Month: May 2014

The NSA and Edward Snowden: Patriot or Traitor?

The following two-part series from PBS Frontline is worth watching as preface to this blog post, for education as to the extensive mesures the National Security Agency has taken to gather intelligence on its own citizens and the history of how we arrived at where we are today:

It can be argued that intelligence has always been vital to the security of our nation, or of any nation. And we’ve always had covert operatives gathering intelligence, beginning with the Culper Spy Ring of 1778 (tangential note: anybody else a fan of the AMC TV series ‘Turn’?). I’m not necessarily opposed to the core responsibilities of the CIA or the NSA, for that matter, which had its start in World War II. The role of such agencies in military history is something I’m quite fascinated by. The history of espionage is a dirty and sordid business but there are also moments of moral courage and heroism. I have a great deal of respect for those in both organizations, unrecognized and having forfeited public recognition and honor, who gave their lives in defense of this country against its enemies.

But there is also the reporting of Frontline (“A Nation of Secrets”), and NBC’s Brian Williams’ interview with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which — if accurate — is very troubling.

He comes across as somebody who respects the business of intelligence, the validity of the profession — but likewise recognizes that
the agencies he has worked for have vastly overstepped its bounds. In Snowden’s own words:

“The definition of a security state is any nation that prioritizes security over all other considerations … I don’t believe the United States is or ever should be a security state.”

And as to what he is concerned about, in detail (taken from another, earlier interview with German television network ARD):

“Every time you pick up the phone, dial a number, write an email, make a purchase, travel on the bus carrying a cell phone, swipe a card somewhere, you leave a trace. And, the government has decided that it’s a good idea to collect it all. Everything. Even if you’ve never been suspected of any crime. Traditionally the government would identify a suspect, they would go to a judge, they would say we suspect he’s committed this crime, they would get a warrant and then they would be able to use the totality of their powers in pursuit of the investigation. Nowadays what we see is they want to apply the totality of their powers in advance, prior to an investigation.”

Something is seriously amiss when the nation’s most powerful intelligence agency is going well beyond the law, intercepting and data-mining our email correspondence and phone calls of American citizens and treating us as suspect. Trouble enough to have Facebook and Google invading your privacy for the benefit of advertising without the prying eyes of Big Brother looking over their shoulder.

And to suggest that Obama is going to curb the power of such agencies — he has waffled so many times on this matter of intelligence-gathering that whatever he currently promises I have to take with a heavy dose of salt.

* * *

Responding to Snowden’s first television interview (with a U.S. network), Secretary of State John Kerry remarked: “Edward Snowden is a coward … He is a traitor. And he has betrayed his country. And if he wants to come home tomorrow to face the music, he can do so.”

And some closing thoughts from Snowden himself, excerpted from the interview with Brian Williams:

“I think it’s really disingenuous for — for the government to invoke — and sort of scandalize our memories, to sort of exploit the — the national trauma that we all suffered together and worked so hard to come through to justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe, but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don’t need to give up and our Constitution says we should not give up.”


“I think patriot is a word that’s — that’s thrown around so much that it can be devalued nowadays. But being a patriot doesn’t mean prioritizing service to government above all else. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the — the violations of an — and encroachments of adversaries. And those adversaries don’t have to be foreign countries. They can be bad policies. They can be officials who, you know, need a little bit more accountability. They can be mistakes of government and — and simple overreach and — and things that — that should never have been tried, or — or that went wrong.”

Are those the words of somebody who loves his country or somebody who is sickened by what he’s witnessing? Judged solely on the basis of the interview, it seems to me this is a man compelled to do what he did on the basis of his conscience.

The irony, to me at least, is to hear John Kerry — “WInter Soldier” gone rogue in the 1960’s, who spoke out against what he perceived as atrocities committed by troops in Vietnam — denounce Snowden as a traitor.

Related Links and Reading

  • Readings & Links: NSA Secrets Frontline (PBS). In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the NSA launched what would become known as “the program” — a massive domestic surveillance operation designed to prevent terrorist attacks by collecting the communications of millions of Americans. “The program” was once among the nation’s most closely guarded secrets, but leaks by insiders like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have since exposed the operation to the world. Here are some highlights of those leaks, as well as a series of government reports on the NSA programs.
  • Revealed: how US and UK spy agencies defeat internet privacy and security. James Ball, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald. The Guardian 09/05/13.
  • Obama on Mass Government Surveillance, Then and Now PBS Frontline. 05/13/14.
  • A history of the NSA (pictorial). Washington Post
  • The Sickening Snowden Backlash, by Kirsten Powers. The Daily Beast 06/14/13. “It’s appalling to hear the Washington bureaucrats and their media allies trash Edward Snowden as a traitor, when it’s our leaders and the NSA who have betrayed us.”
  • Noonan: Privacy Isn’t All We’re Losing, by Peggy Noonan. Wall Street Journal 06/14/13:

    If—again, if—what Mr. Snowden says is substantially true, the surveillance state will in time encourage an air of subtle oppression, and encourage too a sense of paranoia that may in time—not next week, but in time, as the years unfold—loosen and disrupt the ties the people of America feel to our country.

Further Reading


God, Nietzsche.

Nietzesche says to God: “I too can create a man.”

God says: “Try.”

Nietzsche takes a fistful of dust and begins to mold it.

God says: “Disqualified. Get your own dust.”


(As relayed by J. Budziszewski).

Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the Philosophers

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, dubbed “Science’s Televangelist” by Rod Dreher, made some rather disparaging remarks about philosophy in a podcast exchange last week [transcript available here]. Responding to the host’s admission that he majored in philosophy, NdGT quipped, “that can really mess you up”. The host added, “I always felt like maybe there was a little too much question asking in philosophy [of science]?” — prompting a wave of ridicule from Tyson:

dGT: Well, I’m still worried even about a healthy balance. Yeah, if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a pointless delay in our progress.

[insert predictable joke by one interviewer, imitating the clapping of one hand]

dGT: How do you define clapping? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that.

interviewer [not one to put too fine a point on things, apparently]: I also felt that it was a fat load of crap, as one could define what crap is and the essential qualities that make up crap: how you grade a philosophy paper?

dGT [laughing]: Of course I think we all agree you turned out okay.

interviewer: Philosophy was a good Major for comedy, I think, because it does get you to ask a lot of ridiculous questions about things.

dGT: No, you need people to laugh at your ridiculous questions.

What is striking to the observant reader is how, in adopting a pragmatic stance towards the value of philosophy, which Tyson seemingly views as beneficial chiefly in relation to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, Tyson himself is adopting a philosophical position. Tyson can only denigrate philosophy by committing himself to a specific philosophical viewpoint, and what seems to be an incredibly myopic one at that.

A roundup of responses:

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy, by Massimo Piglucci, Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College. Piglucci’s blog
  • Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is a philistine, by Damon Linker. The Week 05/06/14:

    … behold the spectacle of an otherwise intelligent man and gifted teacher sounding every bit as anti-intellectual as a corporate middle manager or used-car salesman. He proudly proclaims his irritation with “asking deep questions” that lead to a “pointless delay in your progress” in tackling “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” When a scientist encounters someone inclined to think philosophically, his response should be to say, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

    “I don’t have time for that.”

    With these words, Tyson shows he’s very much a 21st-century American, living in a perpetual state of irritated impatience and anxious agitation. Don’t waste your time with philosophy! (And, one presumes, literature, history, the arts, or religion.) Only science will get you where you want to go! It gets results! Go for it! Hurry up! Don’t be left behind! Progress awaits!

  • An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson, by Lewis Powell (Professor of Philosophy, University of Buffalo):

    The study of ethics or morality—inquiry into the nature of value—is a core area of philosophy, and has been since its inception. And while scientific discoveries can reveal to us things like, how to build bridges, the methods for transplanting organs, or the psychological mechanisms of human persuasion, a practicing scientist implicitly takes stands on the normative questions of which bridges are worth building, which patients ought to get the organs that are in short supply, or which means of persuasion are morally permissible to use when trying to convince people of important truths.

    NDGT deigns to reply in the author’s combox, leading to an extended discussion.

  • No, Neil deGrasse Tyson Does Not Hate Philosophy, He Just Doesn’t Get Why It’s Relevant, by Gina O’Neill Santiago. Thoughts on Liberty
  • Neil de Grasse’s Scientism, by William M. Briggs:

    The other day on Twitter, I saw somebody quote approvingly these words by Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

    This received many favorites, re-tweets, and various (coarse) approbations. Evidently, this phrase produces a visceral glow in its fans, or perhaps the feeling of belonging to a group advanced beyond the benighted masses who, wallowing in their ignorance, dare to doubt Science.

    Only here’s the thing. The phrase doesn’t mean anything. It’s emptier than our federal coffers. …

Thomas Aquinas’ "Summa theologiae": A Biography – Bernard McGinn

On my “to read” list: Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa theologiae”: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books), by Bernard McGinn.
Princeton University Press (May 25, 2014). 272 pgs.

In full disclosure, I promised that I would give it mention on my blog while the review was forthcoming. McGinn is distinguished for his extensive scholarship of Christian mysticism and does not identify himself as “a card carrying member of any Thomist party.” Nevertheless:

“… I’d been reading Thomas for almost sixty years and teaching him for over forty. When I was studying a dry-as-dust version of neo-Thomist philosophy from 1957 to 1959, I was rescued from despair by reading the works of Etienne Gilson, especially his Being and some Philosophers. . . . between 1959 and 1963, I was privileged to work with two great modern investigators of Thomas, Joseph de Finance and Bernard Lonergan. It was then I realized that no matter what kind of theology one elects to pursue in life, there is no getting away from Thomas. So the opportunity to come back to Thomas and the Summa was both a challenge and a delight.” [From the Preface]

Suffice to say I am intrigued, and will have more to report once I get into it.

From the Publisher

This concise book tells the story of the most important theological work of the Middle Ages, the vast Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, the Summa was conceived by Aquinas as an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church. It synthesizes an astonishing range of scholarship, covering hundreds of topics and containing more than a million and a half words–and was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas’s death.

Here, Bernard McGinn, one of today’s most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity, vividly describes the world that shaped Aquinas, then turns to the Dominican friar’s life and career, examining Aquinas’s reasons for writing his masterpiece, its subject matter, and the novel way he organized it. McGinn gives readers a brief tour of the Summa itself, and then discusses its reception over the past seven hundred years. He looks at the influence of the Summa on such giants of medieval Christendom as Meister Eckhart, its ridicule during the Enlightenment, the rise and fall of Neothomism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the role of the Summa in the post-Vatican II church, and the book’s enduring relevance today.

Tracing the remarkable life of this iconic work, McGinn’s wide-ranging account provides insight into Aquinas’s own understanding of the Summa as a communication of the theological wisdom that has been given to humanity in revelation.

Francis’ tweet: "Inequality is the Root of Social Evil"

When the Pope tweeted:

it was met with what have become the most predictable of reactions:

liberals (both secular and religious) burst out into enthusiastic applause and retweets, absolutely delighted at the papal vindication of class-warfare (or more properly, class-envy). meanwhile, free-market friendly Catholics defaulted into the now-familiar “circle the wagons” mode, while still other Catholics — papal apologists for “all things Francis” — sought rather to explain the quote away away, insisting that Francis did not mean what the majority of the world inferred.

A sampling of reactions below …

Any social media device which puts a 140 character cap on whatever you’re expressing seems (to me, at least) a recipe for confusion. And for a Pope whose remark frequently warrant further clarification, I personally wish he would simply stay away from Twitter. And the phone. And off-the-cuff interviews.

Well, one can at least hope.