David Brooks’s most recent column on Edward Snowden is powerful and beautifully calibrated. Brooks refers to Snowden, who leaked top-secret information on the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, as the “ultimate unmediated man.” He appears to be the product of one of the more unfortunate trends of our age:
the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments… Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.
Brooks goes on to list the people and things Snowden betrayed–a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures, honesty and integrity, his oaths, his friends, his employers, the cause of open government, the privacy of us all, and the Constitution.
Brooks is not only right in what he says; he has articulated a deeply conservative vision of society, social arrangements, authority and the (invisible) bonds that hold us together. It seems to me that among conservatives this whole way of looking at things has been lost, or at least partially obscured, in recent years, as a libertarian impulse gains greater and greater velocity within the conservative movement.
I believe libertarians have important contributions to make and critiques to offer–but conservatism is a richer and deeper philosophy that better takes into account human life and human experiences. And while conservatism gives appropriate reverence to liberty as a political principle, it understands that a devotion to liberty is not enough to sustain a society, or an individual human life.
That is, I think, what David Brooks was getting at; and it’s worth careful reflection.