Men of action who successfully interrupt the mini-dramas of Washington can drive Washington’s insiders nuts, especially ones as self-consciously cerebral as David Brooks. Edward Snowden doesn’t prick his conscience. Rather, he inflames his off-the-rack high Tory prejudices. Here’s a taste from the introduction of his column, The Solitary Leaker:
“From what we know so far, Edward Snowden appears to be the ultimate unmediated man. Though obviously terrifically bright, he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way through community college.
“According to The Washington Post, he has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years. When a neighbor in Hawaii tried to introduce himself, Snowden cut him off and made it clear he wanted no neighborly relationships …
“Though thoughtful, morally engaged, and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.”
Snowden can’t be a hero or even a serious traitor; he’s not qualified. There’s no way David Brooks would accept a brown envelope—or a lesson in American civics—from a high-tech, high school dropout.
Snowden isn’t a "product" of Yale—one of those mediated gentlemen that gave us Iraq or the son of one of those team players from Harvard that gave us Vietnam. He’s the “product” of a Time magazine cover: the atomized society.
If only Snowden had taken off his designer glasses and hoisted an AK-47. If only he was angry about the IRS and had a parent in the Tea Party. Then Brooks could have put him to music on a familiar complaint: the annoying "no-nothings" who don’t appreciate the imperatives of our complex society.
Brooks, at one point, graciously submitted to the obvious; the NSA programs that scare Snowden “could lend themselves to abuse in the future.” For now, however, Brooks has other worries:
“But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric, and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.”
Americans are divided and individualistic and its politics have been contending with that for well over 2 centuries. Brooks seems to think, however, that the overriding business of 21st-century American politics remains to prove America’s 18th-century critics were wrong.
Of course, whether a "tide of distrust" is too high, or just right, is always a subject of empirical and ideological dispute in a gigantic democracy. Personally, I favor a rather high level of distrust; I just wish it was a little more evenhanded and less partisan.
The "common good" is also a moving target—and no longer reliably passed on in the best families or even in our best institutions. For those reasons, politics are bracingly significant these days.
Big Brother, however, is technically feasible today and—without unmediated troublemakers like Edward Snowden around—will prevail in those solemn bureaucracies dedicated to serving the COMMON GOOD.