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The Vaudevillian Rhetoric of Friedman and Brooks

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New York Times columnists David Brooks and Thomas Friedman's columns highly critical of whistleblower Edward Snowden share the same deceptive rhetorical tricks intended to muddle our understanding of the issues involved. (See Brooks and Friedman here).

Friedman begins by proclaiming how glad he is to live in a country where people are "vigilant in defending civil liberties." In effect, he's providing assurance that he understands why NSA surveillance might upset some of us. But he immediately earnestly protests that he's shocked that people think "that the only thing we have to fear is government intrusion in our lives, not the intrusion of those who gather in secret cells in Yemen...etc."

Before he hardly gets started, he's using rhetorical devices, tricks of persuasion, to drive his point home.

Friedman Rhetorical Device (FRD) 1: Appear as though you understand the opposing view to increase credibility.

FRD 2: Sound thoughtful and earnest ("But as I listen to the debate... I do wonder"), as if you reached your current conclusion through a process of deeply searching reflection.

FRD 3: Mention 9/11. Keep pressing the fear button.

FRD 4: This is the really big one: totally misrepresent the positions of those who disagree with you. No one has claimed that surveillance is the "only thing we have to fear"? That's a lie, pure and simple and has nothing to do with the defense of Snowden or opposition to the NSA's surveillance programs.

Well, that's only the first two paragraphs. Let's see what Brooks offers us.

Brooks launches right into a psychological analysis of Edward Snowden. Amy Davidson in the New Yorker, answering Brooks point by point, does a brilliant job answering Brooks point by point. Here I'm more concerned with his persuasion strategies.

According to Brooks, Snowden "appears to be the ultimate unmediated man." Uh oh, sounds serious. Brooks uses the second paragraph to prove his point, citing a neighbor in Hawaii who says Snowden wasn't neighborly and another paper's article saying he didn't visit his mother. Now he's separated himself from Booz Allen and the CIA! How unmediated and anti-social can you get!

Brooks Rhetorical Device (BRD) 1: Opening with the phrase "From what we know so far," as if Brooks' batty analysis of Snowden is already accepted fact.

BRD 2: Citing obvious, circular evidence to support a conclusion that is based on the evidence in the first place. That is: Snowden is cut off from society. How do we know? He cut himself off from the CIA and Booz-Allen. Why did he cut himself off from them? Because he committed the anti-social act. Why? Because he is cut off from society.

Brooks' next paragraph displays one similarity of Brooks and Friedman's arguments. Snowden is "thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs". Like Friedman, Brooks shows how earnestly open-minded he is but alas, Brooks' deeper understanding of Snowden (dare we say deeper than Snowden's himself?), leads him to bemoan the awful dilemma of "men in their 20s" who live through technology "in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments."

Is this Brooks' answer to the ethical dilemma faced by a Snowden, Bradley Manning, or Daniel Ellsberg? What was his explanation for Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers: mid-life crisis? Was his biological clock ticking?

BRD 3: Brooks' entire article is an ad hominem attack, that is, he attacks the man rather than that man's position. Avoiding the ad hominem approach is the most basic ground-rule in any rational exchange, for ethical as well as rhetorical reasons. Brooks' resurrects the ad hominem approach with a vengeance.

BRD 4: Justify your judgment of the individual case by presenting it as an expression of a broader social trend. Brooks does this by attributing Snowden's failings to an entire generation. Snowden must be infected with his unmediated persona if so many men in their 20s have it.

Back to Tom. We really can't address every point. In sum, Friedman repeats the now-familiar defense that however "big and scary" (Friedman quoting David Simon, creator of The Wire TV series) such intrusions might seem, they prevent terrorists from destroying us. Friedman says he treasures an open society and his concern is that another terrorist attack would compromise that openness. So he's willing to sacrifice some civil liberties to preserve the rest. He cites Simon again that this data collection has been "a baseline logic of an American anti-terrorism effort" for the past two presidencies. That would be Presidents Bush and Obama. We know that -- isn't that the point of the outrage?

FRD 5: Pretend you're the one who firmly grasps the reality principle. This device appears in countless second-rate spy novels, where the CIA covert ops hero gets to sneer at the mealy-mouthed analyst or the pussy-footing liberals who don't "get" the threat. But we all do "get" the threat. Which leads to...

FRD 6: Barely disguised condescension. We need Tom to set us straight because we don't grasp just how harmful another terrorist attack could be. Is he serious? Does he imagine that NSA critics have not considered whether such broad data-sweeps actually work; their place in the context of the "war" on terrorism; or the steady and dramatic encroachment of civil liberties underway since 9/11? No, in his self-referential world, Friedman is the reality principle and we're just dreamwalkers in his fantasy.

FRD 7: Bring in the celebrity. The Wire is a revered series, especially among those most likely to oppose the NSA's surveillance. It was realistic and gritty. So naturally we should trust Simon, the guy who created it. Ironically, the actual wire in The Wire was vetted and challenged by numerous officials and was directed specifically at a group of urban drug dealers. It bore no relation to what the NSA is doing.

Brooks takes a parallel track to Friedman's. He first acknowledges that he doesn't like the idea of Big Brother anymore than the next guy. Those are his bona fides. "But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country."

What is it then? Is it terrorism? No, says Mr. Brooks. It is "the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism" and that specter that stalks all civilized society, "the fraying of the social fabric." Snowden is the one who betrayed this necessary social trust and "He betrayed his employers. Booz Allen and the C.I.A. took a high-school dropout and offered him positions with lavish salaries." Oh my. Brooks laments that the C.I.A., which is, let's face it, perhaps the most savagely unethical branch of the United States government, could not buy Snowden off. Damn that Snowden and all the rest of those unmediated young men and women whose integrity, honesty, and decency are not for sale! And don't breathe a word that the "spread of cynicism" may be linked to the "corrosive" actions of government itself.

In the end, Brooks concludes, whistleblowers should really wonder whether what they're exposing is as bad as the fact they are exposing it. Brooks does admit that some leakers are justified but gee whiz, not in this case. Snowden's undermining the entire national security effort! If fact, Snowden "betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can't do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods."

This beggars belief but worse, it reflects either ignorance or misrepresentation of the NSA's actions. The NSA cannot "revert to... more intrusive eavesdropping" because that involves listening in on conversations, as in "The Wire" where the equation is "Criminal=a few phones=a few hours or days of tapes". In contrast, NSA=millions of phones=endless years of listening". The NSA was not interested in eavesdropping. It is interested in drawing connections -- and conclusions -- from call patterns. And, it can always listen in whenever the algorithms that identify these patterns (algorithms designed by very fallible human beings) click off an alert.

Of course, one cannot fail to notice Brooks' weird logic: let them do this because if we stop them, they'll just do something worse. Wow. The problem is that there's always something worse, which means that everything can be justified.

BRD 5: Reality principle: Brooks versus the unmediated deluded idealists; Brooks versus those of us who don't understand how dire the threat is; etc. Again, those who support Snowden are out of touch.

BRD 6: Circular illogic, as with Friedman. Brooks starts six straight paragraphs with "He betrayed..." Thus Snowden is a betrayer in his very nature. Why? Because he is unmediated. How do we know that? Because he leaked NSA secrets and he's un-neighborly. Why does that make him unmediated? Because he is a betrayer. And doesn't visit his mother.

Rhetorically, the same things are both present, and missing from both columns. Neither anchors its arguments in anything resembling a reasoned defense of the NSA's surveillance. Neither consider the strong arguments that such data sweeps undermine national security by misallocating huge resources for highly questionable tactics. Both assume Snowden seriously undermined national security, which is an eminently challengeable assertion.

Both also refer to a vast shadow hovering over the land (terrorism and frayed social fabrics). Neither acknowledges that Snowden's actions are supported by millions of thoughtful American citizens who have thought about the issues quite as seriously as Brooks or Friedman. Both depict Snowden as delusional, selfish, ungrateful, and immature; thus by association so is the political stance he took. Neither Brooks nor Friedman validates his own assertions about terrorism or society. Both adopt an earnest, considered tone antithetical to the mild hysteria of their content. Both their rhetorical patterns can be summed up by: "Hey, we've got some misgivings too, but you really have to trust the government on this... war... surveillance... whistleblowing... etc."

Bad rhetoric is a cover for weak ideas. In this case, it is a cover for dishonest opinion-molding that does a far greater disservice to our nation than anything done by Edward Snowden.

Disclosure: The writer completed a contract with Booz-Allen several years ago for the writing of a monograph published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Other than that, he has had, and currently has, no other ties with either organization.