Review: Snowden

SnowdenSnowden by Ted Rall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s always hard to get a decent review on a book about such a divisive figure, simply because there will be a sizable contingent that will rate based on their feelings about the subject (for or against) rather than the merits of the work itself. With that said, I’d like to note that I’m generally pretty pro-Snowden. I’ve read a few other books about him and I think the revelation of the extent of the surveillance state was an important one.

But this isn’t the book to get a deep or nuanced understanding about the Snowden leaks. Here, we have Snowden the superhero, Snowden the caricature. Snowden is depicted as unambiguously good, while politicians like Obama, Clinton, Feinstein, and others are evil schemers (Rand Paul is the only positively depicted politician, interestingly).

This isn’t a simple story of good guys and bad guys. It’s not black and white, though this book very much wishes you to think so. Snowden took personal responsibility! The most important thing is personal sovereignty! Seriously, I absolutely hate it when a book assumes that I’m too stupid to understand the important bits, so those important underlying messages need to be spelled out in bold text. Yeah, it’s a cartoon. Doesn’t mean you need to assume I don’t understand the big words.

I was left shaking my head and rolling my eyes, and again, this is from the perspective of being pro-Snowden coming into this book. I assume if you’re in the anti-Snowden camp, you probably couldn’t get through the book without bursting into flame, but that leads to an interesting question; who’s this book for? I didn’t buy into it and I’m actually in agreement with the author’s general premise!

Why did Snowden leak those secrets? This book argues it’s because he’s a fundamentally good person, the only person who spoke up whenever everyone was going along with the crowd. The word “sheeple” doesn’t show up in the text, but I can’t help but imagine previous drafts where it appeared several times.

It’s possible that the author is correct and Snowden did what he did out of patriotic duty and a sense of personal responsibility. Or maybe he had visions of fame and recognition, a hunger for a place in history. Maybe it was both of these things, or neither, or several others. Humans are complicated and messy creatures. We are, all of us, saints and sinners, fallen angels and rising apes. We do things for many, many reasons and I resist the urge to create simplistic heroes and caricatures of complex issues.

Snowden is important. His leaks are important. Discussions about the nature of surveillance are important. But they are not simple and I resist agreeing with any work that seeks to paint them as such. If you’re curious about Snowden’s story, this isn’t a book that I’d recommend, because even though I do agree with the core premise, I don’t buy into its depiction or execution.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Snowden”

  1. I haven’t read the book. But from your description it sounds like a defense of Snowden written from the perspective of a libertarian, and the reason it rubbed you the wrong way is that you have an aversion to libertarianism. With that in mind, I’d like to bring up when you said “I assume if you’re in the anti-Snowden camp, you probably couldn’t get through the book without bursting into flame…”

    It seems to me that this is exactly the sort of book that might bring around a certain subset of the right currently feeling that Snowden is a traitor. It frames Snowden’s actions and his character in the terms that they care about, highlighting the values that those people hold dear. You associate those values with a person you disagree with, that you regularly other and defame; you can’t help but see the term “personal responsibility” and remember when that term was used to rail against healthcare or abortion. The reasons the book infuriates you are the exact reasons why others might be moved by it.

    1. That’s probably it. I didn’t think of it as “the libertarian’s case for Snowden,” but in retrospect, that’s very much what it is. Even with that in mind, it still seems to me that it would be insufferably simplistic. If I were to transpose the writing style of this book to a cause that very much speaks to me (environmentalism, for instance), I still can’t imagine enjoying a book that said something like “he did this out of his concern for the environment.” Even though that’s an idea that is core to my personal ideology, I would feel as though I was being talked down to. That might be more of a criticism of the presentation of the ideas, however, rather than the idea itself.

      1. It might be a matter of writing style. The author probably got too preachy, but I haven’t read the work yet to say.

        I wonder if a good analogy might be a retrospective on Martin Luther King. You don’t really see people approaching his story and saying “How can we make sure we show the negative side of MLK’s fight for civil rights?” There might be stuff to say, but it just doesn’t seem appropriate to bring up when the actions he’s remembered for are so singularly heroic. Also, there’s a definite tendency to preach when talking about racism, especially with the backdrop of the civil rights movement.

        To libertarians, I think Snowden represents just that sort of hero, and libertarians love to preach about tyranny.

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