It’s interesting, because I’ve been assigning that story for years, but I’d never had any idea about Brin’s politics until now. However, it probably shouldn’t be all that surprising, given that the reason I use the story is to demonstrate that there really are some things that we won’t do in the service of national security. I think that this notion is really the heart of a progressive vision of foreign policy and national security; the idea that we have or ought to have certain values as Americans, and that abandoning these values in the pursuit of additional security is really to abandon the idea of America, and consequently the point of fighting in the first place. This is another way of saying that all national security decisions involve value trade offs, and that understanding these trade offs is a critical element of the national conversation. To borrow from an earlier post, standing against this is a vision of American national security that doesn’t involve value trade offs:
J. Edgar Hoover justified his actions in terms of a defense of “America,” but it remains unclear precisely what that meant to him. Defending “America” doesn’t really mean anything; America is, after all, simply a collection of people, territory, and values. We can agree that some of these things are worth protecting, and others not, and these choices inform how we make value trade-offs; civil liberties in exchange for security from terrorists, for example. For Hoover, liberal Jewish “Harvard” lawyers like Felix Frankfurter represented a threat to “America” that required FBI surveillance, while the Ku Klux Klan and associated Southern lynch mobs were merely a local problem. Failing to specify what it is about America that you propose to protect can be strategic, as it allows you to do pretty much anything you like, but I’m nevertheless interested in how Hoover himself defined the America that he was so eager to protect. He obviously didn’t have much of an interest in civil liberties, or in the value of dissent, or freedom from state surveillance. Indeed, it’s hard to determine what exactly he did believe in. Ackerman is of the view that Hoover simply wasn’t philosophical enough to think in terms of protecting particular values at the expense of others. He undoubtedly thought about the rhetorical uses of protecting “America,” but it’s unlikely that he delved into a lengthy consideration of what that meant. Accordingly, for Hoover there were no trade-offs.
Of course, this is something we return to again and again in the context of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, a series of glittering generalities about freedom, democracy, and American glory without any complex vision of what such things mean, or how these things might be compromised by a fully militarized understanding of American national security. We are offered no contradictions and told there are no value trade-offs; we can have a long war without either taxes or a draft, and we can promote democracy while crushing our enemies (indeed, the more we kill, the more democratic they’ll become).
There’s a reason Loki doesn’t give up his secrets until the very end of Brin’s story; he knows that there are those who will use them, and he understands that this would make everyone worse off.