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June 10, 2013

The Picture of Edward Snowden

“I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office.”

In the Comments section of the New York Times article reporting on Edward Snowden identifying himself as the NSA whistleblower revealing the vast extent of domestic electronic and telephone surveillance, a poster from Berkeley, CA wrote, “This young man is from my daughter’s generation – the same people who, unfortunately, are so often depicted as empty-headed hipsters, interested in brunch and not interested in activism.”

And that, in fact, is precisely what I found so compelling.

As Michael said earlier today, there’s a paucity of images for this story so enormous that Daniel Ellsberg said on CNN that Snowden has “done an enormous service, incalculable service. It can’t be overestimated to this democracy.” But there are hardly any pictures. What we do have is the video of Snowden speaking to Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, by award-winning director Laura Poitras and posted on YouTube and everywhere.

For a film that is both documentary journalism and agitprop, it opens with a very arty panoramic view of Hong Kong harbor, and closes twelve and a half minutes later with the recorded sound of lapping water. In between, the camera is focused entirely and exclusively on Edward Snowden, with no shift in perspective and only a couple of jump cuts.

He’s wearing a blue-grey corporate casual button down shirt. You can see his reflection in the hotel room mirror behind him. The daylight comes in softly through the gauzy white curtain covering the window. And that’s about it. But the more I watched the video, the more I became impressed by Edward Snowden.

The storm is going to roar and fall on him: potential extradition and criminal trials, detention in cruel and unusually punishing conditions like with Bradley Manning, character assassination, you name it. The fact that he’s a high school dropout. Questions about his background and actual jobs and how important they were or weren’t and how credible his whole story may be, if there are any small lies or omissions in his account. Reporting on how he wasn’t friendly to his neighbors in Hawaii. Deflection like Obama trying to play it both ways, both pursuing a crackdown while acknowledging the need for debate. Seeking sanctuary by potentially defecting to China. The fact that he donated to and probably voted for Ron Paul. The inevitable psychological analysis that he’s just attention seeking, has delusions of grandeur and power. Etc. etc. etc.

“The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change.”

Or the US government may decide to let it blow over, not chase him too hard, try to allow the gravity of these disclosures to dissipate, to make Snowden appear paranoid and mentally unstable.

Maybe they’ll release embarrassing dirt on him, maybe there are clouds of sexual doubt like with Julian Assange, who knows? No matter how this plays out, I’m pretty sure that one or more of these dirty tricks will be, already are, being used against him. From his own words, he’s thought about all these things, knowing that his responses and precautions can’t outflank every tactic.

Knowing that if there were a referendum on the issues right now, a big chunk of Americans, maybe a majority or maybe not, but nonetheless a large number of Americans would support authoritarian security rather than democratic transparency.

“If they want to get you, they’ll get you in time.”

Knowing that even if nothing happens, he will never be able to stop worrying about it for a decade or more at least, unless he receives a pardon or charges are prosecuted and he is acquitted. You know what they say about paranoid people who really have enemies: it’s a no-win situation.

Balance all that against the public good that he – like Manning and Assange – annunciates as his motivation. A perception of the public good that another big chunk of Americans happen to agree with, entirely or in part. So his self-knowledge here, his considered and articulate speech, the stunning power of the documents he released, all these elements make Snowden fascinating. It won’t hurt him that he is white, young, good-looking, and straight. No geeky gay Bradley Manning. No hippie possible sexual predator and confirmed player, Julian Assange. The button down shirt. The hipster glasses and hint of stubble. I am sure that if it comes to it, high caliber lawyers will represent him. And not find him a difficult client, like Assange would be, or a pitiful and vulnerable one in the public eye like Manning.

Ellsberg writes in the Guardian that “Snowden reveals that the so-called intelligence community has become the United Stasi of America.” The German film The Lives Of Others depicted a secret police officer who began to have doubts, and eventually acted in sympathy with pro-democracy dissidents. History, sadly, offers no inspiration for that story; no actual Stasi officer to our knowledge ever betrayed totalitarian Communism in such a way. This is the real life contemporary American version.

Maybe there’s hope for this country, or at least honorable conscience. I am going to make less fun of hipsters now. Here’s one — or a guy who could easily pass for one if he chose — emerging as a truly heroic figure.

– Alan Chin

(screen grab: Laura Poitras via The Guardian)

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