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.
I think Freddie is exactly right about this, and I also think that this is one of the key points where the people of the real Left, like Freddie, and traditionalists, like me, find their interests and viewpoints converging. We suspect the vast and ever-increasing powers of the militaristic surveillance state for very similar reasons: we see its infinite voraciousness, its lust either to consume or erase differences, and its willingness to persecute and prosecute anyone who won’t get on board.
This convergence is not new: consider, for instance, the astonishing overlap between the views expressed by the socialist George Orwell in 1984 and those expressed by the Christian conservative C. S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength, right down to the brilliant parodies in both of foully obfuscatory bureaucratic language. Both writers see the rhetorical subtlety by which the pink police state entrenches itself before ultimately revealing its true character. (Orwell didn’t seem to know quite what to make of Lewis’s novel when he reviewed it — he strongly disliked its supernaturalism — but it ended up having a significant influence on the development of 1984. Lewis for his part didn’t especially care for 1984 but thought Animal Farm was “a work of genius.”)
However, the concerns of the two groups are not identical. Traditionalists tend to focus on forming and sustaining their own “little platoons” in freedom from governmental interference; they want to be allowed to stay outside the main stream of American culture, at least to some degree. The genuine left is more focused on how to help those people who are forcibly excluded from that main stream, who, far from worrying about how to stay out, can’t figure out how to get in. But these are general tendencies. Traditionalists can also care about the forcibly excluded, and leftists can promote the flourishing of pockets of difference.
Our ideas about what constitutes a good society may be too different for us to make common cause in the arena of electoral politics, but we should at least listen to one another more often — and explore conversations that could tell us just how far a shared commitment to civil liberties can take us.