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21-06-13 Edward Snowden and America's Moral Complacency

21-06-13 Edward Snowden and America's Moral Complacency

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Published by William J Greenberg
Today, Edward Snowden is my hero. More importantly, he is my father’s hero. And he speaks for us both, among others.
Today, Edward Snowden is my hero. More importantly, he is my father’s hero. And he speaks for us both, among others.

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Published by: William J Greenberg on Jun 23, 2013
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 Weekend Edition June 21-23, 2013Speak For My Father Edward Snowden and America’s Moral Complacency by DREUX RICHARDToday, Edward Snowden is my hero. More importantly, he is my father’s hero. And he speaksfor us both, among others.In 1976, my father was appointed to the Church Committee, which had been convened to review(and rein in) US intelligence gathering practices. Its findings resulted in the establishment of thesecret court system by which the National Security Agency has now obtained – with Patriot Actas lever – so much digital information about Americans’ private lives.During his time on the Committee, my father was both shocked by what he learned andheartened by the substantive measures taken to guard American citizens’ privacy. And my father was not an easy man to surprise or mollify. He was a student of the unfolding Cold War, a fluentspeaker of Russian who had lived in St. Petersburg, where his Vietnamese classmates hadscrawled anti-American invective on the blackboards. His closest friends from St. Petersburgeventually undertook a sudden, dangerous defection to the United States. My father knew whatthe world’s most advanced intelligence gathering apparatuses could do, how arbitrary andvindictive their agendas could be, and how deeply enmeshed their domestic incursions could become with Cold War insecurities and paranoia. Then, he took some comfort in technology’slimits. A friend working for the NSA once reassured him that the technology needed toefficiently gather and review a large volume of broadly-targeted phone records simply didn’texist. My father was relieved. If that kind of broad intercept were possible, it would strike at theheart of our freedom of association, already grown so frail.My parents were both liberal DC beltway attorneys of the come-to-do-good variety. I wastherefore enrolled in a so-called progressive primary school, which was selective and expensive.The teachers there shared my parents’ professed politics, and the school possessed its trivialemblems of indifference toward mainstream education, a carpeted gym chief among them. Butthese were the children of the wealthy and influential, their ruthlessness preternatural andimperturbable (mine, within its own lights, was no exception). Only the precocious were liked bytheir peers: athletes, musicians, children with savant-level math ability. The rest were legitimatetargets for harassment that often took on subtle and sinister dimensions, in large part due to theabove-average intelligence and sense of entitlement that pervaded our environment.The occasional African-American student – whose parents were often conspicuously less bourgeois than the rest – was treated with detached disdain, the detachment a feature of adultenforcement: the ‘white’ children knew that any overt criticism of their darker-skinned peerswould be considered beyond the pale. But our teachers could only place so many fingers in so
many dikes: black students often struggled or left the school, and slur-riddled graffiti showed upon the door of our only black teacher’s classroom, directed toward her black Muslim intern.Though none of us could articulate it then (and none would dare once we were old enough tounderstand what had happened), we didn’t care about our peers’ race at all. But in our quietlyvicious way, influenced, perhaps, by our parents’ constant articulation of meritocracy – that mosthollow of liberal adornments – we knew these children were not marked for success, and weknew that their presence among us signaled our school’s finely tuned sense of guilt about thatvery fact. In our own childlike way, we resented having our parents’ sense of shame andstratification thrust onto us, who were yet innocent, wealthy and bright.Today, I understand the good intentions and tremendous financial sacrifice that underlay my parents’ decision to enroll me in that school. And I understand the rewards my expensiveeducation has allowed me to reap. But I still begrudge my parents that decision. Partly becausethey chose the progressive school over an admittedly less liberal bilingual institution, a choicewhich robbed me of my fragile Spanish fluency: I had been raised by my Ecuadorian nanny,Matildé, whose hundred-hour-per-week presence in my household was another ambivalentfeature of the highly-disciplined system of “middle class” self-sacrifice my parents had tocomply with in order to – as David Simon might have put it – get paid, make friends, and have afuture.But above all else, my bitterness about my formative educational experience arises from an ever-sharpening memory of my teachers’ watchfulness, and their concomitant, fundamentaldishonesty. The adults saw everything. We saw that they saw. And we saw that, in spite of all thehumanistic rhetoric they daily hung on us, they never really spoke. We saw, though we lackedthe vocabulary or class consciousness to articulate it, that if our teachers wanted to keep their  jobs, they had to avoid the eminently punishable good deed of identifying the futility of their task: using progressive education as a do-as-I-say enjoinder against the pervasivecompetitiveness and atomization that defined the society we were preparing to join, even in itsliberal reaches. In this manner, moral complacency was role modeled for us, as it was for somany children in so many milieus – educational and otherwise – across the country. Since,almost all of us have proven ourselves to be excellent pupils.I have had this conversation with my parents, and often begrudge my father his complaints – though they aren’t really so numerous – about the time and place where we live. I remind himthat it was his generation, in spite of the tremendous momentum generated during the ‘60s andall the resulting moral authority they claim, who are responsible for today’s America. Once, inresponse, my father laid bare the impatience and naiveté underlying the notion that any onegroup of people – even an entire generation – could be responsible for something so enormous.“I challenge you,” he said, “to find anyone my age who’s willing to say that today’s world is theone they wanted, or even the one they envisioned.” He was right. The world is not somethingthat happens, much less something that is made to happen. It is something that accrues, as muchthrough an absence of action as through action itself, over the course of history.After Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, my father was the last Democrat out the door at theDepartment of Justice. For his non-partisan efforts to facilitate the department’s Carter-to-
Reagan transition, he received a framed letter from the Gipper himself, which he managed torestrain himself from burning for as long as it took him to lose track of it. He then joined theranks of liberal political operatives jockeying to maintain their relevance until Americans votedin another Democrat. This was not a fair, humane or even meritocratic competition, and thus began my father’s disillusionment, whereby he learned how little a professed morality – or a beloved platform of noble goals – means when weighed against the American dream’sunadorned core: who gets what job.Eventually, he learned to laugh at the more ridiculous moments. For instance, an acquaintance’s blunt refusal – as a guest at my parents’ dinner table – to so much as entertain the notion of helping my father network, so rudely put and so bald-facedly self-interested that her boyfriendlater called my parents to apologize and cemented the apology by dumping her. The guest inquestion was Zoë Baird, later nominated to be Attorney General by Bill Clinton.At the time, however, such moments severely disoriented my father, who suffered from a senseof fair play learned during a childhood that, for all its imperfections, manifested a social mobilityso elusive – and yet so culturally resonant – that, if it were tangible, would probably be in amuseum by now. The first in his family to attend college, he transcended his working class background by studying his way into Princeton, and then Harvard Law School. Because he wasthat rare individual whose life had unfolded accordingly, my father embraced the Americanmythos that has been used to delude so many people of modest means into neglecting or antagonizing their own political interests. In fact, I believe my father rarely questioned Americanvalues as such until his only sibling, who was openly gay, died of AIDS in 1989, adrift in thegenerous bile so many Americans found it in their hearts to spew while their brothers sufferedand perished.Zoë Baird, by the way, withdrew her 1993 Attorney General nomination after revelations aboutthe nanny and chauffeur she’d hired – both illegal immigrants whose social security taxes shehad evaded. The incident, dubbed Nannygate, took on a personal dimension for me: itilluminated the subtle moral differences that separate social strivers like Baird from honestwhite-collar laborers like my parents, regardless of their common profession. My parents hadalways been assiduous in assisting Matildé – both legally and practically – with her immigrationstatus, which required borrowing against the time they usually reserved for getting ahead in their  jobs. That hard work later resulted in Matildé’s naturalization as an American citizen, a process I participated in by helping her study for her citizenship exam. When Matildé took her oath, mymother and I were the two guests she invited. Now I, too, am an immigrant, who in turn spends his time working with immigrants. I report onJapan’s tiny African expatriate community for Tokyo’s daily English-language newspaper. Mostof Japan’s African immigrants are Nigerian, and most of them are Igbo, which is to say they aremembers of an ethnicity whose fierce individualism and egalitarianism (traditional Igbo culturerecognized no kings or chiefs) was smashed by missionaries who imposed a hierarchical socialsystem, which makes for a much more efficient control mechanism. Today, Igbo people inhabit anation whose boundaries have been delineated according to the West’s whims, visible in thegeopolitical subtexts of the war fought over Biafra – the independent Igbo state declared in 1967.

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