• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Obama and Snowden as Lincoln and Douglass?

Unlikely meetings.

December 21, 2013

I am historian who has a law degree, so don’t expect an exegesis on the legal definition of a whistleblower and map it to rules that defined Mr. Snowden's employment and security clearance. Instead, my mind goes to James Oaks’ “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics.” 

It is a wonderful story. Lincoln started his career as a politician and ended it a radical reformer; Douglass’s life was the reverse. But the real magic is the moment when their paths crossed. During the Civil War, Lincoln received Douglass at the White House. As a historical fact alone, this meeting was momentous. Lincoln was the first president who invited and received a free black man.  As two people who in a single moment represented the drama of vast historical change, that moment has no parallel.

With history as the backdrop, the two mere mortals sat down for tea. Polite conversation ensured punctuated by the one grand issue of the day: citizenship and suffrage for former slaves. Life trajectories transected. The radical reformer, who ran away from bondage and fought for freedom, would spend the rest of his long days increasingly working within existing power structures for change. Lincoln, the ambitious locomotive of upward mobility, positioned his Second Inaugural as a spiritual. Buried in the message was his radical intent to press for ex-slave citizenship and male suffrage, realized after his assassination by the radical republicans of his party.

Obama and Snowden are two men from very different backgrounds. Their life trajectories have been defined by fate. Historians will look back on the Obama presidency and see it minimized not by a ridiculously recalcitrant Congress over health care legislation but by Snowden and the shocking recognition of the human impact created by deep gaps between the law and technology in service of national security. In the moment, public opinion branded Snowden as a traitor. But it may not be too long before on balance he will be regarded as a hero.

This week Obama announced reforms for governmental electronic surveillance punctuated by oversight. From the perspective of what has changed in our lives, perceptions and expectations of privacy, those reforms might be too little and too late. To address that elusive impact, Obama must confront what to do with Mr. Snowden. In so doing with mercy, Obama might make a clear statement about the education we have all received as a result of the Snowden disclosures.

Mr. Snowden, the terminal high school graduate, computer nerd who left a quarter of a million dollar job in obscurity to become one of the most famous people in the world today, now lives in exile. So, too, by the way, did Douglass when he left the obscurity of slavery for freedom in Britain, rightfully fearful that if he stayed in the North he might by law returned to bondage. 

Taking a page out of the Lincoln and Douglass history books, Obama and Snowden should meet. That rendezvous could not be any more momentous than that of our Civil War predecessors, but for contemporary culture and society, given its resemblance, it could turn out to be very meaningful for the 21st century.


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