64% of Americans under 45 call Snowden a “whistleblower”

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who helped the government read your email and then betrayed us all by telling you

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who helped the government read your email and then betrayed us all by telling you about it

Here’s a fun quote from former UN ambassador John Bolton about why Edward Snowden is a traitor:

[Snowden] thinks he’s smarter and has a higher morality than the rest of us…that he can see clearer than the other 299,999,999 of us, and therefore he can do what he wants. I say that is the worst form of treason.

Guided by individual conscience? Singing the song of yourself? That’s not what America is about. America is about playing on the team. You’ll have plenty of time to worry about whether you participated in an immoral conspiracy in the moments before death. On an unrelated note, 64% of Americans under age 45 regard Snowden as a whistleblower, compared to only 50% aged 45 to 64 and 40% of those aged 65+. Totalizing theories after the jump.

First of all, that Bolton quote comes from this long Times editorial by Peter Ludlow, entitled “The Banality of Systemic Evil.”* Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 10.19.19 AMLudlow’s essential contention is that two different ethics come into conflict in the debate over whether Snowden is a whistleblower or a traitor. The first holds that one must be guided by conscience in one’s work, and so Snowden is perhaps the only moral person in the NSA for telling the world what his employers are doing. The second ethic demands one hold one’s personal opinions in check at work, in order to fulfill a more important ethic of obedience to one’s superiors and institutional procedures.

You can guess which side Ludlow comes down on. I think most Americans would agree that, in the words of Lucas Jackson, calling it your job don’t make it right. That’s possibly the whole historical lesson of Nazism. So why the massive, age-correlated discrepancy in whether Snowden is a hero or a dick?

My first assumption, born of years of knee-jerk prejudice, was that people get more conservative as they get older. That theory doesn’t bear out, though, because the traitor/whistleblower numbers are roughly the same for Republicans, Democrats and independents. Opinions about whether Snowden acted morally do not seem to depend on political beliefs.

Nor do they correlate strongly with race or religion—although atheists are more likely to call Snowden a whistleblower, probably because they are sympathetic to issues of individual conscience. Besides age, the two factors that correlate most strongly with the traitor/whistleblower question are income and college education.

Among people with college degrees, 42% said Snowden was a traitor, compared to 30% without. And while people in households making less than $50,000 a year or between $50k and $100k called him a traitor at 31% and 34%, respectively, that number jumped to 41% among households whose income is $100,000+. Generally speaking, people who are college educated, older and wealthier are more likely to think that Edward Snowden betrayed his country.

They are also more likely to have experience with institutional ethics—the moral system that instructs us to do what our bosses say and follow the rules at work. Obviously, poor people without college degrees have to do what their bosses say, too. But their work is more likely to produce alienation. The management versus labor dynamic is much stronger in blue-collar jobs and the service industry. White collar jobs, on the other hand—office jobs in institutions with vertical organizational structures—are more likely to emphasize teamwork, procedure and the chain of command.

Here comes the part where we go from semi-scrupulous reasoning to wild surmise. Pursuant to the scary numbers we talked about yesterday, old people are more likely to be invested in institutional rather than personal ethics. They are more likely to have been well-paid by office jobs that rewarded loyalty and long-term commitment. So are people with college degrees and those who make a lot of money. These are all people who have had good experiences with teamwork and chain-of-command institutions in America, and they have a vested interest in keeping that system secure.

While we’re making broad generalizations, we might as well say that younger Americans have not had as many good experiences. We are more likely to have been poorly paid and uninsured by our jobs, white-collar or otherwise. To put it in less negative and more plausible terms, we are also less likely to have amassed years of experience in institutional environments. The traitor/whistleblower gap correlates with age because a younger generation has not been rewarded by the American security state in the same way our parents were.

And the ground recedes beneath our feet. Obviously, that’s too much to extrapolate from one poll. It’s hard to deny that there is a disconnect between the commentariat’s attitude toward Snowden and the ordinary American’s, though. The people who really believe in the chain of command are the bosses. Maybe the most successful and established Americans disagree with the poorer and younger on this issue because some of us get more out of a secure American system than everybody else.

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  1. Higher income correlates with greater understanding of how organizations operate, would that be fair to suppose? And if you have a sense of how organizations operate, as opposed to some bewildered, blue-collar “every one who gets promoted is a kiss-ass” “lay offs are a sign someone wants more profit” experience, you more easily grasp that sometimes orgs do things that don’t make obvious sense to an outsider or person on the bottom rungs.

    Likewise, that education allows a person to better entertain the idea that organizations and people (especially the President) involved in preventing explosive suicides will do things that don’t make obvious sense to an outsider or person on the bottom rungs. It’s essentially epistemology. Education increases awareness of what you know and don’t know. And striving against the NSA based on the docs Snowden released is the same error in thinking someone makes when they tell themselves a story about how easily they could do their boss’s job. Maybe, but we’re not always privy to the knowledge required to make that evaluation on the lowest rungs of an organization, and regarding national security, we sure as fuck don’t.

    I wouldn’t argue we should have blind faith that the NSA and President are making perfect decisions, but I do think the fact that we don’t have even entry level security clearances means something.

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