Edward Snowden, John Perry Barlow, and the New American Frontier

A Conversation on the Frontier in the History of a Whistle-Blower
Edward SnowdenCredit: By Gage Skidmore - https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/16525688221/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38381138

To be an American is to be a traitor to the state, if by American we mean those original revolutionaries who elected to defy the crown. The founding fathers, before they were constructed as “fathers,” were viewed as children by George III, a King who once famously said “A traitor is everyone who does not agree with me.” Although there is some debate as to whether the most violent actions of the founding fathers, such as Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, would now be constructed as acts of terrorism, it is certainly safe to say that these men argued that the laws of England ran counter to higher laws and “common sense.” In light of such conflict, the founding fathers declared the laws of the crown null and void, subject to protest and disregard, civil and not so civil disobedience. It is this pattern of rebellion based on a rhetoric of appeals to elusive codes that recurrently marks the American identity. 

In addition to Christianity and its call for a law beyond Caesar’s, and Enlightenment principles such as liberty, equality, and justice, one of the most important factors in forging the paradoxical rhetoric of what it means to be an American is the idea of the frontier. In The Frontier in American History, Frederick Jackson Turner argues that “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating the American character.” The fluid rhetoric of the frontier has come home to roost and now confronts America with one of its most formidable and uncanny challenges: the arguments of a whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, and his cyber-libertarian supporters at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). 

The rhetoric of the frontier, as described by Turner and evolved by EFF’s co-founder, John Perry Barlow, forms the foundation for approaching the claims Snowden makes about the leaking of American state documents to journalists around the globe. Snowden’s core argument—that his actions are justified insofar as they privilege the nation over the state—demonstrates not only a brash revolutionary individualism consistent with the early American identity, but also a reflection of an emergent transnational identity of “pioneers” that has been growing for over twenty years on the world wide web, a strand of thought that runs counter to the nationalist sentiments currently sweeping the world. Snowden and Barlow, together, make a compelling case for repurposing the rhetoric of American nationalist identity towards a transcendent—transnational—enterprise: a worldwide web organized under thirteen principles, The International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance (TIP).

 

***

 

John Perry Barlow. John Perry Barlow Credit: By I, Joi, CC BY 2.5,

On June 5, 2014, one could say that Edward Snowden sat down with John Perry Barlow for a conversation about the future of cyberspace. To be precise, however, Snowden sat down with a computer screen in Russia and interfaced with Barlow who sat with a live audience at New York University as part of the Personal Democracy Forum. If multi-modality is important in assessing argument, it is perhaps important to note that Snowden’s head, about twenty times the size of life on the NYU movie screen, presided over the crowd with Barlow’s mug captioned in the corner, about a tenth the size of Snowden’s. This convergence of faces and voices was transmitted to the live New York audience, and then later uploaded to YouTube. “It’s a pity you can’t see the audience,” Barlow says at the beginning of the conversation. “They’re as happy as they would be if you were here.” And so, with this first appropriative claim, begins the public dialogue of two men loosely bound together through the organization Barlow co-founded, the EFF. 

Barlow is mostly an emcee in this exchange, a facilitator for the famous whistle-blower as Snowden makes his argument to the world about the American government’s “growing appetite for control” and the potential consequences of that appetite. Snowden’s argument is complex, more than occasionally technical in its language, but he couches his claims throughout in a rhetoric that is, or at least should be, familiar to an American audience with a high school education.

Snowden leaked sensitive government surveillance documents “because,” he argues,  “you know, we fought a war to have protections and to have rights like our constitution, like our fourth amendment, that says not only can you not search our communications without a warrant, but you can’t seize them in the first place.” By delivering this argument to John Perry Barlow, the Personal Democracy Forum, and the mass media audience of YouTube, Snowden builds a bridge between the rhetoric of the American Revolution and the rhetoric of the landscape that revolution inherited: the wilderness—the frontier. 

The argument Barlow has made throughout his second career (his first was as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead) is that cyberspace is the new frontier, the extension of that specifically American wilderness Turner claimed was officially closed by 1890. Arguably, Snowden and Barlow have repurposed the quintessentially American rhetoric of the frontier towards a transnational enterprise, and by doing so have offered shape, purpose, and standards to the putatively anarchist activities of hackers and whistle-blowers, the pioneers of the electronic frontier. Furthermore, the Barlow/Snowden partnership represents a significant revision from Snowden’s initial strategic position of self-effacement. In the beginning (2013), Snowden’s historic document drop was framed as an ipsa res loquitor strategy (let the thing speak for itself), as if that is ever possible.  “I’m not the story,” Snowden claimed in Citizenfour. “I don’t want to get myself into the issue.” To suggest that one can separate one’s self from the story or “issue” suggests either a media-savvy strategy or a naiveté from the former National Security Agency infrastructure analyst. If Edward Snowden was indeed naïve in 2013, however, he certainly was less so by 2014. By the time of the conversation with Barlow, Snowden’s rhetoric had evolved into a subtle mass media bricolage of contemporary hacker tropes supported by metaphors and principles repurposed from the codes of the revolution and the frontier.

 

Speaking in Metaphor

The metaphors Barlow and Snowden deploy reveal their commitments, as do the metaphors they reject. Shortly after 9/11, in an interview with The American Spectator titled “Cyberspace Cowboy,” Barlow scoffed at Al Gore’s characterization of the Internet as the Information Super-Highway. “Al Gore not only didn’t invent the Internet, he doesn’t understand it,” Barlow argued. “The Internet is a self-generative organism, powered by the desire of people to communicate and connect. Gore’s metaphor turns the Net into a massive centrally administered and planned government project, which it isn’t." Later in the interview, Barlow elaborates on his vision for the Net as something like a transnational utopia crossed with the original frontier: “If you can create an environment where anybody anywhere can say whatever they please, and nobody can stop them, then you have essentially solved the problem of tyranny,” he said. Adding:

 

My family were frontier people from the time they hit these shores in the 1600s until they ran slam, bang, up against the end of it in Wyoming at the turn of the last century. I spent my youth in Pinedale, Wyoming—the only county seat in America without a traffic light—thinking I had been cheated out of a frontier until I found that another one was forming. On the Net you literally never can or will run out of space. And every time it changes in some fundamental way then the whole thing becomes a frontier all over again.

 

Barlow, who founded EFF with Mitch Kapor (the founder of Lotus) and wrote “the doc forwarded ‘round the world'” (A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace) thus set the metaphorical table for a new generation of “pioneers,” figures like Snowden. So, if the Internet is the new frontier, it is, at least ideally, a frontier that shares two fundamental characteristics with Turner’s concept.

First, a frontier can, even if briefly, de-centralize capital (redistribute wealth) and, thus, liberate the voices of those outside the old aristocratic orders. It is in this chain of consequence, of freedom in market leading to (or from) freedom of speech, that we arrive at the second characteristic of the frontier both Barlow and Turner describe: the freedom of citizens to govern themselves, the flourishing of true democracy. “From the beginning of the settlement of America,” Turner writes, “the frontier regions have exercised a steady influence toward democracy. In Virginia, to take an example, it can be traced as early as the period of Bacon’s Rebellion.” For Turner, just as with Barlow, frontiers activate “revolutionary principles based on natural rights.” To the frontiersman’s mind, an effective state is not a state of careerist politicians and old aristocratic wealth buried in tax havens and passed down estates, but a state that is constantly changing, overthrowing itself and evolving. 

For Barlow, the preference is for the idea of state and economy to converge. In Barlow’s new electronic frontier, the state effectively disappears. When asked by The American Spectator if the state has any utility at all like “Defense? Police?” Barlow responds with: “Defense against what? Other nation states? We’ve seen where that leads. The nation state had its apotheosis in Auschwitz and the gulag and Hiroshima. I’m not going to mourn its passage.” It is here in the conflation of “nation” and “state” as “nation state” that Edward Snowden will intervene in Barlow’s rhetoric and offer a third path, a choice beyond the binary of state versus wild frontier expressed as a question: “Are we protecting the nation or are we protecting the state?” For Snowden, there is a powerful difference between the “nation” and the “state.” 

 

American FrontierConquering of the Wilderness. Credit: By Internet Archive Book Images

The Frontier Evolves

Although Barlow’s early language is often utopian and unmeasured, it is certainly too reductive to argue that he simply possessed an immature idea of the Internet’s potential until Edward Snowden suddenly arrived as a kind of Moses to codify his impulses in 2014. Between the time of the interview with The American Spectator and his conversation with Snowden, Barlow was quickly evolving toward a more nuanced and normative perspective on “the electronic frontier,” an evolution leading to what Brian Doherty, Senior Editor at Reason magazine, called “John Barlow 2.0.” By 2004, Barlow claimed that he no longer found it responsible to simply ignore or turn away from the machinations of the state:

 

I've gone back and forth with politics. I've been a Republican county chairman. I was one of Dick Cheney's campaign managers when he first ran for Congress. But generally speaking, I felt to engage in the political process was to sully oneself to such a degree that whatever came out wasn't worth the trouble put in. I thought it was better to focus on changing yourself and people around you, to not question authority so much as bypass it whenever possible. But by virtue of our abdication, a very authoritarian, assertive form of government has taken over. And oddly enough, it is doing so in the guise of libertarianism to a certain extent.1

 

This conversation took place nine years before Edward Snowden revealed, through classified documents, the NSA’s illegal invasions of privacy, both at home and abroad. If all things converge on the Internet—speech, act, property, product, map, territory—then the possibility of living outside “the system” on a wild frontier becomes problematic, to say the least. By the time of his conversation with Snowden, the intelligence disaster that led to the hundreds of thousands of deaths in America’s war with Iraq was apparent, as was the aggressive growth of that same government’s surveillance network at home. As a result of these events and others, like the consolidation of media resources by multinational corporations, Barlow’s notion of the frontier had changed by 2014 into a concept of a liminal territory, a still wild place “where anybody anywhere can say whatever they please, and nobody can stop them,” but simultaneously a place in need of protection if not regulation. EFF’s role, increasingly, became that of “the primary mediator on that border,” that line between the laws of the state and the largely lawless terrain the individual finds on the Net. In this liminal territory, and in this mediating spirit, is Snowden’s argument for a Bill of Rights for the people of the “nation” so that they might be protected against the aggressions of the “state.”

Edward Snowden is not the author of TIP, and it is quite important to state that he does not list the specific rights themselves in his conversation with Barlow, such an enumeration is not our focus here. But it is precisely in this submission to and omission of code (that list of principles) that we find the essence of the Snowden project and its evolutionary rhetoric, a form of mass media argumentation outlined by Douglas Walton.2 Building on the work of O’Keefe, Walton argues for “a dual process model of persuasion” that balances the tools of rhetoric with the formal rigors of dialectical reasoning, these two strands of persuasion embodying “peripheral” and “central” routes of argumentation. The peripheral route is, according to Walton, the “short cut,” or the rhetoric. The central route, by contrast, “requires an elaboration of the rational argumentation in the mass evidence of the case.” In other words, in the world of mass media argumentation we find online, an effective strategy that we increasingly see deployed is an evolutionary one in which seemingly thin or fallacious “rhetorical” claims are frontloaded and then developed or elaborated over time through a dialectic, a conversational process. 

To argue that “the state” has committed crimes, and that the evidence is clear, while simultaneously refusing, for a significant period of time, to frame that evidence one’s self, is the essence of Snowden’s first phase argument, a strategy of ipsa res loquitor that he elaborates on in the second phase when he mentions but refrains from elaborating on TIP. Much like the founding fathers firing their first shots before drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Edward Snowden seems to be inviting the will of the people or “the nation” to actively inform and even co-produce his rationale, post hoc. But Snowden’s argument, unlike the founding fathers, is not a nationalist enterprise.

Like Barlow, Snowden sees the failure of not just his American state, but states in general. “It’s important to remember,” he says, “that this is not just an American problem. This is a global problem.” While seated in Russia and speaking to an audience in New York City, site of the World Trade Center, with Google’s multi-national corporate logo stamped in the top left corner of the screen and John Perry Barlow of the EFF chuckling and grimacing in the bottom right, Snowden’s multi-modal dialogue with the Personal Democracy Forum—with the world—with you—with YouTube—demands granular attention.

Every time Edward Snowden speaks to the world, it is, by virtue of his exiled status, in this dialogical—conversational—mode, whether his interlocutor is the TED conference, the journalist, Glenn Greenwald, the comedian, John Oliver, or the cyber-libertarian activist, John Perry Barlow. In other words, the world constantly receives Snowden as one part Snowden and one part you, which is to say, we receive him as a two, not a one, as a dialogue, not a monologue, as a dialectical construct, a double-helix of individual and trans/sub statal institutions whose representatives have elected to spotlight his voice.  This carefully orchestrated media strategy serves to support, on a structural level, the argument Snowden makes about the need for international standards and international cooperation. 

Barlow, as Snowden’s interlocutor in this instance, sets the table for Snowden by emphasizing how American principles should be repurposed toward international ends. “I think a point that you and I and others of our ilk need to make, increasingly frequently, is that in the unique case of the United States, national security means the security of our founding principles.” Before we go further, note how Barlow includes a host of “others” in the dialogue: “you and I and others of our ilk.” Who are these others who have a problem with the United States and its “growing appetite for control”? To leave them anonymous is to foster an invitational rhetoric that includes people from all over the world, perhaps people like you. It is to invite inference.

For Barlow, the United States is “unique” because of principles, ideas—intellectual property that should not be seen as property but as a kind of plow for the properties of state law. For Barlow, the United States is exceptional not because of “our borders, which are, you know, extremely vaporous, and difficult to define at this stage,” and not “our culture, such as we have one beyond Mickey Mouse. It’s not anything,” he says, “except those founding documents we still profess to believe in.” Barlow, as this excerpt reveals, has not totally abandoned a certain species of idealism. Security, for both Barlow and Snowden, is not about the growth of the state, but the people’s ability to confront and check that growth, a divide best captured in Snowden’s question: “Are we protecting the nation or are we protecting the state?”

Thus, as the conversation evolves, we see the operative objective of Snowden and Barlow as protection of “the nation,” and by nation we are to understand that class of people as separate from “the state.” Yet, as Barlow and Snowden both suggest, their argument is not specifically targeted at just the people within the “vaporous” borders of the United States. Their principles, based as they are in the “founding documents we still profess to believe in,” may well have an American revolutionary flavor, but they are being actively repurposed toward an international end. “This is not just an American problem,” Snowden claims. “This is a global problem.”

If Snowden and Barlow are right—and it’s certainly not my intention judge whether they are—but if they are, should their arguments be resolved in a global context, perhaps even an international court? Is there something about the World Wide Web or cyberspace that fundamentally demands exception from state code? If so, does it follow that such an entity demands exception from all code? Certainly, the John Perry Barlow of the late 1990s thought so, and so, perhaps, did the young Edward Snowden. In Citizenfour, Snowden said: 

 

I remember what the Internet was like before it was being watched, and there’s never been anything in the history of man that’s like it. I mean you could again have children from one part of the world having an equal discussion where, you know, they were granted the same respect for their ideas in conversation with experts in the field from another part of the world on any topic, anywhere, anytime, all the time.

 

Note the striking similarity between Snowden’s nostalgia and Barlow’s description of the infant Net “where anybody anywhere can say whatever they please, and nobody can stop them.” Both men remember the frontier, the experience of something like pure freedom, but by the time Snowden comes out of the shadows in 2013, the Net has changed to a place where the fear of surveillance is so pervasive that users/people now “self-police,” according to Snowden, which is to say, their awareness of the police and the intelligence community—what Snowden calls “turnkey tyranny”—has been internalized to such a degree that freedom of expression is increasingly curtailed and with it the subversive leveling democratic properties of the frontier, the early Net. In the world of the Internet, privacy and liberty are synonymous, and thus, if liberty is privacy and privacy is dying, so is liberty and with it, the world democracy—the utopia—that was the early Net.

If the American frontier brought with it the promise of a more leveled national democracy and a more leveled national economy, the electronic frontier brought with it the promise of a more leveled transnational democracy and economy. It is only recently that Barlow and Snowden seem to have recognized what late nineteenth century America recognized: freedom runs wild, and even though, in the short term, freedom’s frontiers can realign social stratifications, in the long term, powerful interests play a weighted dice in the game. And so a paradoxical counterweight of restrictions, regulations, laws and/or principles (choose your name carefully) favoring “the people” or “the citizen” or “the nation” must be put in place in order to protect the fundamental value of freedom if, by freedom, one means “children from one part of the world” participating fearlessly in “an equal discussion with experts in the field from another part of the world on any topic, anywhere, anytime, all the time.”

Again, it is worth emphasizing that Snowden mentions, but mostly refrains from elaborating on TIP.  This omission/refrain is fundamental to his argument.  In order to understand the rhetorical strategy of Snowden and his interlocutors, one must constantly return to the performance of self-effacement, the significance of the initial ipsa res loquitor stance.  “I’m not the story,” Snowden says in Citizenfour, and in the conversation with Barlow he reiterates:  “I didn’t do anything special. It’s critical to remember that.” 

 

Becoming Intelligent Citizens

Here, in these seemingly simple claims, we find our challenge to be intelligent citizens who must, as F. Scott Fitzgerald says, “hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Obviously, Snowden has done something special, and, obviously, he is part of the story. So is his claim that he is not. But, just because this apparent inconsistency exists does not necessarily mean that Snowden’s admonition to remember to forget is compromised. Instead, one might allow that Edward Snowden is treating his audience in a way that so many nationalist politicians and tabloid journalists do not: he is challenging them—us—to be intelligent people—citizens—capable of holding “two ideas in the mind at the same time.”

By mentioning but not showing TIP, he is replicating the rhetorical strategy of the journalism that has surfaced in light of his leaks. He is engaging in an enthymematic process by which he invites the reader or the spectator to become a citizen, a participant who might just read a leaked document or a new constitution for cyberspace and, thereby, develop the sort of informed consent (or informed opposition) that is fundamental to the idea of democracy that we find not just in the founding fathers, but also in theorists like Chomsky, Habermas, and Rawls. 

In other words, on a structural level, Snowden’s rhetoric mirrors his content. He is urgently inviting political participation from American citizens and “citizens” around the world both in his overt words and in his constant evasions on issues pertaining to his biography and his own political principles. Through inviting respondents to respond—to look at the document drop and TIP, he is inverting the government’s rhetorical strategy of secrecy and the kind of “turnkey tyranny” that could be the consequence of such secrecy if a bureaucrat (like Snowden) were to ever decide to use his power for nefarious purposes. 

By constantly telling the reader/spectator that he—Snowden—is not the story, Snowden certainly risks becoming the story in the same way that one who plays “hard to get” in a romantic context can inspire obsession from an admirer. At least on the page/screen, however, Snowden’s argumentative commitments point the respondent in the direction of evidence as opposed to walls of classification (classified documents), an engagement with the “full picture of what the government was doing,” and in this sense Snowden’s rhetorical project can be viewed as consistent with the idea of “political autonomy” that John Rawls saw as fundamental to the operation of a just political system. “To make clear the idea of political autonomy,” Rawls writes:

 

We say, first, that citizens gain full political autonomy when they live under a reasonably just constitution securing their liberty and equality, with all the appropriate subordinate laws and precepts regulating the political structure, and when they also fully comprehend and endorse this constitution and its laws, as well as adjust and revise them as changing social circumstances require, always suitably moved by their sense of justice and the other political virtues.3   

 

I refer here to Rawls for a number of reasons. First, Snowden constantly argues for an invigorated and informed democratic citizenship, an individual commitment to the role of democratic citizen over consumer or spectator. Thus, his initial alias when approaching the journalist, Laura Poitras: Citizenfour. “When all of this started,” Snowden says to Barlow at the Personal Democracy Forum, “none of us really had a full picture of what the government was doing, what they had sort of entitled themselves to do without asking the public, without even asking the majority of congress.” 

Note here the tiered argument on behalf of two forms of democracy: direct and representative. If one cynically (although perhaps correctly) believes that the twenty-first century “public” is too ineluctably illiterate to ever play a meaningful role in the state again, Snowden allows that, at the very least, the members of the American intelligence committees had an obligation to ask permission from elected representatives, “the majority of congress.” This speaks directly to Rawls’s argument that citizens should “fully comprehend and endorse” not just their constitution, but also “all the appropriate subordinate laws and precepts regulating the political structure.” In this case, those “subordinate laws” refer to, among other things, the foreign surveillance protocols that the American government has now repurposed toward spying on its own citizens in the post 9/11 era. Thus, in an era where the state is adapting international laws for national purposes, Snowden argues, conversely, that national metaphors and principles should be refocused toward international ends. 

Now, of course, like Edward Snowden, John Rawls is not himself an elected official. Rawls is a controversial political theoretician, and his opinions in this matter are germane only to the extent that they shed light on the rhetoric of Snowden and Barlow. Thus, the second reason I refer to Rawls and his notion of “political autonomy” is that he was a contemporary of Barlow’s during Barlow’s time at Harvard, serving a term at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Is Barlow more an adherent to Rawls’ idea of informed consent than Habermas, Chomsky or others? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But in contextualizing Snowden’s argument for a more participatory citizenship in the age of the Internet, Rawls’ theories seem likely to have informed both men, either directly or obliquely, particularly as they apply to civil disobedience.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls asks, “At what point does the duty to comply with laws enacted by a legislative majority (or with executive acts supported by such a majority) cease to be binding in view of the right to defend one’s liberties and the duties to oppose injustice?” What’s clearly implied in such a question is that there is a point where laws cease to be binding. It perhaps goes without saying that Barlow and Snowden agree that such a line—such a frontier—exists. 

 

An International Constitution for Cyberspace

And so, how to frame the legal line—the electronic frontier—becomes a fundamental rhetorical question, and, by extension, so does the question of how to invite others to cross that line. Telling your audience that the American government is out of control in its “appetite for control” is to tell many people what they already believe. To suggest an alternative code, however, is a different order of business. To suggest an international constitution for cyberspace as a follow-up to Barlow’s “Declaration of Independence” is to propose not just freedom, but normative standards for the revolution, a map for the new territory that, of course, is itself a territory insofar as it is subject to revision and evolution like all things digital. 

Snowden does not propose an alternative code in Citizenfour, but his rhetoric evolves in that direction in his conversation with Barlow when he argues about what “the rules of play” should be in the future. About eight and a half minutes into the conversation, Snowden says “There’s an organization of academics and specialists, experts on surveillance policies and human rights around the world who have been working extensively on this, and last year they proposed something called the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance.”

Note how Snowden emphasizes that TIP is something “they” have been working on, and that “they” are a group of “academics,” “specialists,” and “experts,” which is to say, a group of elite individuals who stand in stark contrast to the egalitarian ethos of Barlow’s early Internet “where anybody anywhere can say whatever they please, and nobody can stop them.” Here we see the dialectic at play, the total control of the state as thesis, the total freedom of the early electronic frontier as antithesis, these evolving codes from these specialists on the frontier as the synthesis, a repurposing of state laws for “International Principles.” 

What is worth emphasizing again is that Snowden does not claim TIP as his own and he does not list them for his audience, but instead cites them and then summarizes them as a group of rules that “boils down to any information that is collected and used has to be used for purposes that are necessary and proportionate.” In other words, the thirteen principles will be rules to control the state’s “appetite for control,” and, thereby, preserve the frontier, the democratic and egalitarian spirit and structure of what may be the world’s final wild space. To cite these principles and to urge for them is to evolve from whistle-blower to another role. To do so in conversation with John Perry Barlow is to dialogically present dialectical reasoning through not just a famous countercultural figure, but also an evolving countercultural institution: the EFF. In many ways, Snowden’s conversation with Barlow represents the torch of one generation’s counterculture being passed to the next. 

 

Edward SnowdenCeremony for the conferment of the Carl von Ossietzky medal on Edward Snowden. Credit: By Michael F. Mehnert - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Edward Snowden and You

Snowden’s conversation with Barlow signifies the whistle-blower’s argument moving from its “peripheral” phase to its “central” phase. This is the liminal moment between phases where normativity is suggested but not concretized. As the argument evolves, what shapes that final normativity (if anything can ever be argued to be fully final) is, increasingly, you. The extent to which a strategy of mass media argumentation will be successful is the extent to which its players are able to incorporate what Walton calls “simulative reasoning.” Distinct but related to empathy, simulative reasoning, Walton argues, “involves two rational agents. A rational agent is an entity that is capable of reasoning, but also capable of collecting and using information, including information about the actions of another agent.”4   

Aside from its emphasis on the dual process model of “peripheral” and “central” phases, Walton’s theory of mass media argumentation is instructive for a number of reasons. It is this notion of simulative reasoning, however, repurposed as it is from computational theory, which sheds incisive light on the rhetoric of Edward Snowden and you. Snowden comes from the world of computational theory and embodies its ethos more than perhaps any other political figure from his generation. Again, form meets content in this context. 

Simulative reasoning involves “reasoning about another agent’s reasoning,” what an earlier generation might have loosely called “imagination.” Simulative reasoning “is not unique to mass media persuasion,” Walton writes, “But here it has special features, because the respondent is not a single individual but a mass audience composed of many individuals who may think differently about any issue or problem.” That “mass audience” is you, and the degree to which Snowden’s rhetoric can operate invitationally (as opposed to dictatorially) is the degree to which, structurally, his argument will represent a true counter-narrative to the state and its “appetite for control.”

Currently, the United States of America has charged Edward Snowden with three felonies, using as their warrant the World War I Espionage Act. Snowden’s rhetoric, now evolving into more normative terrain, could be on the verge of becoming dramatically more codified in the coming years should he ever indeed face trial. Through the use of simulative reasoning, as understood in Walton, he can now both gauge and engage you, his peer, a potential juror in both the court of law and the court of public opinion. If, as Walton says, a “rational agent is an entity that is capable of reasoning, but also capable of collecting and using information, including information about the actions of another agent,” Snowden may represent just as formidable of a challenge to the United States in court as he already does in the mass media. After all, it was his ability to collect and use information, which is to say, collect surveillance on the entity he accuses of so invasively collecting surveillance, that has given his argument its unique panoptical (and paradoxical) quality. 

The rhetoric of Snowden, forged as it is by a single young man, yet representing the clouds of reasoning representative of an entire state’s military industrial complex (and you), has already proven difficult for the United States to counter in the court of public opinion. And as trials like O.J. Simpson’s reveal, the borders between the courts of law and the courts of public opinion are often quite porous. What distinguishes Snowden’s rhetoric in the present moment, and may yet elevate it to new heights in a court of law, is his ethos, the way in which he seems to embody the double-helix of the American identity, the figure who is simultaneously “nation” and “state,” corporate and military, institutional but revolutionary, an office drone and a pioneer, a man who is both a patriot and a traitor.    

“It’s up to you guys to end this conversation,” Snowden says at the end of his forty-minute dialogue with Barlow. Perhaps what is intended by such an admonition is a goad toward reading and acting, citizenship, political activism, participation beyond merely watching a YouTube video and pressing thumbs up or thumbs down, “like” or “favorite.”  Perhaps Snowden wants you to read TIP for yourself and start using encryption more in your own life, and advocating for encryption as a form of free speech (among other things). Perhaps he merely wants you to give money.

The Personal Democracy Forum conversation closes with Barlow, the countercultural icon, announcing the formation of The Courage Foundation, an organization designed to support Snowden’s defense. Barlow then encourages “everybody in this room and far beyond these walls” to donate to The Courage Foundation before partially retracting his plea in light of the fact that, legally, The Courage Foundation cannot yet accept donations. Thus, instead, Barlow instructs you to donate to FreeSnowden.IS, a slight miscue that again emphasizes not only the degree to which Barlow’s activities (and yours) on the electronic frontier are now subject to state regulation, but also the extent to which figures like Barlow are now compelled to play by state codes in order to defy those very same codes.

You can offer your own comment, like many viewers did: “This is great,” says Emrah Atilkan, with a blank box in place of an identifying photo next to his name. “Dare to care and share,” says S Franz, whose photo also refuses to yield the biometrics of a face. A certain species of simulative reasoning can be culled from this data, its simultaneously evasive but supportive content. If one goes further down the thread, one notices Charles Watson, again without a photo, saying “old dude trying to get his shine time using snowden. smh,” the “smh” as Internet shorthand for “shaking my head.” Clearly, here, you see skepticism, something less than one hundred percent enthusiastic support for the whistle-blower.  Simulative reasoning, “collecting and using information, including information about the actions of another agent,” suggests that, based on this comment, there are clouds of other content providers out there who may suspect narcissism or, at least, self-interest, in this exchange you’ve just witnessed. 

This informal verdict on Barlow is consistent with informal verdicts one finds on Snowden, most notably from James Clapper, the head of the National Security Agency, the man whose lies allegedly inspired Snowden’s leak. In an interview with Wired magazine shortly after announcing his resignation, Clapper expresses longing for the Cold War when “we had a single adversary and we understood it.” When confronted with the charge that it was the lies that he—Clapper—told Senator Ron Wyden regarding NSA surveillance that motivated Snowden, Clapper says: “He’s tried to sell that story, but it’s bullshit.” Clapper adds, “I think he’s a narcissist. I don’t buy the idealism he professes. I don’t buy that a bit.” Like Charles Watson, James Clapper is not so sure about the rhetoric he has encountered in the words of Edward Snowden. Like Watson, Clapper suspects self-interest.

But it is worth noting, in response to both Watson and Clapper, that simulative reasoning, otherwise known as research or surveillance, suggests that it may be too reductive to dismiss Snowden and Barlow with the most popular and reductive diagnosis of our time: narcissism. If Barlow was just trying to “get his shine time using Snowden,” and Snowden was just trying to promote himself, as Clapper suggests, what are we to make of the story from Snowden’s former colleague at the NSA, yet another figure afraid to share his name but not unafraid to share his largely supportive observations with Andy Greenberg of Forbes magazine. This anonymous individual, whose fear and anonymity, again, serves as its own species of evidence, claims that well before Snowden leaked his historic documents to the world, he could often be found “in the air-conditioned underground NSA Hawaii Kunia facility known as ‘the tunnel’” wearing a very particular garment, a “black sweatshirt sold by the civil libertarian EFF [that] featured a parody of the NSA’s logo, with the traditional key in an eagle’s claws replaced by a collection of AT&T cables, and eavesdropping headphones covering the menacing bird’s ears.” 

This evidence suggests that it was not Barlow who sought out Snowden for the sake of “shine time,” but perhaps the opposite. Or maybe, just maybe, we are not encountering a simple binary—an either/or of self-interest—at all. Perhaps, what we have here, is a paradoxical pairing, a strange mutuality: two libertarians bonded together through the principles of an organization whose name is rooted in the heritage of the frontier experience, what Turner described as “a passionate belief that a democracy was possible, which should leave the individual a part to play in free society and not make him a cog in a machine operated from above.” Thus, in the end (if an “end” exists), only you (the reader of history) will be able to tell how this “heritage” evolves, and whether Barlow and Snowden, with their shared and institutionalized interest in you and each other, will appear naïve, prophetic, or perhaps both in the one frontier that will always be with us: the future.

 

 

  • 1. Doherty, Brian. “John Perry Barlow 2.0.” Reason. Vol. 36, no. 4, Aug/Sept. 2004, p. 42-49.
  • 2. Walton, Douglas. Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • 3. Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • 4. Walton, Douglas. Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

M.C. Armstrong was recently embedded with JSOF in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. He published extensively on the Iraq war through The Winchester Star. Armstrong is the winner of a Pushcart Prize and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire, The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, Monkey Bicycle, Epiphany, The Literary Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the guitarist and lead singer for Viva la Muerte.