Tuned In

Hero or Bad Boyfriend? Edward Snowden and the Personalization of Public Debate

Why does anyone care how good a person the NSA leaker is? Because public debate has become more and more about personality and tribal identification

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Edward Snowden, leaker of the NSA surveillance programs, is a hero. No, he’s a narcissistic criminal. Scratch that, he’s totally a hero. Far from it: he’s an alienated loner, a traitor, a bad boyfriend. But also? A smokin’ hottie! Barely a day after Snowden revealed himself as the source who gave information to the Guardian about phone and Internet data collection, the debate over privacy and security was joined by a debate on whether Snowden was an icon or a villain.

It’s ironic, but shouldn’t be surprising, that a news story about personal privacy in the digital age should become a personality-based argument. We’ve seen this with other secrecy and leaking cases — Julian Assange, Bradley Manning — as critics of the leak begin attacking the messenger and defenders elevate said messenger as a way of counterattacking. A major public issue becomes another celebrity story, like a Hollywood divorce. The person becomes a proxy for the cause; to admit any flaws (on the one hand) or nobility (on the other) is to give comfort to the enemy, and so he becomes sainted or demonized, depending whose blog you’re reading.

Why should anyone not personally connected with Snowden give a crap about how good a person he is? To some extent, the argument over whether he’s a hero or traitor is an argument about the privacy issue itself; if the NSA program is unconscionable, then he must be a hero of conscience, for instance.

But in the end, these arguments are stand-ins for the actual issues; they’re not the issues themselves. A Snowden or Assange could be a not-so-great person advocating a worthy position, or vice versa. It’s also possible to argue, say, to condemn the government Hoovering up phone records yet question whether people with access to state secrets should be able to declassify them unilaterally. Or it should be, anyway. Dividing the debate between Team Snowden and Team NSA, though, crowds out the room for the arguments in between both poles.

Which is one reason, I think, that the Team This/Team That mentality is so prevalent in debate now. We’ve evolved an entire system of rhetoric to enforce ideological discipline, to delegitimize positions that are nuanced or less than 100% pure. If you argue that someone is using the wrong tactics in the service of the right belief, you’re a “concern troll,” and sorry, I don’t have to listen to you anymore. If you’re a Republican governor who praises a Democratic President for helping your state after a disaster, then I declare you a “RINO” and la la la, I can’t hear you anymore. (Criticize multiple sides’ behavior in a political debate, of course, and you’re guilty of “false equivalence.”)

So while it may address the larger privacy-vs.-security issue to argue whether Snowden is a hero, it also says something about people’s inability to frame political issues now through anything other than tribal affiliation: if you’re on my side, then you like the people I like, and you stay loyal. In political media, in social media, in cable news and talk radio, people reward certitude: strong, unambiguous, from-the-gut passion, preferably expressed as soon as possible. No hemming and hawing! No wimps! Take a goddamn side!

The team mentality is an easy shorthand for expressing that attitude, and for enforcing it. It encourages sharp division and bright lines, and it frames politics not in terms of philosophy or policy beliefs but attitudes toward personalities. How often have you heard someone characterized as a “liberal” or “conservative” based not on their having expressed a particular position on a political issue but on whether they say nice or mean things about President Obama or Speaker Boehner?

I realize that I risk making myself captain of Team Obvious by even writing this; people are tribal, and the abstract is more powerful when linked to personal stories, and it was ever thus. But at the least, all the personality attacks and the Team My Guy defenses exacerbate a polarization — and active hostility to nuance — that’s already a problem in public debate.

Snowden may or may not be a hero, but keep in mind one thing that a hero is: someone who is aware that ideals and principles are finally more important than personalities. The least we nonheroes can do is try to remember that too.

17 comments
JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

The government will work to destroy his credibility. I expect more stories from the media revealing his "flaws".

roberjon
roberjon

I don't understand all the sudden uproar about this.  It's been common knowledge since 2001 that our government has been listening in on phone calls, reading emails, etc.  Surely I can't be the only citizen in the U.S. that knew about this long before this so called whistle blower became famous for telling Americans what they should have already known.  When the Patriot Act was established  its main point was to allows FBI agents to search personal information of people, to read their emails, and listen to their private phone calls. Before the Patriot Act agents weren't allowed to do this kind of spying on citizens.  So if I knew has been going on for the past 12 years I just can't understand why it has suddenly become such an issue.   Where was all the protesting and claims of invasion of privacy 12 years ago?

sachi_bbsr
sachi_bbsr

If Edward Snowden's act doesn't demonstrate 'moral courage' then I do not know what does.

We should all aspire to be as courageous as him.


HudsonValleyChronic
HudsonValleyChronic

There certainly has been a lot of "Operation Mockingbird"-style character assassination from the government apologentsia this time around. They're trying even harder than they did with Manning and Assange, despite Edward Snowden's lack of a freak factor. Snowden may not be a "hero," but he did the most morally correct thing a human being can do under the ridiculous circumstances in which he found himself. Anyway, since mere words don't seem to cut it any more, I've taken to editorializing with music. Here's one you can even dance to, about the crappy set of opportunities available to a young man these days. I'm sure Mr. Snowden sees himself in there somewhere. Maybe you do as well.


http://biffthuringer.bandcamp.com/track/devils-cry

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

I agree that nuance isn't much of a consideration today, but the problem isn't picking a "team".  The problem is a complete lack of individual thought and letting the "team" do your thinking for you.

Snowden, hero or villain?  Do we have enough information to say one way or another?  Would those who are on "Team Snowden" REALLY support a traitor?  Would those wanting to see him hung really want a principled man who destroyed his life for our "right to know" put to death?

The absolutism in today's mindsets are stunning in the lack of thought that goes into the opinions people express these days.  They may SEEM to have thought of it, but their thinking only reflects the rationalizations they made to support a predetermined conclusion.  They almost never let the real facts speak for themselves, or ignore many inconvenient truths for the sake of supporting what is essentially an unsupportable position if seen objectively.

There's at least ONE person who's interested in the truth on the White House Petition site.  A petition to extradite Snowden and put him in an open public court where we all can learn the truth is ALSO up and running, but with no one signing it.  Nuanced, indeed.  People don't want nuance.  They want their illusions whether they're right or wrong or somewhere in between.

The facts should win, but they rarely do.  Was what the NSA did illegal?  I'm inclined to doubt it, given the availability of secret warrants.  Was this guy plugged in to the point he understood what the legalities that had actually happened were?  I doubt that, too.  His thinking was typically libertarian - and very much a modern conservative, which is to say raised in a toxic environment of propaganda, absolutism and predetermined conclusions - which doesn't tend to bother with facts once one's mind is made up.  He would look upon what was done to ensure legality as illegal in the first place.

But the question - which will likely never be answered to anyone's satisfaction - remains: Was the NSA acting within the boundaries of current U.S. law?  Whether you're on Team Snowden or Team America, the answer to that question should be determined for all to know.  For the few of us who still believe in nuance, that's an important question.  For others, such as Snowden who thinks what was done whether legally or not was "bad", they don't care about legalities.

We who do call them traitors.  My feeling is that this was a politically indoctrinated, immature young man without a single dram of personal honor who saw something he didn't like and decided to violate multiple oaths - and laws - and took it upon himself to tell the world his side, to the detriment of the security of the United States.  Whether what the NSA did was illegal or not makes no difference to me about the guilt of this man or about the need to punish him for his crimes.  If what the NSA did WAS illegal, then punish those in the NSA who broke the law in the first place.

We may be a country that picks "teams", but we are also a country of law.  We can convict "conscience objectors" for violating laws as readily as we can convict anyone else.  If laws are broken, those who broke them should be punished.  The sentences meted out should be based on the level of harm committed.  I see laws broken on Snowden's part.  I'd like to know if someone or many in the NSA needs to be arrested for breaking laws, too.

Either way, the bottom line is that I'd NEVER put Snowden in a job that required ANY level of trust again.  Not even dog catcher.  Maybe he'd think the cages weren't big enough and "leak" that to the SPCA by going to the newspapers and making it more than it was.  Once you violate a trust (especially in that fashion), you don't ever get it back.

But the final note on "teams" here is to point out that Team Right demanded these tactics and laws when Team Right ran the country and Team Left said they were illegal and bad and should be stopped.  Then Team Left started running the country, using these laws passed by Team Right and Team Right started claiming that these tactics were illegal and bad and should be stopped.  The hypocrisy runs both ways among the public.  But your Team Right leaders - at least those who were raised before Team Right decided to demonize and scapegoat everything not on Team Right -  are united with the leaders of Team Left in their support of these programs.

And no one is thinking about that little nuance, either.  

It's not teams.  It's a lack of critical thinking skills and an immature need to always be right even when you're wrong, and to get others to join you in your erroneous opinions.

ShamsAci
ShamsAci

The question arises whether US surveillance practices had gone too far or whistleblower Edward Snowden's sensational leaking of an Internet surveillance program is wrong or right. - A.R.Shams's Reflection

yogi
yogi

Good article JP, but picking teams is what founded this country, its in our blood.

MustBeReallyBored
MustBeReallyBored

Who cares about what this clown leaked, the sole fact of the matter is that he was hired to do a job, that came with confidentiality / security agreements, and he chose to backstab his employer and his government because he saw something he didn't like and felt he didn't have to follow the rules.

Snatch him up, throw him in prison next to he fellow millenial Manning so they swoon over each others deeds of daring.

As for our government? Stop outsourcing to dummies, and learn how to compartment your information so losers like Bowden, Manning and Co., can't access it with entry level priveleges. No wonder the Chinese are robbing us blind.

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

I'm definitely on Team More Nuance, Please!, :-), but I do wonder if we sometimes may need to weigh personalities in our nuanced evaluations for "Consider the Source" reasons.... http://bit.ly/14QvvvB

Law_Doc
Law_Doc

@sachi_bbsrI agree, Sachi. It is a measure of how uninformed, uninvolved and unquestioning Americans (in particular) are that the debate could even focus on the messenger (Snowden).

The activities of the NSA, directly supported and fostered by the Executive, are in direct breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Bill of Rights, and relevant U.S. case law – all "paved over" by the Patriot Act.

There is way too much detail in a proper response to fit in the space and – but I have done so on Facebook, at the following link: http://www.facebook.com/garry.taylor.1806

Suffice it to say that the Patriot Act was designed to bypass the legitimate responsibility and powers of the Congress and illegitimately put it in the hands of the U.S. Executive.

Snowden deserves our admiration and support in every way.

swagger
swagger

@molly.ciliberti he acted on principle same as jihadi suicide bombers.  you have to have a strong belief to blow yourself and others up.

or do you mean a higher principle like god.  i read an 82 year old nun could get 20+ years in prison for a symbolic act of breaking into a us atomic facility because of her beliefs.

or are you talking about an individual with questionable authority, wisdom and experience to decide law and policy for over 300 million americans?

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

@DeweySayenoff I see that petition has 1 signer - and I'm not signing it yet either, although I am tempted to do so.  I would sign it if I thought that bringing him back and putting him on trial would, in itself, put the policy on trial, but I don't think that would happen.  I responded on Tuned In a couple of days ago about how unbunched my personal panties are about the gubmint collecting all of this big data.  I also said I'm not sure it's a good thing that I'm so unconcerned.  I have called Wikileaks "information graffiti," because I can't think of one policy or issue that has been debated due to any of its disclosures (I might have missed something).  I think "Wikileaks" I think "Assange" or "Manning."  I sometimes think "guys shooting people on the ground from a helicopter," but I don't think anything more about that, because I have no idea what happened because of that information.  And so far, the only two things that come to mind about this latest revelation is Snowden and a glimpse of "datastream," but that just looks like computer graphics on Star Trek.  Oh, well.  Ok.  I'll sign the petition.  If only because Snowden on trial is a much less romantic figure than Snowden on the run.  I hear "1984" is enjoying a boom on Amazon.  My son is telling me to re-read "Catch-22."

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@DeweySayenoff 

Both "teams" are wrong/evil/stupid (and no, I don't mean Team NSA vs. Team Snowden). In fact, the ridiculous sport metaphors being used in journalism/everyday lingo only highlights how dumbly complacent we are all becoming....blue donkeys vs. red elephants, little people vs. the big man, government laws vs. natural rights, give me a break!

Please let their be one READER out there who sees all this crap, and realizes we are whining, arguing, using bad expressions/lingo simply as a byproduct of whatever time-period specific info western society allows us to see. This current generation's thoughts, feelings, ideas and social speech will not hold the test of time. We're are going to be seen as even more brainless superficial culture than our ancestors of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

TrajanSaldana
TrajanSaldana

Wow...just...wow...and here i was blaming politicians for the mess this country is in...i see who's to blame for politicians now...WOW

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

Oh, just to be clear (Team Nuance!), I'm not saying we should dismiss Greenwald's/Snowden's revelations, just that maybe we may not want to take their interpretations of them at face value. :-)

sachi_bbsr
sachi_bbsr

@Law_Doc  Hopefully the Europeans will do something it. NSA snooping on Europeans definitely violates their privacy rights and expectations.