Look, I get it. Your eyes crust over when you read this stuff. Mine do too. I’m here to talk about the whistleblower as a significant cultural figure in 2019; this piece was my idea and I’m already bored with it. The problem with writing about whistleblowers is that it means writing about corporate and governmental malfeasance. The problem with writing about corporate and governmental malfeasance is neatly contained in the soul-crushing word “malfeasance” itself, with its depth-siren promise of sentences with too many prepositions and timelines you can’t follow and language that sounds like it was scraped off the pavement after being struck at high speed by an 800-page committee report. “The leak, in 2016, of terabytes of previously unseen financial records, some extending as far back as the 1970s, from the accounts of hundreds of offshore entities, whose intricacies revealed some of the manifold ways in which international banking and legal frameworks may enable the wealthy and powerful to skirt their tax obligations.” Sir, I thank you, but no. Fold me into a bright yellow express pack and DHL me into the sun.
It is not human nature to want to pay attention to this stuff. It is human nature to want to pay attention to things that are fun and cool, and that make you feel good about yourself. You don’t want to read about high-level regulatory corruption in the Hectare Enforcement Division of the Bureau of Weights and Measures. You want to read about the Rockets. You want to read exquisitely crafted personal essays about how social media is changing the diaphanous landscape of the self. You want to look at pictures of drunk bears. Maybe the bears could be hula hooping? Tolstoy basically wrote War and Peace to demonstrate that even in the midst of world-historic events—in this case, the Napoleonic Wars—most people are still overwhelmingly focused on their own lives and interests and that this personal and domestic focus is a more powerful shaper of history than the orders given by generals and emperors. Historians may disagree with Tolstoy’s analysis, but I still say War and Peace is the most incisive novel ever written about human nature—only partly because it includes a chapter about a drunk bear.
So here’s how we’re going to do this. We’re going to start by picturing a plane falling out of the sky. Not the actual moment of fiery impact. The moments just before. Say you’ve just taken off. You’re in your seat, still getting settled, still feeling around for the power outlet so you can charge your phone, and because you’re a human being and therefore interested in things that are fun and cool, and that make you feel good, you’re not paying attention to the flight path or the sound the engine is making. You’re plopped in 32F, sipping the last of your airport Vitamin Water (they only had dragonfruit—blech) and scrolling through the entertainment options. Wow, you can watch The Greatest Showman in so many languages! You’ve got to remember to text your friend about this as soon as the Wi-Fi comes on. Which has to be soon, right?
Then the bottom falls out of the plane.
Hold on to that feeling for a second—the moment when you realize it wasn’t just turbulence, the plane wasn’t going to right itself, you were falling, it wasn’t going to be OK. We’ll come back to it.
But now let’s change stories. Imagine you’re a cadet in the Coast Guard Academy. Being in the Coast Guard is something you’re serious about. Your dream, even. You can’t pass by a coast without thinking, “Oh, buddy—am I ever going to guard the shit out of you.” Because you’re a human being and therefore focused on your own life and interests above abstract historical concerns, you don’t enter the academy hoping to pay attention to the institutional culture of the Coast Guard; you just want to do your work and get ahead, like everyone else. But your instructors treat you differently from your classmates. You do the same work but get less credit. They insult you in front of your peers. They bully you. They single you out. Luckily, there’s a system in place that allows you to report harassment. So you tell your story, trusting that your superiors will make sure you’re treated fairly from now on.
Nothing happens to your instructors. Instead, the Coast Guard retaliates against you. Your next performance evaluation is ridiculously, unjustly poor. You spoke up about being mistreated, and now they’re trying to destroy your career.
Hold on to that feeling, also—the moment you realized the organization that was supposed to protect you from bullying was going to side with your bullies against you. We’ll come back to this too.
Now imagine your kid is being held in a detention center. Doesn’t matter why, doesn’t matter how you feel about it. The state says your 8-year-old needs to be locked up, so he’s locked up. But he’s really, really sick. The state, in taking charge of him, also took responsibility for his health. But the medics who come in to look at him say he’s fine, it’s nothing serious. He’s getting worse. But even though they barely examined him in the first place, they won’t do anything more. There’s nothing you can do.
And that’s a third feeling for you—the moment you realized you were powerless to help your own child.
These three stories are not metaphors. They actually happened to real human beings. Two Boeing 737 Max airliners crashed in late 2018 and early 2019, killing 346 people, everyone on board, all passengers and crew members on both flights. A Coast Guard officer who correctly reported harassment through officially approved channels was punished by her bosses. And ICE systematically denied adequate health care to immigrants held in its prisons, leading to multiple deaths and preventable crises. In 2017, an 8-year-old boy had to have part of his forehead surgically removed to stop an infection inside his skull. It had been left untreated after an ICE medical team diagnosed the excruciating weeks-old pain in his head as swimmer’s ear.
None of these tragedies happened randomly or through bad luck. They all happened because—let’s avoid the language of “malfeasance” here—some evil assholes were willing to hurt and even kill other people if it meant making more money, or protecting their own power, or getting ahead. Boeing executives, we now know, rushed the development of the 737 Max, cutting corners in order to meet their launch targets, because who cares about passenger safety when the stock price is at stake? Coast Guard officers broke their own rules in order to preserve their complicity in an ingrained culture of abuse. And ICE—well, let’s just say that it’s hard to imagine that an excessive concern for the welfare of immigrant children is the path to the top of that particular organization.
We know this stuff happened because regular people came forward and told us. When you think of the word “whistleblower,” you probably think of The Whistleblower, the still-technically-anonymous (but-Republicans-are-openly-saying-his-name-on-the-House-floor) intelligence officer whose report on President Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden’s son led directly to our current impeachment crisis. But the fact is that a lot of dark things are happening all the time in this country, some of them right out in the open but a lot of them in secret, and the only way we ever find out about most of the secret ones is that some regular person decides not to act like a gangster—decides, in other words, that there’s a moral value higher than institutional loyalty. Whistleblowers are the most significant cultural figures of this year not just because one of them precipitated historic impeachment proceedings against an American president, but also because no one more vividly symbolized the plight of the well-meaning citizen in a democracy sliding over the edge of normalcy. No one more eloquently conveyed how regular people can, and also can’t, fight back.
Whistleblowers didn’t, in the parlance of internet year-end roundups, “win” 2019—the opposite is closer to the truth—but no one else told us as much about where we are as a country, or about where we’re heading. The beeping of a life-support system doesn’t “win” a hospital room.
Still, whistleblowers were everywhere in 2019. This was the year when the least anonymous whistleblower alive, Edward Snowden, published a bestselling memoir. It was the year when Steven Soderbergh released a movie about the Panama Papers, the “terabytes of previously unseen financial records, some extending as far back as the 1970s, from the accounts of hundreds of offshore entities,” etc., which were sent to journalists by an anonymous whistleblower in 2016. It was the year when Chelsea Manning, fresh off a failed Senate run, went back to jail for refusing to testify against WikiLeaks. It was the year the production company behind The Farewell and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood announced a new biopic about Reality Winner, the whistleblower who, two years ago, leaked a classified NSA report about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Winner will be directed by Susanna Fogel, and will treat its protagonist—who’s still in prison—as “a mouthpiece for a generation of young people who are struggling to square their personal ethics with the crumbling ethics of our country’s institutions.”
It was the year when dozens of new whistleblowers came forward, far too many to list here. The three I highlighted above aren’t the biggest of the year; they’re the biggest of mid-December, thanks to a pair of congressional hearings and a BuzzFeed News report on health care in ICE detention centers. If you want to know how bad things really are out there, set a Google alert for “whistleblower.” There’s no quicker way to get a deep sense of the algae bloom of institutional corruption currently underway in America. Everywhere you look—banks, businesses, police departments, local governments, regulatory agencies, the White House—the biggest cheaters have control of the rulebooks. Where you once had the idea that American institutions were relatively clean, though with inevitable pockets of corruption here and there, these days it’s easy to feel that the scam has metastasized, spun itself up into something bigger than a scam, something more like a default atmosphere. In a world where energy lobbyists run the EPA, corruption is the expected state; what’s abnormal are the occasional pockets of holdout integrity. That’s the context in which the whistleblowers of 2019 spoke up. Of course, there are whistleblowers with bad motives and whistleblowers who lie outright because human beings are human beings, and a percentage of them, in any conceivable category, will always be terrible. But for many whistleblowers, in this climate, coming forward represents an extraordinary act of faith in a democratic society. You have special insight into how badly broken the system is; now, you’re trusting the system to protect you as it heals itself.
Hard polling data on whistleblowers as a class is hard to come by, in part because whistleblower stories tend to be dominated by single individuals: Assange, Snowden, Manning, etc. There’s evidence to suggest that the public regards individual whistleblowers of the charismatic Wiki-hacker type with ambivalence; that’s what polling from the 2010s tends to suggest, and it’s in keeping both with our general polarization and with the legitimately complex nature of some high-profile whistleblowers’ leaks. This is another reason whistleblowers are so fascinating: how you feel about, say, Snowden’s actions is a valid key to your deepest feelings about the whole concept of a democratic state. Do you accept the idea that successful statecraft requires secrecy? Do you think citizens have a right to know what their government does? What wins out between those two imperatives? What do you think matters more, following orders or following your conscience? Many whistleblowers end up facing criminal prosecution or de facto exile, which suggests that leaders who like their executive authority unchecked, a designation that includes Barack Obama as well as George W. Bush and Trump, feel they have political cover for going after them. But the persecution goes only so far—Obama commuted Manning’s sentence—and is balanced to some extent by signs of cultural approval. On the one hand, accusations of treason. On the other, awards, book sales, laudatory biopics.
I have never achieved a sufficient level of political sophistication to understand how anyone can feel that the person spying on them is their friend, and the person who exposes the spying is their enemy. But then, if democracy were straightforward, I guess we’d be better at having it. In any case, it makes sense that the public view of whistleblowers would be conflicted, because one of the pictures that emerges from a consideration of whistleblowers in 2019 is of a country that no longer knows itself. Whistleblowers are the system-failure warning of a nation that’s changing from one thing into something else, without knowing how or why. That is: American society is already corrupt enough to generate a steady stream of whistleblowers. But it’s still idealistic enough to give many of them a high-profile hearing (in the media, before Congress). But then it’s teetering so wildly between those two alternatives that it’s just as likely to punish them as to act on their revelations. Often, in fact, it does both.
The other picture that emerges is of the nature of the wrongdoing itself. Remember what we were saying about hard-to-follow timelines and sentences with too many prepositions? Much of the institutional crime that’s being committed in America is nightmarishly, spectacularly dull and hard to follow. It involves chains of shell companies, misfiled expense assessments, and appropriations accounts routed through improper channels. It wouldn’t make for a remotely listenable true-crime podcast. (“And then … the executive waived mandatory reporting on the independent safety audit”: A sentence that might kill several hundred people, but won’t sell a lot of ad reads.) Even the impeachment of the president, with its background of indeterminate meetings between intermediaries and email threads and back-channel phone calls that happened—when exactly?—lacks the punch of a good story. It’s a stunning, historic event; it is also kind of boring to think about.
And this is by design—if not intentional design, then by a kind of Darwinian channeling. Because democratic institutions can maintain their integrity only when people care and pay attention. Absolutely the best friend that abuse of power can have, it turns out, is your natural, human, Tolstoyan desire not to be bored out of your mind reading the eighth paragraph of a news article on a Tuesday, and there’s someone called Aldringham in it, and you can’t remember who Aldringham is, and none of it has anything to do with you—except that the fate of the world may hang on it, which doesn’t seem all that relevant when you have 12 tabs open on a Tuesday. The people who are cheating you and running the world have figured out how to make the process of doing those things look really, really tedious; if they had accidentally made global domination look fun and cool, they’d never have gotten away with it. Trump is useful, in this sense, because he’s so good at being Not Boring about stuff that’s slightly extraneous; he’s the magician’s bejeweled left hand flitting over the cards while the boring old right sneaks the ace in his pocket.
The whistleblower is the person saying, hey, it’s in his pocket. And maybe it works—maybe you’re listening. But maybe you’re paying attention to something else, because this movie is kind of slow, and you still have five hours to go on this flight, and was someone just talking about cards for some reason? And then you don’t look up until the bottom of the plane falls out.