Edward Snowden, Fame and the New Vagabond America

Around the Lastarria neighborhood, downtown Santiago, Chile, you get a glimpse every once in a while of a tall, fat man in a skirt, pushing a shopping cart, a handkerchief tied round his head like its keeping his jaw from falling off. The shopping cart could have come from anywhere, or it’s one of a series of shopping carts, probably from the Lider down the block.

He calls himself the Divino Anticristo (Divine Antichrist). Only a few people, some bookstore owners and waiters who work in the area, know his real name. They say he was a podiatrist before a vagabond. They say he was forced to check himself into an old, discontinued psych hospital around the age of 30 or so, and came out crazier then he went in. He writes poetry from time to time, and he’ll sell you some of his verse, along with a pair of old tennis shoes, or a scratched up brass doorknob, or a small duster made of duck feathers. Whatever he’s found in the dumpsters lining Merced Avenue or back alleyways.

He appeared not very long after the end of a 20 year military dictatorship, on the streets of a neighborhood that used to be littered with the abandoned mansions of Chile’s elite but from about a decade ago has been transformed into a strip of middle-class tourist bohemia, with oyster restaurants and houseplant lofts. When he first took to the streets, he wore exclusively long, pleated, potato-picker skirts. He called himself the Executive Officer. Jesus was sent from heaven to be the CEO of God, he has said in interviews, and I am the Divino Anticristo, the CEO of Man.

It reminds me of that scene in Network when Mr. Jensen communicates the Word directly to Howard Beal: Our children will live to see that perfect world, he says, one vast and ecumenical holding company, he says, all men will work for a common profit (or prophet); all men will own a share of stock.

Am I thinking that I’m obsessed with the common folk? the Divnio Anticristo writes in his poem “Psychedelic Portrait of Simón Bolívar”. Am I thinking that because of them I’ve become a public servant? Are they telling me that I’m becoming a historical figure?

In modern life, divinity isn’t so hard to come by. Yes, there are more atheists now, over a billion people or so. But when someone’s lost their house, lost their job, gotten thrown off the health insurance rolls because their health is poor, lost a limb for war-drunk politicos, lived under the rule of a commie-atheist-birth certificate-less-suspiciously-named President, faith that day to day the system maintains at least its structural integrity is essential. Revolution doesn’t have a network news channel. There’s got to be some higher intelligence organizing the empire, right?

Whether or not our forefathers created a godless or god-administered state, America today has plenty of the divine. We’ve got rock gods, sports gods, American Idols, politician-saviors who will deliver us from the evil of one of the two parties. Miracles on Ice, Miracle Diets, Miracle Creams, Miracle Cures. Even in hardship, worship is easy these days, redemption easier.

Which brings me to Edward Snowden. There’s been a lot of divine (or anti-divine) talk about the figure who leaked the NSA documents. He’s beencompared to Jesus and labeled a traitor. Yet presumably, Snowden can’t drop 35 in a playoff game, doesn’t give inspiring, generation-defining speeches, can’t make you love you for who you are, can’t cure your psoriasis. By all accounts, he’s an average guy with an average haircut. He reiterated this point on a video broadcast to the world.

But the US and its media allies need something to sell us; for a while it’s been little knick-knacks it’s fished from the detritus that make up post-9/11, post-recession, post-saber rattling, post-gun rampage America. Spread out over the political flea market of our democracy are offers of faded reasoning, broken ideologies, used-up justice, hand-me-down faith.

And in an environment like this, where the object is not to explain the mystery but to get on TV long enough to sell the pitch, the real question that might should be asked about Snowden (as opposed to Bradley Manning, who’s been all but absent on the tongues of the gods) is: why the fuck should this guy be famous?

It makes sense that Melissa Harris Perry would blame Snowden on MSNBC for her inability to have a discussion on the abuses of the NSA—her lecture on Snowden’s supposed self-aggrandizing celebrity is a bit like saying you would quit smoking if only cigarettes didn’t fulfill your desire to smoke. You can almost hear the desperation in her voice: stop making us look like corporate hacks, stop asserting your right to question your own government, or at least for God’s sake get yourself arrested so we can fill the prime time hours with trial coverage instead of journalism.

If this doesn’t sound like the kind of delusion you might here from a street-corner schizophrenic, let’s review some other double-speak passed off as explanation thus far. James Clapper revealing that he was being the least untruthful he could have been about collection of data; President Obama and his implication that If it wasn’t for Snowden unveiling these programs, we would have unveiled these programs; and so on. And as many have pointed out, we’ve already seen what happens to the people some term whistleblowers, some term criminals, when they are given over to the law, i.e. the aforesaid Bradley Manning—3 years without trial, inhumane treatment according to UN standards, violation of the Espionage Act, almost no coverage in the corporate media. The terrorists may have forced us into this position, but we’ve certainly come out of it crazier than we went in.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s not the structural powers that are the wandering street tramp of this extended metaphor, offering their divine power to the people—they’re too purely and cynically logical for that. It’s that false prophet, American Exceptionalism, still being proselytized to a world increasingly aware of its illegitimacy and illusion.

Maybe this is just the human condition, but the fact of the matter remains that the content of the leaks will continue to be obscured by the obsession we have for the face behind them. Snowden will continue to be divine or demonic, depending on who you’re asking, as long as the focus remains on him and not on the fact that what he did is part of a process that constitutes the general health of a democracy.

Leaking documents, which in today’s America is beginning to be understood as the tech version of last century’s rainforest guerrilleros, is not yet very glamorous. Especially from this guy. It’s serious business, with risks, and not the kind of risks that get you ten minutes on Nancy Grace. Know that feeling you’ve been getting the last decade, the one that tells you voting has stopped being the sacred representation of democracy it’s made out to be?

It’s because we’ve got new ideas about how the people really communicate with what constitutes their representatives these days. Look at how democratically they’ve integrated us: a bald plumber named Joe can go on Fox News and denounce liberal bias and socialist infiltration; grumpy guys on CNN read our viewer mail; Snookie’s name passes the lips of the Leader of the Free World. It is under the heavy eye of the camera where we are one in the same way with our leaders, their interests coinciding with ours, their wisdom ours.

And so Snowden is shaped into that mold. Absorbed into it all. It is, of course, fairly inevitable that he become famous in one way or another, but let us call this what it is. An act of conscious—one citizen sharing with his fellow citizens—by someone that has a conscious with which to act.

I am one with the people, the Divino Anticristo assures us in his poetry—But I am also separate from them. In the modern world of political schizophrenia, this is pure logic.