From Jeff's Desk

Summertime and the Posting is Slowing: Notes on Egypt, and on Obama, the NSA and Snowden, and the Social Condition and the Ironies of Consequence

Goin’ Fishing? Not quite, but things here at Deliberately Considered are slowing down for the summer, as I go to teach in the Democracy and Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, Poland, and then to take part in a research project on Regime and Society in Eastern Europe (1956 – 1989) in Sofia, Bulgaria. After three years of regular, often daily, publishing, posts will be less frequent until September. At that time, we will be presenting Deliberately Considered in a new form.

Here some quick thoughts on topics I would like to write about now, but don’t have the time or energy to do so thoroughly.

On Egypt: I am fascinated by the grayness of it all: the unbearable grayness of being? I don’t see heroic figures or villains. Rather I see mortals, tragic figures, facing huge challenges, beyond their capacity to address.

Most objective observers are labeling the latest turn of events as a coup, but that seems to me to be too simple. Equally simplistic is the view of those who see the events as a clear political advance. A democratically elected leader, President Morsi, was overthrown by the military, not a good thing. But there was a significant popular movement, perhaps representing more than fifty per cent of the public, demanding the resignation of Morsi and new elections, and a resetting of the political order, which didn’t include them and their opinions, and didn’t provide the mechanisms for recalling the President. Yet, a legitimate President, from the point of view of many of the over fifty percent that voted for him, has been removed by the military. While I am no fan of military interventions in politics, I know that there is a real danger when a party confuses its particular interests with the common good. Yet, while lack of inclusion was a key problem in the Muslim Brotherhood led regime, it continues to be a problem as reports today indicate a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

On Obama, the NSA and Snowden: I am disappointed, dismayed and irritated. National security is the one arena in which I have been least satisfied with Obama’s Presidency. I had wanted a clear line to be drawn between the policies of Bush and Cheney, and Obama’s. The compromised civil liberties and the continued escalation of surveillance revealed by Snowden’s leaks, alas, indicate continuity rather than change. I think the leaks serve good purpose. I also think the arguments Obama presented in his national security speech provide reasonable grounds for the criticism of the administrations surveillance policies. There is, indeed, a need for a consequential national conversation on the continued ways the war on terror has compromised civil liberties in the United States and beyond. Obama seems to recognize this, but he has not facilitated the discussion, to say the least. On the other hand, I can’t stand the self-righteous, self-serving arguments of Snowden and his chief supporters, Glenn Greenwald and WikiLeaks. The demonization of the U.S. and Obama, the absolute certainty that all surveillance is about the projection of oppressive power – is not serious. As I felt after the attacks of 9/11, I find the critics of official policy as dismaying as the official policy itself. And the melodrama of Snowden’s search for asylum makes matters worse. Why didn’t he stand his ground on principle in the U.S.? Seeking asylum in countries with regimes with questionable human rights records is irritating and confuses important issues, as does the 24/7 news treatment of Snowden’s latest whereabouts and likely endpoint.

Politics and the social condition: I think the NSA revelations and the events in Egypt underscore the reasons for studying social dilemmas as they are knitted into the fabric of social and political life. Iddo Tavory and I are working hard on this over the “summer vacation.” I am leaning heavily on Hannah Arendt, he on Jean Paul Sartre. We believe that there is something missing in social science. It oversimplifies. Today I am thinking about the political significance of our project. If Obama and his critics would recognize, discuss and act upon complexity, perhaps the line between then and now, between Bush and Obama, would be drawn. Perhaps, if all parties recognized the problems of inclusion, democracy and social justice could be constituted in Egypt. I know this may sound naïve, another example of my easy hopefulness. But consider the alternative: without the recognition and understanding of dilemmas, the political challenges in Egypt and between Obama and his critics can’t be resolved.

The Ironies of Consequence: Daniel Dayan and I are talking about analyzing the interaction of what I call “the politics of small things” and what he calls “monstration.” We have had many discussions on this, public and private, in classrooms, at conferences, and in very pleasant meetings in our favorite cafes, and at our homes in New York and Paris. In our last meeting, in the spring, we agreed that our focus would be on what we are calling “the ironies of consequence.” Apparently trivial things sometimes have major consequences, while what appears to be of major significance, has little consequence. And there is also much in between. Take the recent surveillance revelations: it is striking how popular and elite European responses were strong, while the American public and political leadership responded quite weakly. The Americans responded as cynical world-weary cosmopolitans, apparently understanding the ways of the world and power, while the Europeans at least feigned outrage, appalled that a security apparatus uses state of the art methods to gather information on foreign and domestic citizens, and other states, both friend and foe. Media reporting, I believe, shapes this. I wish I had time to show it. I think as I did, I would also be showing how unstable these responses are.

This will have to wait for a couple of months. We will continue to publish pieces occasionally, deliberately, but less frequently, responding to the events of the day. In the pipeline: Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer’s “Reflections on Al Qaeda in Mali and Other Radicals at the Gates,” and Susan Pearce’s update on the cultural shutdown in Bosnia and Herzegovina and her report on the LGBT pride parade in Istanbul.

  • David Ashley

    Jeffrey, can you show us where Greenwald informs us that he is certain that “all surveillance is evil” (for instance, presumably, according to you, he believes it is “evil” for some clerk to look at my income tax return), or should we just read this as cheap, vulgar and easy rhetoric on your part and as a substitute for deliberate consideration?

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    not all surveillance, but his rejection of national security arguments
    is nearly total. He is sure they are invariably about those in power
    protecting not the public but themselves.This may be so sometimes but he
    is too absolute in my judgment. Also he is too quick to vilify those he
    disagrees with, rather than engage them. I am editing the text though
    following your advice. Please keep in mind, that I think the revelations are important, fear that the way Snowden as his supporters have acted undermines the importance of what he revealed.

  • Scott

    Greenwald does the very important work of criticizing power,
    and he does so in a very uncompromising fashion. This is often to his merit.
    However, Prof. Goldfarb is correct that Greenwald does not rationally engage
    those he disagrees with, but when criticized immediately goes on the
    counter-attack, even when his interlocutor is merely playing devil’s advocate.
    Sometimes your opponent has important point to make, and when he or she does, it should be acknowledged, not dismissed as a knee-jerk reaction.

    Having said that, as a lawyer, Greenwald wouldn’t necessarily dismiss all surveillance, but primarily that which violates civil liberties and is clearly a “projection of oppressive power.” And it’s interesting that Greenwald has quoted former Democratic Senator Frank Church, who in 1975 said that the surveillance state’s “capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: Telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.” I think then that the broader concern is the continually expanding security state, and where the line should be drawn that demarcates not only the acceptable level of surveillance, but also the point of no return.