The debate provoked by Edward Snowden‘s revelations is drawing new battle lines in American politics, and redefining the image of the US in the eyes of the world. As Snowden’s personal fate, and his dramatic hegira from a Hawaiian paradise to the world’s drabbest airport, captures the narrative, we hear complaints from some of his defenders and sympathizers that all this is getting in the way of the revelations themselves. This is true in the very narrow sense that when we are discussing Snowden the person, we can’t simultaneously discuss the system of globalized surveillance he unveiled. Yet this misses the point, one made by Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who broke the NSA story.
In a speech he gave the other day to a conference put on by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Greenwald spoke for the first time in personal terms, and his account of how the story came to be and what Snowden is like as a human being is fascinating – and essential to understanding these events and the controversy they have provoked.
The process of interacting with and finally meeting Snowden in Hong Kong went on over months, and Greenwald tells us he began to visualize a mental picture of his source: older, a CIA officer nearing the end of his career and his life who’d had an attack of conscience as he prepared to meet his Maker. Greenwald was shocked to discover the most significant whistleblower in American history was a not yet 30-year-old who looked younger. Faced with a moral conundrum – should he break the biggest story of the decade at the price of irrevocably destroying someone’s life? – Greenwald wanted to understand what motivated Snowden. They spent many hours together, with ex-litigator Greenwald grilling him not only about the documents in his possession and their significance but also about what motivated Snowden to end a near paradisiacal existence in Hawaii with his hot girlfriend making $122,000 a year:
"The more I spoke with him about it, the more I understood, and the more overwhelmed I became and the more of a formative experience it had for me and will have for the rest of my life because what he told me over and over in different ways – and it was so pure and passionate that I never doubted its authenticity for a moment – is that there is more to life than material comfort or career stability or trying to simply prolong your life as long possible. What he continuously told me is he judged his life not by the things he thought about himself but by the actions he took in pursuit of those beliefs."
Pundits left and right denounce the "traitor" Snowden as a "narcissist," yet people like David Brooks deliberately conflate narcissism with individualism, and "selfishness" with independence of mind. More to life than material comfort or career stability? No narcissist would ever say such a thing. A true narcissist is a moral nihilist for whom the existence of other people, let alone the principle enshrined by the Constitution, is irrelevant. Far from caring only about his own physical survival, here was somebody, as Greenwald points out, about "to throw all that away and become an instant fugitive and somebody who would probably spend the rest of their life in a cage." Why did he do it?
"When I asked him how he got himself to the point where he was willing to take the risk that he knew he was taking, he told me that he for a long time had been looking for a leader, somebody who would come and fix these problems. And then one day he realized there’s no point in waiting for a leader, that leadership is about going first and setting and example for others. What he ultimately said was he simply didn’t want to live in a world where the United States government was permitted to engage in these extraordinary invasions, to build a system that had as its goal the destruction of all individual privacy, that he didn’t want to live in a world like that and that he could not in good conscience stand by and allow that to happen knowing that he had the power to help stop it."
This is why the new authoritarians embodied by this administration and its amen corner are in such a lather, not only over whistleblowers in general but about this one in particular: Snowden’s example unlocks the realization that individual action can make a difference – a big difference. As the mighty American hegemon reels from the impact of his revelations, and pursues him without success over half the globe, Snowden’s message is deadly dangerous to our rulers because it shows they are liars, they are vulnerable, and they can be beat.
Greenwald, clearly inspired by Snowden, has been a wonder to behold as he takes on the Powers That Be and brushes off a smear campaign aimed at him personally the way one would swat a gnat. It was, he explains, a life-transforming event not only to break this important story but to interact and learn from the person who made it possible. As he puts it:
"What I actually started to realize about all this is two things. Number one, courage is contagious. If you take a courageous step as an individual, you will literally change the world because you will affect all sorts of people in your immediate vicinity, who will then affect others and then affect others. You should never doubt your ability to change the world. The other thing that I realized is it doesn’t matter who you are as an individual or how formidable or powerful the institutions that you want to challenge are. Mr. Snowden is a high school dropout. His parents work for the federal government. He grew up in a lower middle class environment in a military community in Virginia. He ended up enlisting in the United States Army because he thought the Iraq War at first was noble. He then did the same with the NSA and the CIA because he thought those institutions were noble. He’s a person who has zero privilege, zero power, zero position and zero prestige and yet he by himself has literally changed the world."
What can one person do? This is the question that bedevils us all as we discover with a jolt how far along we are on the road to serfdom. After all, don’t we have elected representatives to deal with this sort of thing, and judges, too, all of whom have sworn to uphold the Constitution?
Snowden has brought us face to face with the reality that these institutions have failed. Indeed, they are complicit in the de facto repeal of the Fourth Amendment, with the secret FISA "court" rubberstamping government demands for access to virtually all online content and telephony passing through the US, and Congress making this possible by amending the original legislation to legalize what the Bush administration had already been doing.
And these same people accuse Snowden of violating his "oath"!
Courage is contagious – and that accounts for the tremendous support Snowden has gotten, even in the face of an all-out government-media assault on him. That’s why the White House petition to pardon him is the most successful petition in the entire history of that Obamaite publicity stunt, outdoing even the one demanding the deportation of Piers Morgan.
After the anti-Morgan effort reached the 25,000 signature threshold in a week, the White House quadrupled the number requiring a White House response. Yet the day after the NSA story broke, a White House petition acclaiming Snowden a "national hero" and demanding his pardon was posted and garnered a record number of signatures, breaking the 100,000 barrier in a little under a week. (Go here to see a graphical analysis.) With screams of "Traitor!" and calls not only for Snowden’s prosecution but for the prosecution of Greenwald filling the airwaves – and coming from both sides of the political spectrum – this overwhelming show of support is unprecedented, and quite telling.
Because what it tells us is that the American people aren’t mired in apathy and paralyzed by a sense of their own powerlessness: like Snowden, they don’t want to live in a world in which the government has the power to watch their every move, chart their every thought, and control the very levers of their lives. They are contemptuous of the smear campaign being launched against Snowden and Greenwald, and they are demanding answers.
That the White House petition procedure was phony from the very beginning was obvious even to the most cynical Democratic party hack: the most "accessible," "inclusive," and "transparent" administration in our history is, in reality, the most arrogant, exclusive, opaque regime since the fall of the Soviet Union. But as the former community organizer who became President no doubt remembers, one of Saul Alinsky’s "rules for radicals" is to turn the institutions and "democratic" pretenses of the Powers That Be against the very interests they are supposed to protect, and that is precisely what the anonymous person who started the White House petition has done quite successfully.
There, again, we see dramatized the lesson of not waiting for "leadership," of taking the initiative and using one’s power as an individual to effect change – a principle that will be demonstrated again and again as this fight unfolds.
The White House petition passed 100,000 signatures over a week ago – yet still no response from the White House, where government officials are coming up with all kinds of excuses for the official silence. (See here, where, in a rare mention of the petition, the headline of an ABC News story says "Petition to Pardon Snowden to Receive White House Response," while the actual story says no such thing.) After being rebuffed by the Chinese and the Russians over Snowden’s fate, and rebuked by our European allies for breaking into their computers, a Snowden-inspired popular rebellion on the home front is perhaps more than they can bear to acknowledge.
The breadth of this movement is impressive. For even as Greenwald spoke before a cheering crowd at a conference convoked in celebration of socialism, he was holding up as an exemplar of principled courage a man whose own politics are much closer to Ron Paul than Karl Marx. Snowden made two contributions totaling $500 to Paul’s 2010 presidential campaign and, more significantly, his own rhetoric recalls Paul’s libertarian imprecations against the Leviathan State. The lawyer retained by Snowden’s father to represent his son’s interests, Bruce Fein, a former associate deputy attorney general during the Reagan administration, is a prominent supporter of the Paul organization.
Whether this broad movement, which transcends the arbitrary limits of "left" and "right," has the depth to succeed, and mobilize millions behind its banner, remains to be see. But one thing I know is this: for the first time in a long time there’s hope.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).