Sean Wilentz (Screen shot from C-SPAN)

Few personify the death of the liberal class in the United States like writer and historian Sean Wilentz, which is why it is baffling to read an entire polemical essay from him in The New Republic on why liberals should recognize that Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden “despise the liberal state” and aim to “wound” it through leaks.

Journalist Chris Hedges has written that the current liberal class is “expected to mask the brutality of imperial war and corporate malfeasance by deploring the most egregious excesses whiles studiously refusing to question the legitimacy of the power elite’s actions and structures. When dissidents step outside these boundaries, they become pariahs. Specific actions can be criticized, but motives, intentions, and the moral probity of the power elite cannot be questioned.”

In Wilentz’s most recent piece, it is clear he is worried that liberals might actually support the efforts of Assange, Greenwald or Snowden to challenge the excesses of the national security state. He loathes the fact that the actions of these men have been heralded by many, despite the fact that their critiques of the power elite’s “motives, intentions and the moral probity” of them do not comport with his ideology. And so, his answer is to write a hackneyed piece of journalism that delves into what he perceives as the “motives, intention and the moral probity” of Assange, Greenwald and Snowden in order to discredit them in the eyes of liberals.

Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber already wrote what should be considered the definitive rebuttal to Wilentz’s article. However, there are a few more points worth making.

Wilentz, a long-time professor of history at Princeton University, displays a state-identified view of what constitutes journalism by insisting that all three are “leakers.” In fact, Snowden is the only person who is a “leaker.” Assange and Greenwald are both journalists. But because they both have strong views against government using secrecy to abuse power, Wilentz cannot bring himself to treat Assange or Greenwald like journalists.

Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange hardly subscribe to identical beliefs, and differ in their levels of sophistication. They have held, at one time or another, a crazy-quilt assortment of views, some of them blatantly contradictory. But from an incoherent swirl of ideas, a common outlook emerges. The outlook is neither a clear-cut doctrine nor a philosophy, but something closer to a political impulse that might be described, to borrow from the historian Richard Hofstadter, as paranoid libertarianism. Where liberals, let alone right-wingers, have portrayed the leakers as truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors, that’s hardly their goal. In fact, the leakers despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.

Revolted by the fact that these three men might not be devout believers in the goodness of the liberal state, he seems to think he is cleverly taking them on by exposing them with “documents” just as they have sought to do when exposing governments. Except, in this case, they are their very own “documents.”

Documents are, of course, the leakers’ stock-in-trade—and they have produced quite a few documents of their own. The Internet houses a variety of their writings for message boards, blogs, and magazines. Much of this writing was produced before the leakers entertained the possibility of a global audience. They are documents in which one can glimpse their deepest beliefs and true motives. What they reveal is at odds with the flattering coverage the leakers have received, and goes beyond personal eccentricities or dubious activities in the service of noble goals. They reveal an agenda that even the leakers’ most dedicated admirers should question. [emphasis added]

Wilentz’s chief obstacle to actually producing a story of any value is that most who have championed Assange, Greenwald and/or Snowden do not really think it matters what either believe or what motivates either of them. The act of whistleblowing itself and the acts of journalism themselves, which each amount to efforts to show the world the truth of what governments have sought to conceal, is what has led people to celebrate them.  The debates, responses, and actions, which the revealed information enabled, are what matters most. But Wilentz does not grasp this.

Over three sections, Wilentz gives a rather pathetic overview of each person. It is pathetic in the sense that he does not manage to uncover anything that has not been unearthed already and used in an effort to discredit them. That makes his article a greatest hits of the most trite condemnations from ardent Obama supporters, insecure liberals and state-identified journalists, who will repeat any propaganda to fuel thoughts of conspiracy and undermine them.

Snowden voting for a third-party candidate in 2008 is supposed to demonstrate that Snowden did not really think Obama would “reform the intelligence system” that had been abused by President George W. Bush. Statements Greenwald made about Ron Paul are supposed to demonstrate that his journalism is not to be praised because he expressed some support for the presidential candidacy of Ron Paul.  Assange appearing on RT and letting Holocaust denier Israel Shamir work for WikiLeaks are supposed to show it is wrong to support the work he has done releasing documents to the world except Shamir never was an employee of WikiLeaks.

Each of these sections are more like the contents of an FBI memo from J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO. The goal is to take all the rumors and propaganda out there and cobble them together in a fashion that will neutralize them.

Baffling is this paragraph:

Some of the documents stolen by Edward Snowden have revealed worrisome excesses on the part of the NSA. Any responsible whistle-blower, finding evidence of these excesses, might, if thwarted by her or his superiors, bring the evidence of those specific abuses to the attention of the press, causing a scandal, which would prod Congress and the NSA itself to correct or eliminate the offensive program.

Isn’t this exactly what Snowden did? Or, wait, Wilentz found out he has some libertarian views and does not pass his litmus test. Charge him with violations of a World War I-era law, the Espionage Act, as if he is a spy, and commit all of the government’s resources to returning him to the United States so he can be prosecuted and jailed for decades.

Also, to Wilentz, Greenwald and Assange are not members of the press. But, wait, what about The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman? Snowden sent him top secret information he had and Gellman is not mentioned at all in this diatribe. (That is probably because—like most critiques of Greenwald and Snowden—if Gellman were to be acknowledged it would negate everything being argued.)

Wilentz writes:

The leakers have gone far beyond justifiably blowing the whistle on abusive programs. In addition to their alarmism about domestic surveillance, many of the Snowden documents released thus far have had nothing whatsoever to do with domestic surveillance. As Fred Kaplan has pointed out in Slate, Snowden has exposed NSA operations to track the Taliban in Pakistan, monitor e-mails for intelligence of developments in Iran, and more surveillance abroad. These operations, Kaplan notes, were neither illegal, improper, or, in the context of contemporary global affairs, immoral. Regardless of whether any of these documents in any way compromised U.S. interests abroad, they were plainly not the revelations of “whistle-blowers” seeking to secure Americans’ constitutional rights. They are the revelations of leakers, out to damage their bugaboo national security behemoth.

None of the above is illegal, improper or immoral to Kaplan or Wilentz (note the caveat that some things are more moral now in the 21st Century than they were in previous centuries). CIA efforts in Pakistan, which have involved a “vaccine ruse” that has hurt the fight against polio, is not improper or immoral. Targeting and killing alleged terror suspects on a “kill list” away from any declared battlefield in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen is entirely legal and moral. “Incidentally,” collecting cell phone location data from “tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad with their cellphones every year”—a result NSA officials can foresee but do nothing to stop—is legal and proper.

More significantly, these leaks, which are considered bad, are all from The Washington Post.  Wilentz should have the guts to criticize them for engaging in investigative journalism.

Wilentz does take the unusual step of going beyond the general allegation that leaks have been “sensationalized” or “misrepresented” to point a couple examples that he thinks proves this to be true.

One example is a story from the Post that purportedly proved “the NSA broke federal privacy laws, or exceeded its authority, thousands of times per yearaccording to the agency’s own internal auditor.” Wilentz suggests this is not significant because we don’t know if this is a “significant proportion of the total uses of the database.” In other words, “thousands” of privacy violations might be okay if there were hundreds of thousands of searches because this would be a very small fraction—just another incidental cost of doing business; plus, the NSA self-polices so everything is okay.

What Wilentz casually neglects is the fact that this was an internal audit not shared with Congress. “Agency personnel are instructed to remove details and substitute more generic language in reports to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” according to one document. And, as Gellman wrote, “In one instance, the NSA decided that it need not report the unintended surveillance of Americans.”

How can proper oversight be done if the NSA is conducting secret internal audits and if violations are being erased from reports to other agencies of government? This does not allow the system of checks and balances to work properly. The liberal state needs a system of checks and balances to function to operate appropriately, right?

Wilentz questions Snowden’s claim that, “at his desk, without a warrant, he could eavesdrop on anyone ‘even the president, if I had a personal email.’” He does not actually prove Snowden’s claim is incorrect. He even recognizes Snowden’s statement might be “accurate and truthful” but argues The Guardian has been “opaque” and misunderstood files they had on a program, XKeyScore, which Greenwald suggested proved Snowden’s claim.

“The leakers and their supporters would never hand the state modern surveillance powers, even if they came wrapped in all sorts of rules and regulations that would constrain their abuse. They are right to worry, but wrong—even paranoid—to distrust democratic governments in this way,” according to Wilentz. He neglects to highlight the numerous times Greenwald and Assange have been asked if they think anything should be kept secret. There answers have never been that the state cannot keep any information secret. They have challenged what is kept secret and how much, not the mere fact that government keeps secrets.

Finally, none of the facts matter to Wilentz because he has fashioned himself an elite gatekeeper of not only history but also liberalism. Wilentz had contempt for the late great Howard Zinn.

“To a point, he helped correct mainstream popular conceptions of American history that were highly biased. But he ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great,” he told the Los Angeles Times just after Zinn’s death in 2010.

Zinn breathed life into liberalism by inspiring movements with accounts of what people at the bottom had done in US history to fight injustice and create progress. Yet, for Wilentz, this is not the kind of history or liberalism he is interested in repeating because his history and liberalism is that of people at the top setting the terms and conditions for people at the grassroots and deciding what is best for them.

This is also what makes Assange, Greenwald and Snowden offensive to him. These are individuals willing to take on those in power. They don’t rationalize its worst aspects or choose to recognize the good aspects, which should be accepted and embraced, in order to convince themselves their critiques should be more tempered. They inspire resistance against liberals who have been complicit in the rise of a surveillance state, something which Wilentz sees as a threat to the ability of managers in government to conduct the daily business of the “modern liberal state.”