The conceit of this piece by Josh Marshall is that there's some great mystery to why some people feel differently than he does about whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. In fact it's brutally simple: Marshall sees nothing to fear from authority and the state, because he is one of the Chosen People of authority and the state. Meanwhile, those who are not among the elect fear and distrust authority, because it daily oppresses them. This fear and distrust is as rational as a thing can be, but Marshall cannot bring himself to believe in it.
Marshall has that in common with Jeffrey Toobin, Richard Cohen, and David Brooks: no reason to fear the police state. Why should they? They are, all of them, American aristocrats: white, male, rich, and properly deferential to anyone with a title or a badge or authority or an office. Of course they don't know why anyone would worry about limitless surveillance. They themselves have nothing to fear because they are the overclass. They can't imagine what it might be like to be Muslim or black or poor or to have any other characteristic that removes them from the ranks of the assumed blameless.
But the story of America is the story of people with reason to fear power. It's the story of how very dangerous it can be to find oneself outside of the overclass, how relentlessly the state and the moneyed work to crush difference. Marshall's notion that men like Manning and Snowden should simply have backed off and played by the rules is one of the most consistent and dishonest messages in American political history. It was the message delivered to the AIDS activists who are profiled in How to Stop a Plague. It was the message delivered to Martin Luther King and the rest of the Civil Rights movement. It was the message delivered to the suffragettes. It was the message delivered to the abolitionists. It was the message delivered to the American revolutionaries. In each case, self-serious men told those who perceived themselves to be oppressed and suffering to get on board and play by the rules, in deference to the community.
Would Marshall have told the Black Panthers that they should have colored within the lines? Would he have told them that they had nothing to fear from the state? Ask Fred Hampton if he had anything to fear from the security state. I don't know how Marshall would regard the Black Panthers. He might be the type of liberal to cluck his tongue at their radicalism. The other movements I mentioned have all become lacquered in bronze in the American mind, and I don't doubt that he'd rush to say that of course he would have supported their movements. And that, really, is the contemporary American liberal in its Platonic state: supportive of all resistance movements, so long as they live in history. Today's movements never rate. They are too challenging, too impolite.
That's part of Corey Robin's point, in this post. He points out that Brooks's limp appeals to family and community are in keeping with traditional methods used to bring radicals and subversives to heel. For someone like Brooks, there's no contradiction between communal fidelity and deference to power. His community is power. His family is the overclass. He wants you to defer to society because he knows no society but the society of the comfortable, of the safe, of the privileged. Perhaps Josh Marshall has, in the realm of pure theory, a greater regard for those who find themselves outside of the benevolent embrace of the American establishment. But as he demonstrates, he cannot see to really understand what it means to be disfavored by power, to be disfavored by government. Again and again in the past few days, we have read people delivering some version of the same argument. "I don't see what they have to worry about." That's the real crime, of the people who attack Edward Snowden instead of grappling with what it means to be a subversive in the eyes of the state: a profound failure of imagination.