What's the NSA Story? It's Up to You
There's been a lot said already about MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry's weird "Edward Snowden, Come On Home" letter -- much of it in the comments on her website. On Twitter, I noted how bizarre it was to hear someone non-satirically begging Snowden to help her stop talking about him ("So come on home, Ed. So we could talk about, you know, something else"). Her recognition that in America we have more than 80,000 people held in solitary confinement, and that the government's treatment of whistleblower Bradley Manning has been cruel and inhuman, coupled with her assurances that Snowden has nothing to worry about with regard to his own potential treatment by US authorities, was also strange. And of course, most fundamentally, did Harris-Perry really believe Snowden might read this thing and think, "You know, she makes some really good points in there, maybe I should just surrender?" Overall, the whole letter comes across as embarrassingly thoughtless and self-indulgent.
Reading Harris-Perry's piece, I wondered what would cause someone who's likely otherwise intelligent and thoughtful to write something so stupid. And then I noticed what I think is the answer, right in the letter itself.
Read the letter. Note how Harris-Perry calls someone she doesn't know, whose first name to my knowledge has never been described in news reports as other than Edward (she identifies him as such herself), "Ed." Not just once, but six times throughout the short letter -- "Ed." And not merely adopting a first-name basis with someone she doesn't know, but unilaterally shortening his name to a nickname, too. Note too the exclamation points, the ellipses, the "you know," the overall tone. The letter is just dripping with contempt.
I think it was this contempt that blinded Harris-Perry to the ridiculousness of her letter. And it occurs to me that this is a good reason to treat contempt with great care. It's not just impolite to the other person. It's dangerous to you. It gives you permission to dismiss facts and logic and context, all in the service of indulging the pleasure of feeling superior.
Contempt is a like a drug. It feels good, but it impairs you. It you want to ingest it, it's best to do so only with great caution, and not while you're operating heavy machinery like a public letter or a television appearance. And it follows that courtesy isn't something you offer only out of respect for the other person. It's also something you offer to help keep yourself honest -- and smart.
Harris-Perry does one other thing in the letter that always strikes me as odd: she refers repeatedly to "we." In fact, I counted 13 instances of the word "we" in her short letter. As I said in a recent post on another exercise in emotionally-driven embarrassment:
I have to add, I loved that "we," too. Back in the day in Japan, the Emperor, after a particularly fulfilling meal, would lean back and proclaim, "Yo wa manzoku ja" -- literally, "The world is satisfied." Because, if the Emperor is contented, that means all must be well throughout the entire world. I'm always reminded of this species of royal neurosis when I encounter the Jonathan Chaits of the world, losing sight of where their preferences and feelings end and those of the rest of the world begin.
Who is this "we"? Is it the royal we? Has someone appointed Harris-Perry the representative of like-minded people? Of the media? Of all of America? Who is she talking about, and how did she come to believe she represents that group?
This form of narcissism is fairly widespread in the news. I was hoping it would get a specific entry in the DSM-5, but alas. Even though it hasn't yet been formally recognized as a neurosis, though, I'd still like to point it out, along with contempt, as a danger sign. Understanding that your opinions are your own helps keep you aware that you should have a proper basis for them. Deluding yourself that your opinions are shared by everyone else -- that you, in effect, somehow stand for everyone else -- makes you lazy and sloppy. Why would you need evidence when everyone else feels the same way?
I don't know Harris-Perry and she probably does a lot of good work. If she could have been more aware of her contempt for Snowden and of the fact that her opinions belong only to her, I think she would have realized she was about to say some very stupid things -- before she actually said them. Her mistake was a good lesson for me, and I hope it will be for others, too -- Harris-Perry included.
I want to add one more thing -- about Harris-Perry's underlying notion that the media's focus on revelations of illegal NSA domestic spying, on the one hand, and on Snowden himself, on the other, is somehow a zero-sum game, with a focus on one achievable only at the expense of the other. I think this is simplistic. I'm sure there are instances where a focus on one thing can only be achieved at the expense of a focus on another (the notion in implicit in the concept of "focus" itself), but is this really one of them? I wonder if it's possible that some of the fascination with Snowden himself isn't part of what has increased attention to and awareness of the substance of his revelations. My sense, in fact, is that Snowden's involvement in the story has made the story itself much bigger, thereby increasing the overall size of the story's substantive aspects. I can't really prove this notion, but it's at least a possibility, and I don't know why so many people seem blind to it and instead reflexively assume that a certain amount of discussion of Snowden himself must be smothering attention to substance.
If I'm right in believing that Snowden/NSA is more synergistic than it is zero-sum, it means the way the government and its servants in the establishment media are fighting the substance of Snowden's leaks is a high-risk strategy. The game is to convert the substantive story into a tabloid fascination with the weird, marginalized, untrustworthy loser who leaked it. When the strategy works, people discount or otherwise stop caring about substance. But to get to that point, the establishment first has to draw a lot of attention to the whistleblower him- or herself. Paradoxically, the establishment's efforts to distract from the substance of the story by talking about the whistleblower means that for a while, at least, the establishment is growing the story overall. If their overall efforts fail, they're left with a much bigger overall story than would have been the case had they not tried so hard to derail it.
For the moment, the establishment's strategy seems not to be working -- amazingly, in the face of a coordinated government/establishment media demonization campaign, 55% of Americans believe Snowden is a whistleblower while only 34% believe he's a traitor. Recognizing this, I expect the powers-that-be will double down on their strategy. Ironically, if it continues to go poorly, they will succeed only in generating more attention to the substance of Snowden's revelations. It's up to each of us to help make the demonization strategy fail, and a great way to do it is by recognizing that we can focus on whatever aspects of the overall story we think are most important. Ms. Harris-Perry, that includes you.