Opinion: In Democracy, True Patriots Question The Government
I am feeling patriotic by proxy. Earlier this month, the British Parliament hauled the editor of The Guardian – one of that country's most respected papers – before the Home Affairs Select Committee and questioned his patriotism because The Guardian had published some of the documents leaked by ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Sadly, our friends across the pond seem to need a reminder that love of country is not synonymous with love of its government, or carte blanche for its government's misdeeds.
A true patriot, Mark Twain posited, supports his country all of the time, but his government only when it deserves it. The unstated premise of Twain's oft-quoted aphorism is that the people must have unfettered access to information that allows them to decide whether or not their government deserves their support, or their opprobrium. Patriotism follows where information leads it.
Enter Alan Rusbridger, aforementioned editor and, courtesy of the natural inclination of politicians the world over to pander to the lowest common denominator, eloquent defender of a free press. When the committee chairman – playing, no doubt, to the BBC cameras present in the House chamber – asked Rusbridger if he loved his country, Rusbridger responded with words that ought to be engraved on the walls of the House of Commons and that deserve a verbatim recitation here:
"I'm slightly surprised to be asked the question," Rusbridger said. "But, yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact that one can in this country discuss and report these things. One of the things I love about this country is that we have that freedom to write, and report, and to think and we have some privacy."
Jolly well done, Mr. Rusbridger. And doubly well done given some of the pressure allegedly put on you and The Guardian in order to stifle debate: destruction of the paper's property and threats of criminal prosecution (a dauntingly real possibility in a nation with no First Amendment). However, more ominous even than such bullying tactics was the Orwellian "advice" of one senior Whitehall official to Rusbridger that "there has been enough debate now."
Perhaps they're making the G&T's a touch strong at Whitehall these days. In a democracy, there never can be "enough debate." It is only through unrestricted discussion of public issues bathed in Brandeis' great disinfectant – sunlight – that a free society can cure its ailments and chart a proper course through dangerous waters. Certainly, it is not the government's place to cut off debate, whether due to embarrassment over illegality, or a misguided and patronizing paternalism.
Some powerful folks in London, and, shamefully, in Washington, too, seem to have forgotten that of late. Whatever the arguments for and against the legality of the NSA's data-mining program (more on that below), it is no solution to squelch any argument about the topic; that is a short road to the worst kind of tyranny: the kind that fools itself into believing it's still democracy.
The first, all-too-tempting step on that road is the precise sort of pressure put on Rusbridger and The Guardian. Back off. Play along. Cooperate. Because, hey, you do love your country, right? Thankfully, this time, the pressuree had the cojones to resist and to remind the government what patriotism actually is and the manner in which the press is supposed to display its love of country. Next time – and have no doubt there will be a thousand thousand next times – the bow might just bend, or even break.
Back home in America earlier this week, thankfully, sanity reasserted itself just a bit when a federal judge weighed in on the legality of the NSA's mass surveillance and data collection activities. Judge Richard Leon (a W. appointee, by the way) issued a temporary injunction barring the NSA from collecting data on the plaintiffs' phone calls and ordered the NSA to destroy any records of their calling histories. Leon characterized the NSA program as "Orwellian" and an "indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion" of our privacy and opined that he likely would declare the program unconstitutional at a later trial.
Sadly, but correctly, Leon stayed his order to give the government time to appeal "in light of the significant national security interests at stake in this case and the novelty of the constitutional issues." It is a vain hope, I suppose, that someone in Washington – perhaps a former constitutional law professor with a bit of influence in the executive branch? – might decide that the time has come to pull the plug on this whole shameful chapter in our history. At this point, perhaps we should count ourselves lucky if no one tries to strong-arm the press into not reporting on it.