Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange are Our New Heroes

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/haak78

September 3, 2013
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We all remember President Obama’s smiling face, full of hope and trust, in his first campaign: “Yes, we can!” — we can get rid of the cynicism of the Bush era and bring justice and welfare to the American people. Now that the US continues its covert operations and expands its intelligence network, spying even on its allies, we can imagine protesters shouting at Obama: “How can you use drones for killing? How can you spy even on our allies?” Obama murmurs with a mockingly evil smile: “Yes, we can.”

But simple personalisation misses the point: the threat to freedom disclosed by whistleblowers has deeper, systemic roots. Edward Snowden should be defended not only because his acts annoyed and embarrassed US secret services; what he revealed is something that not only the US but also all great (and not so great) powers — from China to Russia, Germany to Israel — are doing (to the extent they are technologically able to do it).

His acts provided a factual foundation to our suspicions of being monitored and controlled — their lesson is global, reaching far beyond the standard US-bashing. We didn’t really learn from Snowden (or Manning) anything we didn’t already presume to be true. But it is one thing to know it in general, another to get concrete data. It is a little like knowing that one’s sexual partner is playing around — one can accept the abstract knowledge, but pain arises when one gets the steamy details, pictures of what they were doing …

Back in 1843, the young Karl Marx claimed that the German ancien regime “only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world should imagine the same thing”. In such a situation, to put shame on those in power becomes a weapon. Or, as Marx goes on: “The actual pressure must be made more pressing by adding to it consciousness of pressure, the shame must be made more shameful by publicising it.”

This, exactly, is our situation today: we are facing the shameless cynicism of the representatives of the existing global order, who only imagine that they believe in their ideas of democracy, human rights etc. What happens in WikiLeaks disclosures is that the shame — theirs, and ours for tolerating such power over us — is made more shameful by publicising it. What we should be ashamed of is the worldwide process of the gradual narrowing of the space for what Kant called the Immanuel “public use of reason”.

In his classic text, What Is Enlightenment?, Kant contrasts “public” and “private” use of reason — “private” is for Kant the communal-institutional order in which we dwell (our state, our nation …), while “public” is the transnational universality of the exercise of one’s reason: “The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The private use of one’s reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. By public use of one’s reason I understand the use that a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him.”

We see where Kant parts with our liberal common sense: the domain of state is “private” constrained by particular interests, while individuals reflecting on general issues use reason in a “public” way. This Kantian distinction is especially pertinent with internet and other new media torn between their free “public use” and their growing “private” control. In our era of cloud computing, we no longer need strong individual computers: software and information are provided on demand; users can access web-based tools or applications through browsers.

Republished from: AlterNet