By Matthew DeMello
Photo by Thierry Ehrrman.
There are a great many reasons to be proud of America this week. Recent historic Supreme Court cases aside and focusing on our Transparency theme for the week — I, for one, am really impressed that Americans still care more about what Edward Snowden has to say than Paula Deen. Perhaps even more surprising is that the commentary on the Snowden story so far, despite the absence of knowledge regarding his intimate life details or general motives, still errs on the side of insightful – especially in that it divides the message from the messenger.
The debate surrounding Snowden’s revelations on the NSA’s surveillance capabilities is one that has managed to polarize both the left and right into disparate political corners, perhaps more so than any other single headline in the last four years since the rise of the Tea Party. Each politician has had to weigh the importance of how civil liberties correspond to pro-security statistics. No one side can point at the other and revel at the ‘civil war’ on their hands, as they’re too busy trying to place their own in context.
On the right, it’s Rand Paul versus Dick Cheney. On the left, it’s a devious president and a complicit American media at odds with the younger, more anti-authoritarian ends of the liberal base. It’s not everyday that these players (Paul and the Occupy crowd on one side; Cheney, David Gregory, and Barack Obama on the other) find themselves together on the same side of any line in the sand, except maybe when we’re also talking about drones.
Since we live in a palpably anti-establishment environment, those who believe that what the NSA is doing is democratically sound, are left only with the resolve to pick apart the remarkably forthcoming whistleblower. The best character assassination these national security hawks and apologists can muster is that Edward Snowden is, at worst, definitely a weirdo. And not just any kind of weirdo, as they come in many varieties from gun nuts to tree huggers, but just the kind that Baby Boomers can get behind spitting on: One of those isolated, paranoid twenty-somethings, whose lacking social bonds and general disdain for corporations definitely makes him the traitorous type.
Why? Because he dropped of high school and he donated $500 to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. He was grandiose and unhappy, overtly cynical and individualistic, and possessed no sense of community — the “ultimate unmediated man,” as David Brooks derided Snowden in a recent New York Times op-ed. With a teenager’s fixation on Randian self-interest, this definitely-NOT-a-Boy-Scout decided it might be awesome to spend the rest of his life on the run from the most powerful government in the world.
Oh yeah, and expose perhaps the most egregious infraction(s) on civil liberties in over a decade to every last one of its victims.
Again, these detractors insist, Snowden did so just to get his rocks off, to satisfy a hopelessly narrow, unrealistic world-view by playing spy like in the movies and skipping town to go to China, Russia, or any of America’s laundry list of frenemies who would love to piss us off by not returning him in a pretty red bow. To them, his actions couldn’t possibly have anything to do with any kind communal sense of duty or base-altruistic inability to stand complicit with widespread covert oversight of private life at large.
Right, that makes perfect sense. Except if that were true, why would anyone motivated in this way give the world their first and last name? That logic is so confoundingly self-sabotaging, even The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog entertained the thought (I assume not entirely in seriousness) that Edward Snowden may not even exist. Perhaps he should have put his social security number on a post-it note and worn it on his forehead for the entirety of his Guardian interview?
Also, what world-view is less realistic? Believing that a national security apparatus, which collects personal data first and asks for warrants later is ripe for abuse? Or that institutions, in a period of demonstrable worldwide economic calamity due to documented fraud and malfeasance shouldn’t be considered suspect until proven untrustworthy?
If Edward Snowden does indeed exist, he knows exactly what not claiming anonymity should tell anyone processing the information he has to offer: his intentions can be ascertained right from the surface, yet simultaneously stand unfathomably selfless in depth — whether or not the ends will justify his means. Further, that his information was of such public import, that a high school dropout gave up a $100,000-plus salary for a life of paranoid globetrotting in order to deliver it to them.
Hence, whoever Edward Snowden may be – a Bradley Manning or Michael Ellsberg — he is no John Galt.
Ayn Rand may have admired Snowden’s unwavering conviction but could never hope to explain his motivation. As such, the self-styled jocks and socs of traditionalist political commentary in the mainstream media are intent to ‘other’ Edward Snowden in a far less glamorous and laughably villainous light, making him out to be the Columbine kid in the American high school lunchroom.
Where as conversely, the only motives I find suspect are from the likes of Davids Brooks, Gregory, and the bulk of Snowden-skeptics. Their reasoning can just as easily be boiled down to the lowest inellectual denominator with the same finesse with which they’ve passed sweeping judgements on an individual who, by sheer virtue of not hiding in the shadows, has demonstrated far more integrity than any of his outstanding critics thus far.
Whether or not every facet of his Wikipedia page sounds like Oscar-winning movie hero material, depicting Edward Snowden as the Ryan Lanza of geopolitical espionage makes as much sense as seriously believing David Gregory fantasizes about Glenn Greenwald in jail because of journalistic envy. Why? Because Snowden has given us enough information on himself, i.e. his name, to provoke any of these reflex, nationalistic lynch-mob conclusions in the first place.
Whatever his reasons, as they appear largely contradictory (especially to those who are under the impression that young men prone to critical thinking never change their minds about their ideals or actions as they get older), it’s still a wonder that Snowden denied anonymity in the first place.
Certainly a nameless source is weaker in a time of institutional skepticism, of which journalism isn’t exempt, but you don’t have to cite Deep Throat to effectively argue that even a faceless truth can have a serious impact – or at least as much as Snowden already has.