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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On Surveillance

A few months ago, I wrote the following:

If you are able to complain about the “lack of freedom of speech” in a public forum, you still have freedom of speech. You’ll know when free speech is gone, because nobody will be able to say anything about it. (Complaining about the erosion of free speech is still vital, however, as it safeguards against that erosion.)

The day I know we’ve slid into an actual authoritarian police state will be the day when I do not see numerous books on the shelf in a public library accusing the current President of destroying the countrybeing an idiot, or just being evil in general. We won’t have a news networks that are pathologically dedicated to mocking everything the government does. Those things don’t exist in a police state. You don’t get to be a talking head on a popular news network, you get to be shot in the head.

I’m trying very hard to remember the certainty I felt when I wrote those words. Because I don’t feel it now.

I’m not going to bother linking to any news stories. There are too many to choose from. The Daily Show segment was probably the most amusing, though.

I take back what I wrote. I thought about deleting the original post, because I know longer believe it to be true, but I think it’s important to oppose censorship, even and especially self-censorship. Let the old post stand as a reminder that I was wrong.

Pope Francis is Time’s Person of the Year, but in this blogger’s humble opinion, Edward Snowden should have been.