You Know Nothing, Edward Snowden

“The question about Snowden is less, ‘Is he right?’ than ‘Who is this guy?’”

Snowden seems calm, almost joke-y about what is happening to him. He’s flown past “fuck it” to some Zen state of acceptance. He chuckles talking about how the CIA are certainly targeting him. He swallows dryly between answers. He’s way too inarticulate in his speech. He talks in prepared prose, maybe to seem resolved, maybe to keep himself from falling apart. He says things like, “I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model.” He seems to want to give the sense that he’s a serious person. He looks both afraid and bored by his fear.

By now, we all know Edward Snowden’s name. It’s not without irony that a news story so much to do with online anonymity could have so immediately created a media celebrity. Since leaking documents that tie the NSA to the collection of massive amounts of data on average Americans’ online activity, Edward Snowden has been hailed as a hero, denounced as a traitor, dismissed as an attention-seeking slackjaw, and, on any account, memed within an inch of his life. In his interview with Glenn Greenwald, Snowden speaks about the power of identity for whistleblowers. The cult of personality, or perhaps the cult of pathology, that has sprung up around him proves his point.

It’s odd, then, how anonymous Snowden himself is. He looks like an average nerd, an office worker, the sort of guy your sister might date. He’s the best friend in the movie, not the lead. He talks about how identity empowers whistleblowers and protects them, but one wonders whether that reality is true only insofar as identity is constructed by others.

Because Snowden is constructed by others. He’s the blank slate against which the deeds of the NSA are projected, judged by his decision to make those deeds public. He implicates a monolith, and yet he has less personality than it, if only because it has acted, and he has only pointed to that action. If the NSA performs a necessary task in the collection of online data, then Snowden was wrong and, therefore, a traitor. If the NSA oversteps its mandate, then Snowden is a hero. His trajectory along that line graph is determined entirely outside his own agency. Snowden talks about how identity empowers whistleblowers. But if that’s the case, then it’s only because it puts an actual face to an otherwise profound depersonalization.

Snowden isn’t interesting, because he’s thrown open the doors on some revelation. Like it says in the Leonard Cohen song, “everybody knows” it’s bad. Snowden is interesting, because who knew some schmuck could sit at the crossroads of such ideology and such access and such sheer, stupid conviction? And he’s interesting, because of how quickly even that conviction could be swallowed into the multitude, into the monolith. It’s less important that he’s right than whom he’s standing next to. The question about Snowden is less, “Is he right?” than “Who is this guy?” And again, that’s a question that he can’t answer. He only points to the supposed malfeasance of others and invites you to define him accordingly, hoping in that act of submission, we’ll be shaken from our cynicism and the supposed crimes that define it.

So who is this guy? The forgettable government worker, the traitor/hero dichotomy that has been projected onto that blank slate, or the ideologue who certainly knew those images and how permanently they would be cast and decided to put himself in their glare anyway…

Your guess is as good as mine.

Nathan Pensky is a writer and editor living in rural Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.