Prometheus Among the Cannibals
A Letter to Edward Snowden
By Rebecca Solnit
Dear Edward Snowden,
Billions of us, from prime ministers to hackers, are watching a live espionage movie in which you are the protagonist and perhaps the sacrifice. Your way forward is clear to no one, least of all, I’m sure, you.
I fear for you; I think of you with a heavy heart. I imagine hiding you like Anne Frank. I imagine Hollywood movie magic in which a young lookalike would swap places with you and let you flee to safety — if there is any safety in this world of extreme rendition and extrajudicial execution by the government that you and I were born under and that you, until recently, served. I fear you may pay, if not with your death, with your life — with a life that can have no conventional outcome anytime soon, if ever. “Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped,” you told us, and they are trying to stop you instead.
I am moved by your choice of our future over yours, the world over yourself. You know what few do nowadays: that the self is not the same as self-interest. You are someone who is smart enough, idealistic enough, bold enough to know that living with yourself in a system of utter corruption would destroy that self as an ideal, as something worth being. Doing what you’ve done, on the other hand, would give you a self you could live with, even if it gave you nowhere to live or no life. Which is to say, you have become a hero.
Pity the country that requires a hero, Bertolt Brecht once remarked, but pity the heroes too. They are the other homeless, the people who don’t fit in. They are the ones who see the hardest work and do it, and pay the price we charge those who do what we can’t or won’t. If the old stories were about heroes who saved us from others, modern heroes — Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Rachel Carson, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi — endeavored to save us from ourselves, from our own governments and systems of power.
The rest of us so often sacrifice that self and those ideals to fit in, to be part of a cannibal system, a system that eats souls and defiles truths and serves only power. Or we negotiate quietly to maintain an uneasy distance from it and then go about our own business. Though in my world quite a few of us strike our small blows against empire, you, young man, you were situated where you could run a dagger through the dragon’s eye, and that dragon is writhing in agony now; in that agony it has lost its magic: an arrangement whereby it remains invisible while making the rest of us ever more naked to its glaring eye.
Private Eyes and Public Rights
Privacy is a kind of power as well as a right, one that public librarians fought to protect against the Bush administration and the PATRIOT Act and that online companies violate in every way that’s profitable and expedient. Our lack of privacy, their monstrous privacy — even their invasion of our privacy must, by law, remain classified — is what you made visible. The agony of a monster with nowhere to stand — you are accused of spying on the spies, of invading the privacy of their invasion of privacy — is a truly curious thing. And it is changing the world. Europe and South America are in an uproar, and attempts to contain you and your damage are putting out fire with gasoline.
You yourself said it so well on July 12th:
“A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort. I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates. It is also a serious violation of the law. The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. While the U.S. Constitution marks these programs as illegal, my government argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimize an illegal affair. These rulings simply corrupt the most basic notion of justice — that it must be seen to be done.”
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.
The new technologies made a surveillance state that much more powerful and far-reaching; the new technologies replaced many jobs with few; the new technologies created new billionaires without principles; the new technologies made us all into commodities to be sold to advertisers; the new technologies turned our every move into something that could be tracked; the new technologies kept us distracted and busy. Meanwhile, almost everyone got poorer.
What the neoliberals amassing mountains of wealth for the already super-wealthy forgot, what the tax-cutters and child-starvers never learned in school, is that desperate people do not necessary simply lie down and obey. Often enough, they rebel. There is no one as dangerous as he or she who has nothing to lose. The twentieth century’s welfare states, their pumped-up, plumped-up middle classes, their relative egalitarianism and graduated tax plans pacified the once-insurrectionary classes by meeting, at least in part, their needs and demands. The comfortable don’t revolt much. Out of sheer greed, however, the wealthiest and most powerful decided to make so many of the rest of us at least increasingly uncomfortable and often far worse.
Edward Snowden, you rebelled because you were outraged; so many others are rebelling because their lives are impossible now. These days when we revolt, the new technologies become our friends as well as our enemies. If you imagine those technologies as the fire Prometheus stole from the gods, then it works both ways, for us and for them, to create and to destroy.
Those new technologies are key to the latest rounds of global organizing, from the World Trade Organization actions of 1999, put together by email and epochal in their impact, to the Arab Spring, which used email, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and other means, to Occupy Wall Street. The technologies are double-edged: populist networks for creating global resistance are vulnerable to surveillance; classified reams of data are breachable by information saved to thumb drives or burned onto CDs by whistleblowers and hackers. They can spy in private; we can organize in public, and maybe the two actions are true opposites.
Meanwhile there is massive upheaval in Egypt and in Brazil, and in recent years there have been popular rebellions in many parts of the Arab world, Turkey, Iceland, Greece, Spain, Britain, Chile, and the U.S. itself with Occupy. The globe is on fire with popular outrage, with fury over economic injustice and, among other things, climate change spurred by the profits a few are piling up to the detriment of the rest of us, generations to come, other species, and the planet itself. It seems that, surveillance or not, people are not about to go quietly into the nineteenth century or accept the devil’s bargains of the twenty-first either.
Prometheus and Being Burned
I think of a man even younger than you, Edward Snowden, who unlike you acted without knowing what he did: 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi, whose December 2010 self-immolation to protest his humiliation and hopelessness triggered what became the still-blooming, still-burning Arab Spring. Sometimes one person changes the world. This should make most of us hopeful and some of them fearful, because what I am also saying is that we now live in a world of us and them, a binary world. It’s not the old world of capitalism versus communism, but of the big versus the little, of oligarchy versus democracy, of hierarchies versus swarms, of corporations versus public interest and civil society.
It seems nearly worldwide now, which is why revolts all over the planet have so much in common these days, why Occupy activists last month held up signs in New York’s Liberty Plaza in solidarity with the uprising in Taksim Square in Turkey; why Arab Spring activists phoned in pizza orders to the uprising in Wisconsin in early 2011; why Occupy spread around the world, and Greek insurrectionaries learned from the successes of Argentina in the face of austerity and economic collapse. We know our fate is common and that we live it out together and change it together, only together.
There were rumblings that you had defected, or would defect, to China or Russia, but you had already defected when we became aware of your existence: you had defected from them to us, using the power you had gained deep within the bowels of their infernal machines to empower us. What will we do with what you’ve taught us? That’s up to us, but for anyone who thinks what you did was not threatening to those in power, just look at how furious, how upset, how naked our emperors now are.
And you, Prometheus, you stole their fire, and you know it. You said, “Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, [Senator Dianne] Feinstein, and [Congressman Peter] King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.”
Someday you may be regarded as a Mandela of sorts for the information age, or perhaps a John Brown, someone who refused to fit in, to bow down, to make a system work that shouldn’t work, that should explode. And perhaps we’re watching it explode.
The match is sacrificed to start the fire. So maybe, Edward Snowden, you’re a sacrifice. In the process, you’ve lit a bonfire out of their secrecy and spying, a call to action.
I fear for you, but your gift gives us hope and your courage, an example. Our loyalty should be to our ideals, because they are a threat to the secret system you’ve exposed, because we have to choose between the two. Right now you embody that threat, just as you embody those ideals. For which I am grateful, for which everyone who is not embedded in that system should be grateful.
Like Edward Snowden, Rebecca Solnit has a GED, not a high-school diploma. She lives in Silicon Valley’s shadow, in a city where billionaires race $10 million yachts and austerity is closing the community college. Her newest book is The Faraway Nearby.
Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit
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