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Book Review: Snowden's ToolBox

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Time To Buy A New ToolBox

by John Kendall Hawkins

Stasi Officer: What do you have to tell us?

Citizen: I've done nothing. I know nothing.

Officer: You've done nothing, know nothing. You think we imprison people on a whim?

Citizen: No --

Officer: -- If you think our humanistic system capable of such a thing that alone would justify your arrest.

Scene from The Lives of Others (2006)

The above snippet of an interrogation scene from the film, The Lives of Others, speaks volumes about the relationship between the individual and the State in an authoritarian system of governance. A citizen is called in for questioning, like K. in Kafka's The Trial. The State's presumption is that if he was called in, then he's guilty of something. Because someone you "know" has turned you in on 'suspicion of' -- blank to be filled in during the interrogation. It's a world where you are presumed guilty, and there is no condition of innocence. Man has fallen and needs the State to regulate the condition of his being in the world. In the scene above, the citizen is expected to be ready to confess -- anything. On behalf of the "humanistic" State, the petty interrogator is insulted that the citizen would claim he knows nothing, for he was called in for a reason. It's an insult that is a reason for arrest.

Such was life under the Stasi -- the secret surveillance service of East Germany in the Cold War years, which included not only officers of the State but informants, common citizens, many already "compromised" themselves. Eyes everywhere, eyes straight ahead, the eyes have it. America almost went to hot war with the Soviets over the wall they built around East Berlin (in his book, Doomsday, Daniel Ellsberg even worries retrospectively that a speech he wrote at the time helped inflame the situation that eventually led to the dangerous stand-off at Checkpoint Charlie in October 1961). Ich bin ein Berliner, said JFK in Cape Cod English, on a visit to Germany. And, years later, Reagan uttered, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Americans, still flush with the afterglow of WWII triumphalism, weren't having any truck with nasty Stasi mind control over its citizens.

Arguably, Americans have always been caught up in the fine tuning of the social contract between the individual's rights and needs versus the State's mandate for governance. Americans have a strong central government, sprinkled with Amendments to correct the vision of the Founders; property-centric rights had to be leavened with individual liberties, and thus was, essentially, right-wing versus left-wing politics born. These days Americans seem to be struggling with an unspoken constitutional crisis again, largely brought about by the demands of a shrinking Right elite (1%) that wants to eat into the liberties of the Left. President Eisenhower, who once promised to nuke the North Koreans if they didn't sign an armistice with the South (Doomsday), also intimated in his Farewell speech to fellow Americans his fear of a rising "military-industrial complex" that would inevitably erode constitutional guarantees in protecting propertied elites and bring about a corruption of the American Experiment.

All of this is both background and prologue to the small, but important, narrative that Jessica Bruder and Dale Maharidge tell, tag-team style, in Snowden's Box: Trust in the Age of Surveillance (Verso 2020). The short book tells the story of the delivery and distribution of a treasure trove of state secrets Edward Snowden sent from Hawaii to Jessica Bruder shortly before his off-the-radar flight to Hong Kong, where he eventually hooked up with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill at the Mira Hotel. As dumb and risky as sending hard-copy documents of this type seemed to be, the authors support Snowden's contention that snail mail was, counterintuitively, the way to go, as he expected that all his online electronic transmissions could or would be monitored. Using the US Postal Service was a way of 'guaranteeing' that the goods would be delivered.

Many readers will be familiar with Jessica Bruder's work through the adaptation of her travel memoir, Nomadland, which recently won the Oscar for best film, and for which she worked with the director, Chloe' Zhao, to create a screenplay. Her road travels, living the life of a nomad for months, and talking Studs Terkel-like to American wanderers, travelling from job to job as a lifestyle, jibes quite nicely with co-author Dale Maharidge's background. Maharidge won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for And Their Children After Them, his follow-on to the James Agee study of Alabama sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. They're People people, and so are the cadre of journalists and independent filmmakers they hook up with in telling this side story.

And that's really what the co-authors, Bruder and Maharidge, promote throughout the book -- the seemingly diminishing notion that trust is the key factor in all human communications. That our common reality is a negotiation, often propped up by words, and that vocabularies and narrative dominance matter. That, without trust, we slip into paranoia and suspicion, which inevitably corrupts demo-cracy and leads to clown-show authoritarians like Trump.

They set such a tone in the Foreword. After a copious description of the physical box that arrives one morning at Jessica's doorstop -- her noting the return addressee as "B. Manning," and how the USPS scans all mail these days, and how easily the package might have gone missing (boxes were stolen all the time) -- the co-authors tell us what to expect from the their story as they unpack the essence of the box:

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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