Grappling with Edward Snowden, Part 1: Thoreau Would Be Proud

Goddamn, how it must have pissed off the people who want, who need Edward Snowden, who stole and leaked reams of documents on the mass surveillance activities of the National Security Agency, to be a shit-tossing crazy beast. When Snowden appeared on NBC last night with the giant head of newsdom, Brian Williams, he was calm, rational, doubtlessly well-rehearsed, and very, very American, like "Golly-gee-whiz-Middle-American-someone-get-this-kid-a-bike" American. He wasn't wild-eyed or wooly-haired. He sounded more sane than anyone on any news network. He didn't come across as a craven weasel, nor did he come across as a utopian ideologue. He was American, part of a long tradition of Americans, who thought that his job as an American was not to prop up those in power, but to prop up and save, if necessary, the ideals of the nation, as, yes, he saw them.

You could easily see Snowden's rhetoric crossing ideological lines. He said that, in the wake of September 11, 2001, "I think it's really disingenuous for — for the government to invoke — and sort of scandalize our memories, to sort of exploit the — the national trauma that we all suffered together and worked so hard to come through to justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe, but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don't need to give up and our Constitution says we should not give up." Those words sound for all the world like a teabagger talking about Obamacare, and that's what's fucking dangerous about Snowden. What he revealed about how wide a net the NSA has cast causes disgust on the liberal, civil liberties side of things and on the conservative, government-encroachment side, too.

The Snowden on NBC was not some dupe or naif. He merely exists in a long line of Americans who had enough of what their government was doing and decided to behave accordingly. Lacking the ability to revolt (like those law-breaking traitors, the Founders), he broke the law and engaged in civil disobedience, like unionized workers on an illegal strike, like civil rights lunch counter sitters, like bootleggers, like Vietnam War rioting protesters, like so many, right and wrong, in American history.

When the Rude Pundit thinks about Snowden, he doesn't automatically leap to Martin Luther King, Jr. for comparison. Instead, he thinks about the canonized American writer Henry David Thoreau and his essay, "Civil Disobedience." Snowden asserts the phrase in his interview, saying, "I think the most important idea is to remember that there have been times throughout American history where what is right is not the same as what is legal. Sometimes to do the right thing, you have to break a law. And the key there is in terms of civil disobedience." He says, quite rightly, that the idea of coming back to the United States from Russia to "face the music" is ludicrous since he wouldn't be afforded the opportunity to plead his actual case. The rules have changed in the post-9/11 world. Imagine what Daniel Ellsberg would go through if he revealed the Pentagon Papers today.

It sounds like what Thoreau describes: "Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse."

Snowden also sounds like Thoreau when he talks about the need for spying and the good that intelligence gathering can do, but that he chafes at the massive expansion of that gathering. Wrote Thoreau, "If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine." Snowden threw his body into the gears.

And even if you're not in a position to stop the machine, Thoreau offers this bit of advice, "What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn." It's the least we can do.