Edward Snowden as Litmus Test

Just before the immediately iconic video of Edward Snowden in discussion with Glen Greenwald exploded all over the Internet, I took my standard poodle to an obedience training class across town. When we got back home, my poodle slept on the couch with his favorite blue monkey toy in the afternoon light while I watched history unfold into the present. As I watched filmmaker Laura Poitras’s (clever) close-up framing of Snowden’s fac,e I felt a sudden release of a long-term, crushing pressure, like when you’re a small kid and a friend is holding you down and laughing, and finally lets go.

I didn’t feel it because I learned that the American government has Orwellian programs – it’s not mind shattering that the NSA, an agency launched in 1952 as an early chess move in the Cold War, is gathering immense amounts of data about people, American citizens or not, more or less copying communication and the Internet as it slips by us into the past. It’s far more interesting and substantial that this story has managed to become bigger and wider than the corporate-owned, establishment media can manage. The release that I felt was some much-needed room to breathe in the gridlock of contemporary American politics.

The story is ripping what’s left of the seams holding together our political reality. It transcends the normal binary frame (Democrats vs. Republicans) that both those in power (both parties) and an establishment-friendly media engage in and promote to suffocate nearly all, if not all mass political thinking and discourse. Snowden is a high school dropout and short-time member of the US Army Reserve, and he supported a third party in 2008, but had hope for President Obama’s first term; sounds like a conflicted, nuanced character in The Wire, sounds like a human: he seems to have leaked the documents because of his own principles, that is, he leaked them as an individual American citizen in support of all American citizens.

Some liberals seem as though their default thinking is a template that forces all new knowledge to fit into a pro-Obama/anti-Obama binary opposition. They brush the whole story aside saying we already knew that the government was watching everyone, that this is nothing new, and that no one really cares. When someone says no one cares they can only mean that they don’t care. This cynicism we are all familiar with, I think, is actually a reaction to just the opposite of what they say: something that is shockingly concrete, something that leaves each individual on her own little private island without a party line to walk. And it is the privacy of this little island – the freedom to stand on your own and not worry about no one else caring or not – that really matters, far more than what any email or phone metadata could ever say about you.

A complex, binary-breaking story like this one becomes a sort-of litmus test for a citizen in the national discussion because people are required to stand alone in relation to it. The NSA programs Snowden revealed were birthed from the executive power granted by the Patriot Act, and span two presidencies and two parties. Shills for the Obama administration (really though, shills for establishment, corporate power) are standing in line all over the place, some actually defending the right of a government to spy on the citizens whom it allegedly represents. They are supporting a process in which secret people in secret programs consult secret courts to be able to secretly monitor private communication, and then report the secret decisions of those courts to certain members of congress – who in theory represent the collective interests of American constituents – and then force those members to keep the whole secret thing secret.

On the other “side,” Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for former president George W. Bush, is “proud, actually, as a Republican to back what President Obama has done…” That’s the sound of a company man playing his last card; we’re supposed to believe him because he’s laid down the sword in a valiant gesture of solidarity with the rest of the establishment.

While the content of the story (Snowden and the classified programs) is remarkable, the form (the way it was released) may be what really has confounded most of the corporate media. Greenwald and Poitras played the strings of the story-of-the-minute, breaking news all the time through the media cycle with the successive releases of programs over days, each one building in size and scope, the close up, humanizing shot of Snowden’s face. They didn’t just go through the motions of the interview, filing the story with their editors and leaving it up to the interests of a commercial newspaper to release it all at once as yet another front page blockbuster that would get traction for a week or two. And they didn’t break it on something as politically branded as WikiLeaks. This is the work of a sophisticated journalism for the 21st century with an awareness of how we consume and talk about news now, a journalism concerned with content, form and timing.

When disgust with politics as a whole is baked into a population, especially one exhausted by volatility in the markets and the environment and precarity at work; when mainstream discourse spills outside the bounds of established speaking, real political change is possible and maybe even imminent. People start to think for themselves as part of a collective of individuals; they ignore the political football game being played out in Washington and hyped by 24/7 infotainment. The seeds for political change have to be sown sometime and somewhere. The seeds that grew into wildflowers in the 1960s were sewn for many reasons, but at least some of them had to have been planted in the repressive decades before.

Speaking of the 1960s, a quote has been floating around as this thing unravels in front of us: “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust law…” This of course was written by Martin Luther King Jr. in his letter from Birmingham jail. When such banal, overstated words regain their potency and raise the hairs on the back of my neck, the engine of history has started up again, and, just maybe, there are alternatives.