It also made sure that unlike the leaks in the 1970s that I wrote about, this story would be about Snowden, because now both sides were loaded in, and in our degraded discourse, this has meant only two options: either you have to worship Snowden uncritically, like he’s the Rev. Fucking Moon of intelligence leakers, or you denounced Snowden as an enemy, like you’re one of those body-snatched Moonies in those prayer vigils they held for President Nixon back in the days of the Pentagon Papers and Hersh exposés. You had to take your place in one of the Stupid Camps and censor every brain cell in your skull: either you’re an Obamabot, or an Emoprog. Bad times, bad times.
I’ve made clear my support for what Snowden. For journalism purposes, it wouldn’t even be much of an issue if the Guardian hadn’t forced it — as far as I’m concerned, the leaks remind me a lot of the late Yeltsin years, when Russia’s oligarchy split into two violently opposed camps, each side leaking incredible and mostly factual stories to their friendly media sources on TV and in print. There was a time, from 1997 through 1999, when the public was bombarded with about five Pentagon Papers a week, ripping open the public facade of powerful politicians and oligarchs, and showing how they actually stole the national wealth, what they said to each other in phone calls, how they manipulated and plundered. The journalists who fashioned those high-level leaks into stories weren’t heroes; whoever leaked those bank details and recorded phone calls and auction fixing schemes wasn’t necessarily a hero; but the information they dumped was incredibly valuable.
So for me, the importance of what we’ve learned about the NSA spying programs doesn’t hinge on whether or not I have a cult-like faith in Snowden’s and Greenwald’s “heroism” as “true patriots” unlike the other team’s guys. But the problem has been, from the start, that Snowden’s and Greenwald’s network of supporters created this false consensus, and thought-policed anyone who dared deviate or think for themselves. I have a natural aversion to Stalinist self-censorship; if I’m going to keep my mouth shut or pretend, it better be over something really important, not hero-worshipping some confused, half-baked libertarian whistleblower who can’t get his own story straight, just because his handler tells us we have to or else we’re Obamabots or fascists.
I’ve been anticipating Ames’s take on Snowden since he has such long-standing beef with Greenwald, not to mention Russia. A bit frustrating that this essay is so much about Ames himself, but I suppose full disclosure (and narcissism) requires all the personal history be detailed. My response will be no different, base times and all that.
I agree that much of the discourse surrounding Snowden— traitor or hero? — is rotten and reductive. But the heroism of Snowden’s act was also my first reaction to the story, in large part because of, as Ames notes, how blatantly Greenwald framed it that way from the start. It was the promise of a looming PR battle that inspired me to start blogging again, not the revelations of massive civil liberties violations. The latter is unfortunately something I take for granted at this point and feel utterly powerless to do anything about. I’m thrilled this information is now out there, but the new details are fairly mundane1 compared to the scandalous overall gist of the spying program we already had ample reason to suspect existed.
In contrast, the aggressive offensive position taken by Greenwald in breaking this story is pretty fascinating, in a nerdy, tactical, media-studies sort of way. If I was a data nerd or a policy wonk than maybe I’d be all over the nitty-gritty details of PRISM and the rest. But I’m a filmmaker— hell, my last film was in large part about the character assassination of someone who went public with an unpopular political sentiment— and an Adam Curtis fan. While the citizen in me wants to scream, “what matters is the leak, not the leaker,” as a story teller (and person with eyes), I know that’s naïve.
I’m torn. I suppose it would have been nice if Greenwald had been all classy about it and kept Snowden anonymous for as long as possible, focusing on the content of the leaks rather than the patriotism of the leaker. But I suspect if he did that, no one would have cared much. Ames should know this from personal experience. Just between Ames, his colleague Yasha Levine, and his former-colleague Matt Taibbi, are an overwhelming number of stories “ripping open the public facade of powerful politicians and oligarchs, and showing how they actually stole the national wealth … how they manipulated and plundered” the United States. No doubt lots of the criminal activities committed by our .01% are secret and we could benefit from more leaks. But from the prospective of outrage and even prosecution, more than enough criminality is hidden in plain sight. Our oligarchs don’t need to bother hiding most of their shady dealings because our media is so massively worthless.
You want to get people to pay attention? Either indulge the fantasy that a boring white collar IT worker can wake up one morning and become a cyberpunk hero, or else show some tits. Otherwise you’re going to be ignored. A soundbite-spewing, Dick Cheney-dissing nerdy white dude protagonist in a international espionage chase? Total gold. So while yes it was opportunistic of Greenwald to play that card, it also would have been pretty foolish not to. Ames himself has said that the problem with “the liberal establishment is [it’s] still convinced it’s competing in a middle-school civics class debate“; Greenwald skipped debate club to pen a screenplay for a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
I mostly agree with Ames’s critique of Greenwald, along with his overall indictment of society. Our inability to distinguish between the public value of an act and the perceived motive behind it, and the possibility of supporting the former while criticizing or ignoring the latter, is pathetic. As many have already said, the real “debate” should not be Snowden: Hero or Traitor? but instead, Does the public in a constitutional republic have a right to know what sorts of data their government is collecting on them and what sort of resources are being expended on said collection? Does the fourth amendment trump the executive branch’s interpretation of recent legislation & the decisions of secret courts? What sort of checks are in place to prevent abuse of this data? Are we just cool with the fact that our government tortured Bradley Manning before trying him? etc. etc. We ought to be seriously disturbed that neither our media nor our citizenry has much interest is such civic debates. But many critics of the “meta-narrative” (Ames excepted) treat the issue of heroism as if it’s entirely superficial. It’s not.
Our response to a story like this is ugly and dualistic: we crave either a hero to identify with, or a traitor to lynch. But maybe we’re so childish in our judgements because we are so desperately lacking in actual heroes. The ability to reason is important and collectively, we suck at it. But we primarily interpret the world, and discover our values, through the stories we tell each other. Stories matter. Heroes matter. And being that there is such a dearth of heroes, and no shortage of corruption and criminality in nearly every realm of American society, I share the urge to prematurely heroize Snowden. Perhaps his example might inspire more whistleblowers to reveal the crimes their careers require them to ignore. Maybe giving America a real-life hero is as important as a debate on the fourth amendment. We might not be capable of even having that debate without first personifying the values of privacy, security, secrecy, efficiency, informed consent.
Tactically, we should be cautious when choosing living people as heroes. The media loves to build someone up only to then tear them down. See Cindy Sheehan, the inspiration for my film Ashley/Amber. A rigid Snowden = Hero line of reasoning is fragile. Prove unheroic intentions or actions and the whole thing cracks; Snowden no doubt lost many supporters just by taking refuge in Russia. Every action he makes going forward is likely to chip away at his hero image while simultaneously distracting from the actual issues.
On the other hand, people mostly believe what they want to believe. Those who don’t want to contemplate our government’s corruption and capacity to abuse its immense power will accept the flimsiest excuse to ignore the content of the leaks and judge Snowden a traitor. Those who see corruption in every crevice but are unwilling to relinquish hope that something can be done about it will cleave to their belief in Snowden’s heroism regardless of how disappointing a fellow he is in reality.2 The pro-Snowden media is providing a myth of the whistle-blower to a segment of the public that is desperate for narratives of agency, hope, and the latent badassery of the white collar worker. I personally am hungry for a morality tale about the more-or-less regular person who changes the course of history by speaking out upon witnessing something they believe is wrong, and I don’t think I’m alone.
In a functional society it would be the job of the screenwriters and novelists to make up such stories, taking artistic license with the facts, while journalists ought to be a bit more responsive when the reality of a narrative doesn’t live up to it’s mythological potential. But again this view of the world becomes naïve if you look at things through the lens of a public relations professional or propagandist. For the PR practitioner (or propagandist, thaumaturgist), the news cycle is the primary medium through which they wreak a narrative, supported of course by film, curriculum, academic literature, advertising, pop music, and anything and everything else over which they can influence. True journalism may be a genuine check against PR and propaganda (or so I want to believe), but the fourth estate crumbled long ago, if it ever existed at all. We can mourn its demise anytime. But it’s refreshing and exciting to see such bold antiestablishment-PR as the Snowden story.
How depressing, that I find any sort of propaganda refreshing. Ultimately I am viscerally and strategically opposed to “noble lies” and ends-justifies-the-means reasoning. I don’t think Greenwald is necessarily engaged in such behavior, but perhaps fell victim to it by taking an offensive-defense position. I do think people need heroes, real or imaginary, preferably ones physically & culturally closer to home than Vasya and Limonov from the Ames piece. And a movement too lax in designating heroism risks mediocrity and co-option. But rather than exert further effort glorifying or denigrating Snowden & Greenwald, I’d welcome a more internal reflection on our hero fantasies. What sorts of heroes do we want, and what values do they reflect? Can we find them in mythology, in history, in our neighborhoods? How do the contemporary heroes of film and television fall short and mislead us? What kind of shortcomings are we willing to tolerate in our heroes, and what actions genuinely undermine otherwise heroic deeds?3
These sorts of questions are important not because they’ll encourage more passionate and incisive judgements of character, though that has a sort of Old Testament appeal. We need heroes to remind ourselves of the sorts of people we want to be. It’s not about getting behind someone and supporting them blindly. It’s about expanding the imagination to allow for the possibility of strength and dignity, and of having someone (ideally, conflicting someones) to learn from by example and judge our own deeds against.
- Okay, there are some gems, like code-naming an internet traffic surveillance program “EvilOlive“ [↩]
- Which isn’t to say I think he’s disappointing, just that the odds are good he won’t live up to our hopes. [↩]
- And while we have it out on the mythological realm, back on earth let’s remember that people— heroic or otherwise— are not to be tortured or unfairly spied on. Due process is for everyone, even the worst criminals. If we need to make someone out to be a hero before they’re entitled to basic civil & human rights, we’ve already lost. Oh wait, we’ve already lost. [↩]