Just Not Cool

Hemingway was cool until he became a parody of himself. He defined courage as grace under pressure, and that’s the essence of cool, and more than anything Americans want to be cool. Say little and be awesome – no bragging, no whining, and when you pull it off, whatever it is, move on. Don’t spike the ball. Only jerks do that. Cool guys flip the football to the referee and trot back to the huddle – no big deal.

Cool guys are one level up from the rest of us. Their excellence is innate to them – just part of who they are. There’s no need to talk about it, but that’s what screwed things up for Hemingway. He had to talk about it – that was his job – and one cannot talk about cool, because talking about it just isn’t cool. All the stripped-down spare prose in the world won’t help you either – you’ll just sound brutal and dumb. Woody Allen had a great deal of fun with this in Midnight in Paris – there Hemingway is a jerk, mouthing short sentences about war and mud and courage that make no sense at all, but with an attitude. Everyone avoided him. The seeds of self-parody were already there. Now Hemingway lives on as that most interesting man in the world in those beer commercials. Stay thirsty, my friend! That sort of cool had become a joke.

In the late fifties Miles Davis got it right – say nothing, turn your back on the audience, and play a hundred times better than anyone else. He was part of what they called the Birth of the Cool. It was that spare West Coast Sound that you either got or you didn’t. It was both cerebral and intense, and the modal improvising startling, but one didn’t talk about it. There was nothing to say. A few years earlier James Dean was the same way in the movies – excruciatingly cool and of course slyly unwilling to explain himself, or unable to explain himself because he really wasn’t all that bright, which only meant he was even cooler dead. That, in fact, was the golden age of cool. Hugh Heffner sold it. Peter Gunn lived it on television every week, to a cool-jazz soundtrack played by the best studio musicians in Hollywood, many of whom who had played with Miles down at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. Those were the days.

Those days aren’t entirely gone, although celebrities and athletes these days tend to be hot and intense over-the-top screeching types, outraged or self-righteous or both. We also had a president who was hot and intense, the younger Bush, but then we elected No-Drama Obama, twice. He seemed cool, and smart, and careful – he wasn’t going to overreact and send us off to war again. He said he wasn’t against all wars, just dumb wars, and that was cool. Cool still matters and we still make our choices.

Cool is cool, but some like it hot. Those who do got outvoted twice. McCain was hot about everything. Romney may not have been hot about anything, but he was that other opposite of cool. He was hopelessly square, a word from the late fifties but appropriate, as Romney seemed to have walked straight out Ozzie and Harriet Land.

That big battle of hot and cool continues, as the Republicans like it hot, and their Tea Party cohort likes it even hotter. Everything is always end-of-America-as-we-know-it intense, all the time. If you’re not outraged you ought to be, or you’re a fool, or a traitor. Their aim is to turn up the heat, as the only way to get things done, while Democrats tend to say let’s all calm down and reason things out, as the only way to get things done, and the differences lie deeper than policy. They are differences in temperament. One gets through life, and changes what needs to be changed, by being intense, by being hot about something – or not. Change, and fixing what needs to be fixed, can only happen if we all calm down and talk and think things through carefully – so chill. Be cool. Each side believes the other side doesn’t even know how to approach any given problem.

That may be too broad a distinction, as the left has been hot and intense from time to time. Back in the sixties, when Martin Luther King was calm and steady and focused, explaining and showing, never screaming, the Vietnam War turned half the left into self-righteous Jeremiahs. The riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago were not cool, as a methodology. A few of those folks later turned into terrorist bombers, for peace and love, to end the war – which was not cool in both senses. Things are different now, but all that happened. In the fifties, of course, Eisenhower had no use for that flamethrower Joe McCarthy, and William F. Buckley famously tossed the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement. The hot side once had their period of cool, telling everyone to calm down, damn it. Things there are different now too.

This may not be a matter of party. It may come down to how, instinctively now, Americans value cool. Say little and be awesome – no one likes a drama queen, except the Tea Party crowd, and now those who see Edward Snowden as a hero. That’s the problem with Edward Snowden – maybe he’s heroically doing the right thing, exposing the extent of the government using what everyone else gathers about us for purely commercial purposes anyway, to make money, and using that to build a database of all communication activity, to discover patterns that might stop a terrorist attack or two. That cannot be right. The government shouldn’t know all that stuff about us – just Google and Apple and Facebook and Amazon and the rest, selling it to each other’s marketing departments. That sort of thing in the government’s hands could lead to Big Brother fascism.

Or it could keep us safe, and letting everyone know what we’re up to, especially letting the bad guys know what we’re up to, could be dangerous – the bad guys will surely find a workaround. You could see this either way – but Snowden is carrying four laptops with everything one might want to know about the NSA systems and databases, and at any moment could hand them over to the Russians, since he didn’t hand them over to the Chinese, or he could say no. No one knows what he’ll do. Whose side is he on? We’ll have to wait to find out. He’s in transit.

And that’s now getting more uncomfortable for him:

Fugitive Edward Snowden has asked Russia for political asylum, according to a consular official who spoke out after President Vladi­mir Putin said Monday that such a request might be considered if Snowden refrained from releasing harmful information about the United States on Russian soil.

Putin’s suggestion that Russia might seek to impose some constraints on the former National Security Agency contractor was an unusual gesture from a foreign leader who has been a strong critic of the United States. But any offer of asylum from Russia would defy Washington’s requests that Snowden be returned to the United States.

It seems no one likes a drama queen, not even the Russians:

Snowden, who has been seeking refuge in Ecuador, faces charges in the United States for disclosing details of U.S. surveillance programs. Russia has refused to turn him over, in a demonstration of its unwillingness to bow to U.S. desires.

But at a time of ever more tense relations between the countries, Russia has avoided being too provocative and has sidestepped the asylum issue.

Although Putin did not try to deepen the U.S. embarrassment on Monday, he laid out detailed conditions for Snowden’s possible asylum in Russia in a way that made it unclear whether he was seriously considering such an offer or was making an opening bid in negotiations with the United States over Snowden’s future.

“If he wants to stay here,” Putin said, “there is one condition: He has to stop his work undermining our U.S. partners, as odd as it may sound coming from me.”

The man can stay in Russia, but Putin wants this pain-in-the-ass to just grow up. Putin has a country to run and international issues he needs to deal with, and then it got worse for Snowden. Ecuador praised Snowden early the week before, and likes to be defiant toward Washington, but they really don’t want him now either. This drama queen is Russia’s problem, and Kevin Drum comments:

So what the hell happens now? Snowden’s passport has been revoked, so he can’t travel. Ecuador won’t grant him asylum unless he shows up at their embassy door. But Russia won’t let him do that, nor will they turn him over to the United States. Putin also says that Russia won’t grant him asylum as long as he keeps leaking documents that harm America’s interests. That last is a helluva chin scratcher, isn’t it? I guess Putin just likes playing mind games with us. Meanwhile, the LA Times reports that Snowden has applied to 15 other countries for asylum. Hopefully, one of them is willing to consider the request without meeting Snowden personally.

I’m not really sure how this ends. But apparently Putin has decided that there are drawbacks to baiting the United States after all.

As for meeting Snowden personally, that’s going to be interesting, as Snowden then released this statement:

One week ago I left Hong Kong after it became clear that my freedom and safety were under threat for revealing the truth. My continued liberty has been owed to the efforts of friends new and old, of family, and others who I have never met and probably never will. I trusted them with my life and they returned that trust with a faith in me for which I will always be thankful.

On Thursday, President Obama declared before the world that he would not permit any diplomatic “wheeling and dealing” over my case. Yet now it is being reported that after promising not to do so, the President ordered his Vice President to pressure the leaders of nations from which I have requested protection to deny my asylum petitions.

This kind of deception from a world leader is not justice, and neither is the extralegal penalty of exile. These are the old, bad tools of political aggression. Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me.

It goes on and on, and he’s whining, but it is possible WikiLeaks wrote the statement and only said it was his, without telling him. No one knows. The message is that this is outrageous and everyone should be hot and bothered about Obama, but few are. Obama, and the Russians, and the government of Ecuador, are being cool about this, and Snowden is being the drama queen, which is not cool. No one is going to assassinate him, and he not exactly endearing himself to anyone.

McClatchey’s Hannah Allam also notes here that Snowden’s series of odd self-revelations, and all the talk of where’s he’s going and when, haven’t done much for credibility:

Even as Snowden is stuck in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport, his public image is constantly evolving, through the publication of his Internet chat logs, statements from his father, live online conversations and an interview he gave to a Chinese newspaper.

Snowden undoubtedly remains a polarizing figure, but both his supporters and detractors have received some curveballs as details of his life are revealed and in many ways eclipse the trove of government secrets he risked everything to expose.

It’s not about the NSA any longer. He made it about him, and he’s an odd duck:

Snowden once opposed exposing government secrets.

In January 2009, Snowden was unrecognizable from his image today of a self-proclaimed crusader against government secrecy and widespread surveillance. The technology news website Ars Technica unearthed old Internet chat logs that quoted Snowden as saying that leakers of government secrets “should be shot in the balls.” Purportedly writing under the handle TheTrueHOOHA, a moniker he’d used elsewhere, Snowden told other users that sensitive information dealing with Iran’s nuclear program “is classified for a reason. It’s not because ‘Oh, we hope our citizens don’t find out.’ It’s because ‘This s— won’t work if Iran knows what we’re doing.'”

Snowden wasn’t always big on WikiLeaks either:

Also in the chat logs made public by Ars Technica, Snowden refers derisively to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy activist group that announced last week that it was advising Snowden and had paid some of his travel and lodging expenses since he went on the lam. Snowden was more disdainful in 2009, writing under his chat handle that it was irresponsible for The New York Times to have covered secret U.S.-Israeli negotiations: “Are they TRYING to start a war? Jesus Christ. They’re like WikiLeaks.”

And he may not be a whistleblower either:

While pro-transparency activists were quick to bestow Snowden with the title of “whistleblower,” that might be a stretch given some of his admissions to a Chinese newspaper. While in transit in Hong Kong, Snowden told the South China Morning Post, an English-language publication, that he’d staked out a job as a contractor at the firm of Booz Allen Hamilton in order to gain “access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” the Morning Post quoted him as saying. The interview, said [Steven] Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy, “did not strengthen his case. It made him look devious and calculating rather than conscience-driven.”

Steven Aftergood is the director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, and he smells a rat, as does Ed Kilgore:

One might add that it made him look more like a spy than a whistle-blower, an impression that is strengthened by his semi-public negotiations for asylum with various countries hostile to his own. It’s hard not to observe that had Snowden put as much time and effort into disappearing as he did into preparing the rollout of his revelations, we might be far more focused on NSA than on him.

I keep half-expecting to see protesters of this or that government, here or abroad, begin replacing their Guy Fawkes’ masks with the visage of Edward Snowden. But in terms of converting his leaks into an effective lever to bring more transparency and accountability to NSA and other purveyors of questionable U.S. policies and practices, I don’t think a Snowden cult of personality is going to be terribly helpful.

That’s probably right. Snowden is just not cool. He wasn’t an idealistic good citizen, doing his job well, who somehow stumbled upon his own government doing nefarious things, which made him weep for America but who heroically and at great risk to himself brought it all to light, reluctantly but bravely – which would have been very cool. No, he carefully joined Booz Allen Hamilton in order to gain access to lists of machines all over the world that NSA hacked, to blow things up and have the right people, if he was lucky, call him a hero. He wanted to be famous and important, no matter what – which isn’t cool. And now he wants this government or that, all of which would love to stick to America, to take him in, as a hero – but he’s just found out that each of those countries has national interests which are more important to them than his ego. And he’s saying that this isn’t fair – he implies that can help any one of those countries do great damage to America by making him a national and international hero forever – and Obama’s going to send a team to assassinate him!

Yeah, in your dreams, dude… You’re not that important. You broke the law, and you can come appear in court and explain why, and explain what you think gave you alone the right to decide who knows what about what we’re up to around the world – or you can stay out there, stateless in the Moscow airport, pretending to be cool. It’s your choice.

Maybe it’s good we know what Edward Snowden revealed. This sort of data-mining should be discussed a bit more, and definitively approved, or modified, or ended. We could discuss that. It’s just that this Snowden guy is so damned irritating. Hell, maybe he’s Ernest Hemingway, reincarnated, as if we need more short and shallow sentences about courage. That was never all that cool in the first place. Everyone outgrows Hemingway.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Just Not Cool

  1. Rick says:

    Ed Kilgore:

    “I keep half-expecting to see protesters of this or that government, here or abroad, begin replacing their Guy Fawkes’ masks with the visage of Edward Snowden.”

    In fact, have we seen much, or even any, of that? As far as I can tell, this guy doesn’t have a friend in the world. And I would say he’s hardly the “drama queen”. He seems mostly low key and calm — probably the essence of “cool”, if that really matters.

    People try to claim he’s not a whistle-blower, but that’s just silly. Of course he is. That’s exactly what he is. I don’t know why people say that.

    They say if he were a whistle-blower, he’d have taken his concerns to his superiors, but that seems to overlook the fact that his object was to let the American public know what’s going on in their name, and that wouldn’t have happened if he just told his bosses, who were all in on it.

    People say he’s a spy who is threatening to turn over stuff to our enemies, but I’d have thought if he wanted to do that, he would have just done it without approaching Glenn Greenwald — instead of going to Hong Kong, he could have flown directly to Beijing and just handed the laptops over.

    They say if he were a real whistle-blower, he’d turn himself in to the Americans and just face the music, but I’d bet he doesn’t want to have done to him what happened to Bradley Manning, his WikiLeaks counterpart, who was apparently mistreated terribly in pre-trial detention. It seems to me somebody should be allowed to expose some truths to his fellow Americans without being also required to suffer for his “sins”.

    While turning Snowden into a hero may be a bit too much, at least we should recognize that his motives seem to be honorable — he obviously didn’t do it as a traitor to his country, or for the money, and he indeed did throw away a good deal of his comfortable life in the process.

    So why has everybody in the world turned against this guy, and why does everybody insist on debating whether this guy is a jerk or not, instead of discussing the content of the information he divulged?

    In fact, at this point, there has been so little discussion of it, I can’t even tell you what it is that he divulged. As far as I can tell, it didn’t do a lot of real damage — or did it? Like Ellsberg before him, he seemingly only told people what everybody already knew, although maybe in his case, with a twist — that is, yes, this process is being abused by the agencies, who are actually spying on citizens without getting the necessary permissions. Or so it seems, I don’t know. I guess I should look that up, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to sort it out from all the anti-Snowden stuff out there.

    Is it because we just don’t “like” this guy? I guess to some people, he’s like that Assange guy, whose personality, like that of the late Steve Jobs, is so annoying that it tends to distort reality and make us forget what we were talking about.

    Forget whether or not Snowden is cool; that’s really not the point.

    I just don’t get it.

    (But yeah, I agree about Hemingway. I could never quite understand his appeal either.)

    Rick

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