle". I'll unpack that notion & metaphor in a follow up post.

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