Edward Snowden. Daniel Hale. Chelsea Manning. Julian Assange. And of course Daniel Ellsberg. These and other whistleblowers courageously spoke out to reveal the lies the government feeds us to keep us pacified and compliant.
What do whistleblowers do? Some might say they speak truth to power. But power already knows the truth, indeed the powerful manufacture the truth, and they like their near-monopoly on truth and its creation and distribution.
What whistleblowers really do is speak truth to the powerless. They speak truth to us, and their version of the truth is one that reveals the manipulation and mendacity of the powerful. It exposes power to the light, revealing the rot, the greed, the lies, and for this act of defiance and of patriotism, the whistleblower must be punished.
Snowden was forced into exile in Russia. Hale was recently imprisoned for up to four years. Manning spent years in prison under humiliating conditions that included solitary confinement. Assange is still in prison, and the U.S. government still seeks to extradite him and punish him under an espionage act that shouldn’t even apply to a citizen of another country (not to mention a journalist who should be protected in a democracy that allegedly reveres the freedom of the press).
It’s not that the American people can’t handle the truth, to cite the words of Colonel Jessup as played by Jack Nicholson. It’s that the American people can handle the truth, that the truth would empower us while weakening the powers-that-be and their various plots and privileges. That’s why the truth is such a scarce commodity in Washington, D.C. It must be guarded while being massaged and manipulated before its fed to the masses as formless, often truthless, pabulum.
America’s punishment of principled whistleblowers is yet another sign of the death of democracy in America. If President Biden wanted to do something important, something inspiring, something meaningful, he’d permit Snowden to return with no charges, he’d pardon Hale, and he’d stop pursuing the extradition of Assange. But Biden will do none of these. Whistleblowers must be persecuted, must be punished, not because they’ve done something wrong, but because they’ve done something right, something that embarrasses the powerful. And that simply cannot be tolerated.
After all, if Americans in positions to know start speaking the truth to their fellow Americans, where will that end? We might see a resurgence of accountability, of justice, even of democracy in America. And we can’t have that.
Addendum: For a terrific book on whistleblowing that will make you angry indeed, check out Tom Mueller’s “Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing In An Age of Fraud” (New York, Riverhead Books, 2019).