The other day, an elected member of the U.S Congress, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) was discussing the anti-choice bill that careened through the lower chamber and said this: "Watch a sonogram of a 15-week baby, and they have movements that are purposeful… They stroke their face. If they’re a male baby, they may have their hand between their legs. If they feel pleasure, why is it so hard to believe that they could feel pain?"
Yes, Congressman Burgess said male fetuses masturbate. The only thing more bizarre than actually saying this in public is the fact that he looked at a blurry, pixelated sonogram, observed a fetus doing something with its arm and then took the super-colossal leap to the conclusion that the fetus was masturbating. Put another way, someone who connects fetuses and masturbation so easily has, you know, issues. Perhaps the authorities should check his crawlspace for a soiled clown suit.
Now, to my knowledge there really isn't a liberal equivalent to what Burgess said, at least coming from a Democratic member of Congress. But what's become glaringly obvious over the last couple of weeks is that a popular, highly visible faction of the left has grown increasingly divorced from reality and reason. Not Burgess crazy, but disturbingly unhinged, kneejerk and highly susceptible to groupthink. A left-wing schism has been both exposed and exacerbated by the NSA story, leaving two very distinct factions. On one side, pragmatic liberals with a skeptical eye on these events, and on the other a well-known clique of Utopians who refuse to acknowledge the realities of politics.
There's a tea party emerging on the left, slowly and without the actual tea party's major party support, but a lefty tea party nonetheless. It's already underway -- minus the tea bags. (Instead of tea bags, the left has long acronyms and puppet-effigies.)
For now, today, it's orbiting around the binary Greenwald-Snowden system, armed with invective, quaint idealism and "Obamabot" keyboard macros ready to hurl in the direction of anyone who dares to examine the veracity and wisdom of Edward Snowden's leakage and so-called heroism. (Side note: Rick Perlstein wrote a post for The Nation in which he examined the cult of Greenwald fanboys. In response, Greenwald tweeted, "If you find yourself writing an entire article whining about mean things said to you on Twitter: really, just don't bother." So says the man who blocks everyone on Twitter who challenges his reporting.)
What's astonishing and disturbing is the recklessness and ignorance of this subgroup; its willingness to embrace the actions of a random IT hacker character who only emerged 10 days ago, and who remains curiously vague on key areas of his story. No, this isn't about Snowden or Greenwald, they just happen to be the ringleaders this week.
Remember when the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement embraced a nobody named James O'Keefe when he purported to have evidence of systemic abuses and wrongdoing within ACORN and Planned Parenthood? It turned out he was a fraud who selectively edited his videos.
While it's entirely possible that Snowden's story is 100 percent true, it's also possible he's a smarter, better-spoken James O'Keefe whose only goal is to instigate. O'Keefe certainly spurred the right into action, and so has Snowden on the left. But at what cost? Just as soon as the ship has begun to turn slowly leftward following years of right-wing political domination, the left is in danger of running face-first into a credibility trap, latched to the wagons of two men who haven't been entirely forthcoming.
Even if Snowden turns out to be 100 percent on the level, it's difficult to embrace his motives and methods, especially when it comes to his utterly irresponsible leak of the G20 surveillance operation. But the left-wing tea party appears to believe that if you think this particular leak was a bad idea, you're automatically an apologist for the Obama government -- a mindless servant of the establishment. Not surprising considering how this is Greenwald's tactic any time someone, be it Kurt Eichenwald, Joy Reid, Rick Perlstein or Charles Johnson, questions the highly visible gaps in his story or his understanding of how the NSA functions -- gaps that could indicate an implosion waiting to happen.
Interesting how the loudest critics of the Obama "cult of personality" will thoughtlessly climb aboard the Greenwald outrage zeppelin every time.
A key aspect of the NSA outrage is the blind endorsement of the view that the United States should disassemble most if not all of its surveillance operations, and whatever remains of it after the cull ought to be conducted in the light of day. Based on what we've been reading, and to paraphrase a notorious line, it appears as if the goal is to shrink the U.S. intelligence community small enough to drown it in the bathtub.
Meanwhile, we're evidently supposed to be the only industrialized nation that doesn't spy on other nations -- a practice that's existed since nations were invented. I'm not interested in being a part of a movement that seeks to cripple America's basic ability to function diplomatically on the international stage. I suppose I'm just an Obamabot automaton for questioning a stunted worldview that demands we only surveil nations that have declared war against us. I'm not interested in attaching myself to a movement whose collective judgment is lightyears beyond the zero barrier between reality and puerility.
If I'm understanding this correctly, we're not supposed to use drones, we're not supposed to engage in surveillance of any kind (other than in war) and we're certainly not supposed to have boots on the ground (military, CIA or otherwise). So how the hell are we supposed to learn anything about friends or foes? Ask them nicely? There's a creepy Project Mayhem nihilism at work here and it could blow up in the faces of anyone standing too close.
But if I'm wrong on this, where's the line? What exactly is an acceptable level of intelligence gathering? What methods shall we use, specifically? And what should remain secretive? I'd honestly like to know. Reality dictates that there's a generally acceptable splinter of government intrusion into our personal lives. The personal information contained in your tax return -- a mandatory process for all American citizens every April -- is far greater than anything the NSA might have. Same goes for your U.S. Census data. The IRS also has direct access to your bank account and can seize your money via a tax levy. It can demand to see your financial records and shopping receipts during an audit. If you're evasive, it can fine or imprison you. So while any NSA overreach ought to be checked, it ought to be kept in perspective. But that's not happening.
Of course, this about much more than just the specifics of the NSA story. It's the embarrassing and self-destructive way this information has been processed that concerns me, and what exactly the consequences will be.
I'm old enough to remember the 2000 election when the left abandoned Al Gore because, among other things, he was just like the Republican nominee, George W. Bush. I was one of the idiots who voted for Ralph Nader because I naively believed what prominent liberal activists like Michael Moore said at the time: the two parties are the same and that the only way to break the paradigm is to vote for a third party. Yeah, that worked out well didn't it? There are observable, proven realities about both politics and governing this massive nation that can't be ignored. In that case, we should've supported Al Gore while smartly and pragmatically applying leftward pressure. Instead, too many of us reached for an impossible, unrealistic goal and violently choked in the process.
Fast forward to the same dynamic 13 years later... During a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday, a not insignificant chunk of the testimony featuring NSA Director Keith Alexander had to do with plugging the gaps in the NSA surveillance apparatus so as to prevent another low level IT analyst from absconding off with top secret documents. In other words, a consequence of Snowden's actions could be that future Snowdens will have a much more difficult time exposing the system, and the process could become even more secretive than it is today.
Flailing, indiscriminate activism is worse than no activism at all. The only activism that will continue a leftward political trend will be pragmatic, thoughtful, smart activism that embraces reality and healthy skepticism. However, a sure-fire way to be marginalized is to act like fire-eating, paranoid crackpots screaming about conspiracy theories and deifying un-vetted heroes.