Now that the Edward Snowden “controversy” is dying down, it is an appropriate time to finally put the man – and his leaks – into some kind of context. I put the word controversy into quotes because, try as I might, I can’t seem to find much issue either with the disclosure itself, or with the spirit (albeit not the reality) of the program Snowden’s disclosure revealed.
Let’s examine the two key issues here. The first is the “legality” of the leak, and where the first half of the Snowden myth began. Yes, Snowden could be charged with almost anything, but pure legalism is a rustic way to view an ethical dilemma. Jim Crow was a legal fact once. So is Monsanto’s bio-piracy. Just as morality is ensconced within religion, legality is under the auspices of another authority: government. Yet, neither have much to do with ethics, which has an objective reality outside of such institutions.
The fact is, few people are now wrangling about whether or not it was “legal” for Rome to have crucified 6,000 rebel slaves along the Appian Way. Clearly, it was. Yet such questions ultimately take a backseat to things people actually remember – namely, right and wrong, and the deeper, existential issues of personal meaning and survival. I guarantee that a decade from now, Snowden’s disclosure will have minimal impact on national security, even as the United States continues to do little about true long-term threats: climate change, corporate plunder, and silly wars that fuel terrorism the world over. Priorities are very slowly learned.
The second issue is government spying itself. Is it right? Is it wrong? In a way, it is neither. It just is. Government spying has been around forever, and it’ll continue to be around for as long as it’s deemed necessary. At some point, it will disappear, and be replaced with whatever other scheme that whatever other monopoly will devise, for the sake of – well, control. It’s wrong to assume, at the first crack of civilization, that we’ve either hit the apex or the nadir in these matters, for such problems and their legal implications are only beginning, if only because human flaws are so many, the desire to control them so strong, and the means for such so limitless and ever-changing. In Rome, it was mere appeal to The State. In America, it is merely a subtler hue of the same idea.
Thus, there’s a fatalism here, and one that Snowden’s well aware of. Governments set laws, and governments punish. Then, there are “troublemakers” who rush headlong into that reality. This makes Snowden little more than a cog within a process he’s merely on the wrong end of. Fifty years ago, the Pentagon Papers were deemed utterly destructive. Today, they’re hailed for having opened up the government to well-deserved scrutiny. Yet these are trivial “controversies” spanning mere decades. Ask yourself what, exactly, is fated to matter in this circuit, when such names grow distant, and eventually mean nothing? Look into the whirlpool: there are your laws, and your heroes. There are your traitors. Yet, what did you learn here? Centuries later, it will still be one damn thing after another.
[A version of “The Snowden Myth” first appeared in BlogCritics on 9/3/2013.]