I have just returned from the Privacy Legal Scholar’s Conference, this year in D.C. We were all reminded there of being in Berkeley last year when the initial “Snowden” revelations occurred. It feels as if it were less than a year, and a thousand years. I thought I would reflect on my thoughts since then.
My first thoughts about Snowden concentrated on how the absence of a college education shaped his life. This argument is not deterministic. I am not suggesting, for example, that he would not have done what he did had he gone to college. But I was interested in his choice of Hong Kong as a safe place, and then of course Russia, the latter of which may have been the result at that point of limited options, but the irony of these two nation-states, well known for suppressing free speech, jumped out at me.
My first reaction was a bit harsh. Perhaps it was the media I read, filtering the story through their lens? (Notice, the NYT has done about 160, from their take early on to embracing him now.) Perhaps it was the absence of the depth of what it was he uncovered that was unclear at the time? Aspects of his revelations that have compromised national security, to be sure. While I do not believe in the zero sum game of “privacy v. security,” I do assume that the transparency of a national security analyst is a lot for a super-power to swallow. Snowden is a barometer of your viewpoint of the United States: democratic republic in the Jeffersonian tradition or super-power in Hamilton’s imagining? The former may be more forgiving; the latter, I suspect, is not.
As the revelations became more concrete, I gained a greater appreciation of the depth of what he was uncovering. On the one hand, his disclosures confirmed the scenarios I developed in my analysis of the USA-Patriot Act, back in 2001. And it reinforced a frustration with the sheepish, somnolent public that seems to accept the slow creep of government surveillance as if were a foregone conclusion. On the other hand, as pessimistic of the intellect I believe myself to be, some of the disclosures caught me off guard. Really? The U.S. government has been doing THAT?
It was around this time that Sean Wilentz, the great American historian who teaches at Princeton, began his media smear campaign against Snowden. In the New Republic, he published an academic version of what some Republican representatives had been peddling as an accusation: that Snowden was a Russian spy. The article included a bunch of very sophomoric stuff Snowden had written in chat rooms as a younger man. Once again: a smart guy who should have gone to college! His technical knowledge exceeded a deeper understanding of human nature, history and society; he communicated in an exceedingly unsophisticated manner, with expletives and other stylistic indications of one who has not had the benefit of even the minimal refinements that college offers. At the conclusion, Wilentz failed to convince me. Interesting juxtaposition: an author whose historical work I have long admired, exposed himself as a partisan, while the young man -- obnoxious in his youthful expressions, someone I would have chided severely if he were my son – was the target of a smear. He has said as much recently in his interviews that coincide with this first anniversary.
Paper is the usual gift at this time, that medium of communication for almost a thousand years. And so it is an interesting communication we have with ourselves about Snowden: Who we are as a society? What our government does as an empire? What we might do differently as a result, or not. As an individual, this not-so-young man almost does not matter anymore. Now he belongs to history. But we still have some questions about ourselves to answer.