Cornel West, a vocal advocate for the poor and a staunch critic of income inequality, views America’s expanding security state as an issue of critical importance, and one that needs to be addressed immediately.

While some in America view NSA surveillance, the Obama administration’s ‘War on Whistleblowing’ and the government’s Fourth Amendment violations as issues of privilege – issues of minor importance in a country full of citizens struggling to survive – West rejects this approach out of hand.

He made that patently clear by metaphorically comparing Edward Snowden to the abolitionist John Brown in a recent Tweet:

In creating this metaphor, West knew it would be viewed as provocative by some and as extreme by others. But his intention was not to equate the liberation of slaves with the liberation of Americans from a growing security apparatus.

His intention was, though, to amplify the issue of NSA surveillance as one of critical importance by pointing out the parallels between Edward Snowden and the famous abolitionist (in metaphoric terms).

In the 1850s, Brown came to believe the only way to abolish the institution of slavery was through armed rebellion. His 1859 raid upon an armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia – a failed attempt to arm slaves in which seven people were killed – sparked a public, national debate on the issue of slavery that contributed to the start of the Civil War.

In the end, Brown was convicted of treason, murder and inciting a slave insurrection, and was hanged for his crimes. For West, Snowden and Brown share several traits:

  • First, both men set out to correct what they viewed as government-sponsored injustices: for Brown, slavery; for Snowden, constitutional abuses and the violation of civil liberties.
  • Second: both men were viewed by the government as traitors for acting in the public good.
  • Third: both men boldly acted on the injustices they witnessed when so many before them had refused to do so.

It should be noted that West used the Brown metaphor again in defending Bradley Manning, another whistle-blower awaiting a (likely harsh) sentencing for exposing U.S. war crimes:

West views the Obama administration’s prosecution of those coming forward to reveal American ‘national security’ injustices – as well as the injustices themselves – as critically important.

And his message to those who may not feel this way is, in part, this: too few thought of slavery as an issue of critical importance (outside of those actually enslaved) when Brown committed himself to the cause of abolition in 1837.

While Brown’s violent methods were controversial, his cause was just. So too, today, are the causes of Snowden and Manning, despite the controversies surrounding their whistle-blowing.

Follow David Harris-Gershon on Twitter @David_EHG


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