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Edward Snowden, the People, and the Demystification of Obama


* Author note: the original version of this essay referred to the whistleblower Snowden as "Eric."  He is in fact Edward. Corrections were made at 11:22 AM CST.

The U.S. Citizenry v. the U.S. Government on Snowden 

I would like U.S. corporate media to stop saying that “the U.S.” is “pressing” and “lashing out at China and Russia” (I use a typical quote from New York Times headlines yesterday) in its effort to extradite the “national security” “leaker” Edward Snowden. Please. I am a taxpaying citizen of the United States and I have no problem with whistleblower Edward Snowden’s heroic efforts to expose “my” government’s brazen violation of the citizenry’s 4th amendment rights (the ones against unreasonable searches and seizures) through its tracking and collection of massive amounts of data on everyday citizens’ e-mail and phone contacts and Internet searches. That government is hunting Snowden over and against my opposition. 

I am apparently not alone among U.S. citizens in my lack of enthusiasm for “the United States’” campaign to snatch Snowden. While establishment cretins like the badly overrated Times columnist David Brooks denounced Snowden as a “grandiose narcissist,” a HuffingtonPost/YouGov survey found that 38 percent of Americans think Snowden did “the right thing,” compared to 35 percent who think he did “the wrong thing” (28 percent are “not sure”). An Ipsos/Reuters poll found that 31 percent of Americans call Snowden a “patriot” compared to just 23 percent who call him a “traitor” (46 percent are “unsure”). 

A CBS survey asked respondents if they agreed that federal agencies should be allowed to collect secret phone data on ordinary Americans in order to reduce the threat of terror.  Fully 58 percent disapproved, compared to 38 percent who approved. 

A Gallup poll asked respondents what they thought of the government obtaining records from larger U.S. phone and Internet companies to compile telephone call logs and Internet communications profiles on U.S. citizens Fifty three percent disapproved, compared to 37 percent who approved.

Surreal Fetters 

That would be majority opposition to the programs Snowden has risked his freedom and life to reveal. Apparently many among that quaint category known as we the people have a different take on “national security” than that of former constitutional law professor President Obama (one of the most anti-civil libertarian presidents in U.S. history) and his good friend Dick Cheney. We know in our bones that U.S. Founder James Madison was right to observe that “The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.” 

Meanwhile, Barack “this isn’t Dick Cheney” Obama continues to feed real and imagined terrorist dangers – the official pretext for his epic snooping and more (including his creepy, personally approved “kill list”) – by continuing the terrorist “global war on terror” and the terrible drone attacks from which he has recently tried to distance himself.  There is something surreal (as Noam Chomsky puts it) about Obama justifying his assault on our 4th Amendment rights by citing the threat of terrorism as he feeds that threat – through terrorism. 

Equally absurd is the administration’s claim to welcome the debate on snooping and surveillance opened by Snowden’s intervention and by recent revelations on the U.S. Justice Department’s seizure of Washington Post reporters’ phone records. The White House did not want this discussion at all. 

“Demystified”: From “Yes We Can” to “Yes We Scan”

Of course, it’s not just American citizens that are under surveillance from the Obama-Cheney police state. European and other world citizens and government officials have also learned quite a bit recently about the extent to which Uncle Sam is tracking and listening in to their conversations. That is no small part of the telling contrast between Obama’s triumphant speech before 200,000 star-struck Germans in Berlin in July of 2008 and his talk last week before just 5000 invited guests in the same city. One week before Obama’s return to Germany, Reuters’ reporter Noah Barkin noted that “Many Germans still recall blanket surveillance under the communist Stasi secret police, and when news of Washington's covert [global] spying program PRISM broke last week, the newspaper headline of choice was ‘Yes we scan.’” 

Writing from Berlin last week Reuters’ Michael Kappeler noted that “many are now saying that Obama’s reputation is ‘tarnished,’ by his recent snooping scandals, his extension of the war on terror, and the hard luck realities of failing to deliver on all your promises…He’s ‘demystified’ and ‘no longer a superstar’ in German eyes. Now he’s just another world leader on a state visit….” 

An interesting formulation. “Just another world leader”? Obama is the chief executive of world’s history’s most powerful empire and a clever, establishment-vetted politician who gave that empire a fake-progressive makeover like no other candidate could have at the time. But yes, the Ba-rockstar luster has worn off and many Europeans must be wondering what they were thinking – and if the there is any way to repeal a Nobel Peace Prize. 

“Hard luck realities of failing to deliver on all your promises”? Kappeler might want to study up on the U.S. political and power system and what the formerly left Christopher Hitchens once called “the essence of American politics…the manipulation of populism by elitism.” Successful U.S. politicians – presidential ones especially – have no intention of actually delivering on the egalitarian- and democratic-sounding and outwardly heartfelt, often teary-eyed pledges they make to voters. The administration can mock authoritarian China and Russia’s pretense of concern for liberty in “protecting Snowden,” but U.S. elected officials are hopelessly subordinated to, and enmeshed in, their own nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.

Left Invisible 

For what it’s worth, I started demystifying the Obama phenomenon (for star-stuck Europeans and others abroad as well as U.S. citizens) in the summer of 2004, just two days after the Democratic National Convention Keynote Address that launched the Obama phenomenon at home and abroad. (Google up my name and “Keynote Reflections” if you don’t believe me; then read my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, written mainly in 2007). Nothing Barack “Under the Bus” Obama has done to violate his people-pleasing promises and imagery in service to concentrated wealth and power has ever surprised me or a significant broader cadre of other officially invisible U.S. left activists and commentators who understood and warned about the viciously repressive, deeply conservative, and cold imperial and corporate-neoliberal essence of the Obama phenomenon early on. 

It’s a shame our findings and warnings were not picked up and broadcast across the nation and around the world from the start. Even in “left media,” I might add. 

Street’s next book, They Rule: the 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014). Street can be reached at [email protected]

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