They say you, like Bradley Manning, gave secrets to their enemies. It's clear who those enemies are: you, me, us. It was clear on September 12, 2001, that the Bush administration feared the American people more than al-Qaeda. Not much has changed on that front since, and this almost infinitely broad information harvest criminalizes all of us. This metadata -- the patterns and connections of communications rather than their content -- is particularly useful, as my friend Chris Carlsson pointed out, at mapping the clusters of communications behind popular movements, uprisings, political organizing: in other words, those moments when civil society rises to shape history, to make a better future in the open world of the streets and squares.
The goal of gathering all this metadata, Chris speculates, "is to be able to identify where the "hubs' are, who the people are who sit at key points in networks, helping pass news and messages along, but especially, who the people are who spread ideas and information from one network of people to the next, who help connect small networks into larger ones, and thus facilitate the unpredictable and rapid spread of dissent when it appears."
Metadata can map the circulatory system of civil society, toward what ends you can certainly imagine. When governments fear their people you can be sure they are not serving their people. This has always been the minefield of patriotism: loyalty to our government often means hostility to our country and vice-versa. Edward Snowden, loyalist to country, you have made this clear as day.
Those who demonize you show, as David Bromwich pointed out in a fine essay in the London Review of Books, their submission to the power you exposed. Who stood where, he writes,
"was an infallible marker of the anti-authoritarian instinct against the authoritarian. What was distressing and impossible to predict was the evidence of the way the last few years have worn deep channels of authoritarian acceptance in the mind of the liberal establishment. Every public figure who is psychologically identified with the ways of power in America has condemned Snowden as a traitor, or deplored his actions as merely those of a criminal, someone about whom the judgment "he must be prosecuted' obviates any further judgment and any need for thought."
You said, "I know the media likes to personalize political debates, and I know the government will demonize me." Who you are is fascinating, but what you've exposed is what matters. It is upending the world. It is damaging Washington's relations with many Latin American and some European countries, with Russia and China as well as with its own people -- those, at least, who bother to read or listen to the news and care about what they find there. "Edward Snowden Single-Handedly Forces Tech Companies To Come Forward With Government Data Request Stats," said a headline in Forbes. Your act is rearranging our world. How much no one yet knows.
What You Love
What's striking about your words on video, Edward Snowden, the ones I hear as your young, pale, thoughtful face speaks with clarity and incisiveness in response to Glenn Greenwald's questions, is that you're not talking much about what you hate, though it's clear that you hate the secret network you were part of. You hate it because it poisons what you love. You told us, "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions... [but] I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant." You love our world, our country -- not its government, clearly, but its old ideals and living idealists, its possibilities, its dreamers, and its dreams (not the stale, stuffed American dream of individual affluence, but the other dreams of a better world for all of us, a world of principle).
You told us where we now live and that you refuse to live there anymore:
"I don't want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that's not something I'm willing to support, it's not something I'm willing to build, and it's not something I'm willing to live under. America is a fundamentally good country. We have good people with good values who want to do the right thing. But the structures of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics."
Which is to say you acted from love, from all the things the new surveillance state imperils: privacy, democracy, accountability, decency, honor. The rest of us, what would we do for love?
What is terrifying to the politicians at the top is that you may be our truest patriot at the moment. Which makes all of them, with their marble buildings and illustrious titles, their security details and all the pomp, the flags, the saluting soldiers, so many traitors. The government is the enemy of the people; the state is the enemy of the country. I love that country, too. I fear that state and this new information age as they spread and twine like a poison vine around everything and everyone. You held up a mirror and fools hate the mirror for it; they shoot the messenger, but the message has been delivered.
"This country is worth dying for," you said in explanation of your great risks. You were trained as a soldier, but a soldier's courage with a thinker's independence of mind is a dangerous thing; a hero is a dangerous thing. That's why the U.S. military has made the Guardian, the British newspaper that has done the key reporting on your leaks, off limits to our soldiers overseas. Whoever made that cynical censorship decision understands that those soldiers may be defending a set of interests at odds with this country and its Constitution, and they need to be kept in the dark about that. The dark from which you emerged.
When the United States forced the airplane of Evo Morales, Bolivia's democratically elected head of state, to land in Austria, after compliant France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy denied him the right to travel through their airspace, all South America took it as an insult and a violation of Bolivia's sovereignty and international law. The allied president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, tracked the incident in a series of tweets that demonstrated an openness, a principledness, and a strong friendship between Morales, Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa, and her. It was a little window onto a really foreign continent: one in which countries are sometimes headed by genuinely popular leaders who are genuinely transparent and governed by rule of law. It's a reminder that things in our own blighted, corrupted, corporate-dominated country could be different.
Building a Bridge to the Nineteenth Century
How did we get here? In 1996, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore pushed the dreadful slogan "building a bridge to the twenty-first century." It was a celebration of Silicon Valley-style technological innovation and corporate globalization, among other things. At the time, I put "building a bridge to the nineteenth century" on my letterhead. It turned out that we were doing both at once: erecting a massive electronic infrastructure that outpaces our ability to democratically manage it and shifting our economy backward to recreate the chasms of class divide that marked the nineteenth century. The two goals intertwined like serpents making love.