Last Wednesday at 4:30, Columbia Law Professor Eben Moglen gave the first in a series of talks about digital surveillance in America, titled “Snowden and the Future: Part I: Westward the Course of Empire”. A transcript and video of the lecture can be found here. Bwog sent Snowden Supporter Maud Rozee to do some listening of her own.
I had scarcely settled in my seat when Pete Seeger’s “John Brown’s Body” came on over the speakers. This augured an interesting comparison, I thought. The audience, an even mix of undergrads and suited older people, immediately quieted. When the song ended, Eben Moglen strode onto the stage, and began his commanding lecture.
Moglen has a singular oratorical style: solemn and formal. Throughout the lecture, I thought that if you replaced “Edward Snowden” with “Jesus Christ”, he could have been delivering a sermon. Moglen introduced himself merely as someone who had invited himself to a lecture series because he felt forced to speak. (For those who would like a more complete introduction, Moglen is a professor of law and legal history at the Columbia Law School, and is the founder and chair of the Software Freedom Law Center).
The hour-long lecture began not with a reference to John Brown, but with a description of the fall of the Roman Empire. He described how the Romans clung to their culture and language of freedom even as that freedom was stripped from them by a totalitarian government. He emphasized the complete control of communications which Roman emperors employed through their roads, and control of the Mediterranean.
Next, Moglen chronicled the expansion of spying in the United States, up to the point we are at today where our government spying on our entire society is considered normal. He showed how the end of the Cold War left a huge national security structure which was repurposed for surveillance in a new age of digital communications. Moglen asserted that a “vastly imprudent” U.S. administration “unchained the listeners from law”, allowing them to spy domestically as well as abroad. According to Moglen, journalists, politicians and citizens stood aside as we were all targeted by American national security institutions. “We had our Guernica and we paid little attention”.
Moglen quoted Snowden, saying that security analysts are not bad people, but they failed to weigh the fundamental morality of their actions. Moglen pointed out that the few who retained their morality, and became whistleblowers, have been dealt with harshly by the American government. America lost the “morality of freedom”, according to Moglen. The American state began fastening the procedures of totalitarianism to the substance of democracy: a disastrous combination. Instead of freedom, we now export slavery, chasing fugitives from asylums abroad.
“Edward Snowden committed espionage on behalf of the human race”, Moglen said. He knew the price, and he also knew that whether his sacrifice would be worth it wasn’t up to him. That falls to us. We must understand his message – its context, purpose and meaning, and the consequence of receiving it. We have to consider the politics of our conditions, that we lose our freedom because we do not exercise it. We have to consider how privacy relates to freedom, and how freedom in America relates to the freedom of the human race. We also have to discuss what we can do to change how we communicate. Moglen promised that the answers to all these questions have been given to us by Snowden.
Like John Brown, Moglen said, “Edward Snowden was too right too soon”. He closed his lecture with a charge to learn from Snowden now, before someone concludes that our learning is to be prohibited. If we fail to end the procedures of totalitarianism in America, “they will remember our failure for 15 centuries.”