The enemy of freedom is not tyranny. It’s complacency.
Our freedom, our lives – all that we believe in and hold dear does not get ripped from us all at once. It happens, as T.S. Eliot so famously said when he wrote: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.”
So it is. And so it would be without the whistle-blowers, the leakers of information – the dissidents.
Without them, it appears that we would not know what governments and corporations are really doing. If one thing has become clear, there is a major gap between what governments and corporations say and what they do. We accept this — almost as a fact of life. Why does it matter? They all lie anyway.
It does matter. That thing that so many have died for — our freedom — depends on it.
Our political freedom depends on it. You can’t have democracy unless we have truth. How else can you vote – even if that vote is for the lesser scoundrel?
Other aspects of our freedom depend on it. There are those who believe that governments should not legislate corporate behaviour. There are those who believe that in a global economy it cannot effective regulation of companies. Both would accept that these companies can be regulated by the market place – the consumer, the purchaser.
Dissidents expose our dirty little secret. That secret is? We think we are powerless. It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing anyone can do.
We’ve kept it a secret. We’ve allowed politicians, civil servants and many corporate leaders to keep up the lie.
Governments promise us openness. When they take power they have become more secretive. We have “freedom of information” and “privacy” legislation. When we request information, they first try to discourage with a bureaucratic process, then they deliver “redacted copies” with information blacked out. Governments spy on us; they monitor our behaviour, our phone calls, our information – they keep files on us, especially those who are engaged in dissent. If caught, we are hit with the logic, “if you have nothing to hide, why do you care?”
Some of us would ask our governments the same question. “If you have nothing to hide, why do YOU care?”
Yet governments do care – at the most trivial levels. Here’s an example from Canada – I’m sure you can find others around the world.
A lady was fired from a Canadian government department which has the Orwellian name “Employment Insurance” (It used to be, correctly Unemployment Insurance). Why was she fired? She “leaked” information that there were either quotas (her words) or targets (their words) on how many people she was required to cut off benefits. As an inspector, she felt that she should be enforcing the rules and not looking to hit an arbitrary number. With a concern for people – citizens and taxpayers – she felt were being treated unfairly, she went public.
And she was fired.
Or how about the veteran of Afghanistan who blew the whistle on the treatment of injured veterans. He was subpoenaed to appear in front of a legislative committee and he went there and told what he believed to be the truth. He was fired from the military. This disabled veteran, who had placed his life on the line for our freedom, was not allowed free speech – even under oath. Had that dismissal been upheld, he would have lost part of his pension benefits. Remember all he did to deserve this was to go under oath and tell the truth.
How can we not be outraged? In the first case, whether they are called targets or quotas is not the issue — these measures exist. Why on earth should they be secret? Don’t we have a right to know how our dollars are spent and how government policies are administered?
In the case of the veteran, who thankfully was reinstated when someone else “blew the whistle” on the firing and the press took up his case — why shouldn’t we all know how well or poorly our veterans are treated?
None of these are secrets that jeopardize national security or even merit being thought of as secret. They are just bureaucrats and politicians hiding their actions so the public doesn’t find out.
We should thank god for the whistleblowers. Thank god for this lady and this veteran. Thank god for the civic employees in Montreal and Toronto who leaked the scandals with the various mayors – too many to list. Without them how would we have known how corrupt our civic institutions are and about the infiltration of bribery, corruption and collusion with criminals – from organized crime to petty drug dealers.
Thank god for the employee of our tax department who leaked the information that a mobster had managed to get hundreds of thousands in a tax refund even though he owed the government much more. This was something that could have only happened with the cooperation of a senior employee. Without that, how would we know that organized crime has infiltrated the place where our most personal and intimate information and financial records are kept?
Yet in each case, the whistleblowers have been pursued with unparalleled vigour and viscousness. The full might of government has fallen upon them.
Then came Snowden. Without him we would never have known some of the excesses of both the US and Canadian governments. We would not know how much they spy on us, how they collect information on us. We would not know how they spy on friendly governments. We would not know they engaged in what can only be called corporate espionage. Why? The actions and the budgets — are secret. That’s right. Not only can’t you know what you are paying for. You are not even allowed to know how much you pay.
At this point, I’ve probably lost some of you. You might have followed the earlier examples. You probably wouldn’t do anything about it, but you might go tsk, tsk. But Snowden? For many that’s going too far.
Why? Recently an NSA director said, “Snowden will cost lives.” Could that be the reason? Perhaps. Except that I can’t seem to find any real way that Snowden has exposed any person to risk. He has revealed secret budgets that governments have and the extent to which they spy on those whom they claim they don’t or shouldn’t spy on from friendly nations to citizens. But the headline says, “he’ll cost lives” never seems to backed up with any substance. The best I could find was the senior CIA employee, who said that terrorists will know that they government is spying on them and they’ll be more careful.
You’ve got to be kidding. Does anyone seriously think that these terrorists who think that the US is “Satan” don’t believe that they US is doing everything to track them, catch them and kill them? We know terrorists are evil and deluded – but do we think they are idiots? No. But apparently, governments think we are.
Are we truly idiots? Or is it worse — do we secretly resent whistleblowers and dissidents? Is that why our reactions range from lukewarm tsk, tsk support to the apathy and even antipathy shown to Snowden.
Because these people pay an incredible price. Jobs are lost. Pensions jeopardized. In the worst cases, they lives are ruined. And we don’t seem to be all that grateful.
We do love the dissidents when they come out against our “enemies”. And politicians in opposition love the whistleblower who tells about government scandals so they can be outraged. When Russian or Chinese dissidents and defectors reveal secrets of their governments we are outraged that they are punished.
When it’s our dissidents, we are not so charitable. We buy the government line without really looking at it. It will cost lives. It will jeopardize our national security. It will hurt us.
Who really gets hurt? Besides the dissidents and whistleblowers? Government departments who have these idiotic policies are embarrassed. The holders of those government “secret budgets” are worrying because questions are being asked. People who have run a pretty lax security system that allowed Snowden, a contractor, to get that information out of the so-called “state of the art” security that supposedly should be protecting this information if its so sensitive. The government officials who have to look their foreign counterparts in the eyes and admit that they have been spying on them.
What really got hurt? Our reputation. We aren’t the good guys. We do underhanded things and dirty tricks. We got caught and we’re embarrassed.
I get that. I get why some politician is outraged. I get why some bureaucrat in a security apparatus is outraged.What I don’t understand is why we the public let them get away with it.
Has this been the way it has always has been? I’m not sure. I thought I remembered a different day. Remember “Deep Throat” in Watergate? Nixon and the guilty parties hated him. But the public loved him. For as long as I remember, the heroic whistleblower was part of our popular culture. From Serpico to the Pelican Brief to Erin Brocovitch — the archetypal story was of hero or heroine whostumbles on corruption in government and corporations and fights to find and reveal the truth.
Except in these cases the good guys win. We see a headline on a newspaper (remember those?) The hero finds the truth and reveals the information. Then its over. They public sees the villainy and punishes the wicked while rewarding the brave hero.
Yet thats not what has happened to Snowden. Neither does it happen to a host of other “lesser” figures. In fact, most of them fall into obscurity having lost all that most of us hold dear.
The answer is – it’s us who’ve changed. But is it as simple as it might seem — twenty years ago we still had a feeling that we were fighting the “establishment” or “the man”. Today, we are the man?
Or is it more sinister than that. Did 911 change us all? Are we so afraid that that we are willing to buy anything, believe anything, trade anything – even our moral principles and our freedom, just so we can hide from the terrorists who are everywhere?
If it is 911, it’s not the first time in history that this strategy has worked. As recently as the 1950’s the “Red Scare” led to the persecution of many supposed “communists” who were betraying the US government. Except as we found out later, most of them were not really a risk – they were persecuted with little evidence and for often suspicious motives. Oh, and who made his name being the biggest prosecutor? Yes, it was the big Dick himself – Richard Nixon. The same Nixon who had to defend himself (successfully) against charges of corruption with his famous “Checkers” speech and later unsuccessfully in Watergate. It’s a pattern. Prosecuting whistle blowers has historically been the role of the villain – not the victim.
Will we find out at some point that 911 has been used in the same way. Except I think we already have. Keep asking the question “what did they reveal” and “what harm did it actually cause and to whom”? Most importantly “why was it secret in the first place?” I keep asking that – and I keep coming up empty.
There’s a third theory that I’ve think explains our reaction to Snowden and many others. Despite our protests to the contrary, we might secretly resent whistleblowers and dissidents. Maybe we resent their courage. Maybe we feel that dissidents, dissenters force us to look in a mirror. Maybe we don’t like what we see. Maybe we resent the shame we feel for our complicity with the cultures of secrecy and silence that we allow.
It’s in our language. For every Rosa Parks there is someone who has said, “who does she think she is anyway? Why do they have to rock the boat?”
Maybe the awful truth is, we don’t like dissent very much at all when it makes us uncomfortable.
Yet we need to protect the dissident and the whistleblower. We need them. At the macro level we need them to ensure that our society has a conscience. Without whistle blowers, Richard Nixon would have completed his presidency. Without them, we’d never know that in the 1960’s the auto industry was knowingly producing vehicles which were “unsafe at any speed”. I could go on and on…
Even at the micro level – we need dissenters and dissidents. We need people who tell it like it is. We need people who keep us to our moral compass. Even if we resent being told, we need them. With no alternate opinions, no opposing point of view, all we have are sycophants and yes-men. How many bad corporate decisions have been made because no-one had the courage to challenge, to tell the truth? It’s not just government. If the recent allegations of the employee at CN Rail are true – if the company really did encourage it’s employees to fudge the numbers and make it seem like safety and schedules were in much better shape than they were — then someone has done that company and its shareholders a favour. And somebody probably got fired for it.
Just to be absolutely clear, although it should not need to be said. I’m not proposing that we hide people who give away legitimate corporate secrets – formulas, patents, trade secrets. I’m not proposing that we condone those who reveal anything that jeopardizes the safety of a person or a legitimate investigation. What I am proposing is that do what we say we do – we embrace diversity. And with diversity is diversity of opinion and approach. Diversity is often disagreement. It’s rocking the boat. It’s asking the uncomfortable question.
It’s ironic, that the whistle-blower of our generation has the name Snowden. For those who remember, Snowden is the name of a character in the famous anti-war, anti-establishment novel of the 1960’s – Catch 22. In that novel, Yossarian, the “anti-hero” bucks the insane, authoritarian army culture. When, at the end of a presentation from one of the senior officers, the group is asked, “any questions”, Yossarian asks a real and difficult question, “where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” Snowden was of course, a pilot who had died. In that moment, Yossarian brings the world to a reality – he holds up a mirror that shows the horror of war. No-one thanks him for it.
Knowing that question, understanding that irony was once a badge of honour. Today, I’m not so sure.
Dissent, dissidents, whistle blowers make us all uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why we quietly resent them. Maybe that’s we we abandon them without doing our own research and asking our own tough questions. We stop confronting the difficult issues. We become complacent – and complicit.
But if we do, we might not be concerned about the “Snowdens” of yesteryear. We might be concerned there are no “Snowden’s of next year”.