A Letter to whistleblower Edward Snowden

In which the Elegant Bastard objects to Edward Snowden’s use of poetry even more than to his politics.

No, Mr. Snowden, no! This will not do.

I might sit idly by while you do your imitation of Deep Throat and dabble with your nation’s laws and make a play for media stardom and great wealth – others have done far worse – but when you seize upon one of the great heroic poems and try and turn it to an epitaph for your increasingly sad and puerile little tale, Patience sits up straight in her accustomed place on my shoulder, says “Screw this noise” and orders me to rant.

You say, Mr. Snowden, that, “I am unbowed.” Your use of “unbowed” is no accident. It is one of the most moving moments in William Ernest Henley’s, “Invictus”. Henley wrote the poem as a teenager in the 1860’s after losing his leg to tuberculosis of the bone. Imagine the thoughts racing through a sixteen year old boy’s mind as he faces the sure knife and uncertain anesthetics of that era. Imagine his thoughts when a few years later, the other leg contracts the same disease. Fate was not done with him. In his middle years, he would lose his beloved daughter, Margaret Emma – the inspiration for Wendy in Peter Pan – to meningitis. Each time he was able to raise his bloodied head  and move forward.  His words – “I am unbowed” –  become an existential anthem, a barbaric YAWP . Mr. Snowden, in your mouth, they become a whine.

In fact, let’s take a little stroll through that short poem and compare it to the experience you have chosen for yourself.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,

Mr. Snowden, look around. You are not in a “pit” or a perpetual “night”. You are in Moscow’s International Airport where the Putin government, having used you once, apparently has no desire to use you twice. Moscow may not be your destination of choice but I think it transcends the desperate ambiance and inadequate facilities found in a nineteenth century British hospital.

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

As an atheist and an existentialist, I struggle with notions of God and soul. Still, as a curious man, I am often intrigued by others’ arguments concerning the existence of either. They speak of faith and of the need to be guided by something greater than personal comfort, profit, ease or health. Proof, it seems, is in the suffering. Lot, Job and Abraham demonstrate this in the Bible; Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Oskar Schindler and the Standing Man in Tiananmen square demonstrate heroic suffering in our own era. Each faced death for something greater than Self.

Again, Mr. Snowden, you are sleeping on waiting room chairs and eating whatever the vending machines can offer. That may be tough, but it ain’t no existential threat, now is it. Nor does there seem to be a line-up of those seeking to murder or martyr you. In fact, until your most recent outburst, we all seemed to be in the process of forgetting you, especially since Mr. Obama seems as bored with you as Mr. Putin. (Yes, CNN still loves you – you poor man!) So it`s a little early to claim to be “unconquerable”. (Especially since Daddy is apparently negotiating optimum terms for your surrender as I write this.)

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Mr. Snowden, you have not yet stopped wincing. You are turning wincing into an art form. True, many in the American media are hurling nasty words at you, but that is their habit. Sticks and stones, Mr. Snowden, sticks and stones. And since many of them seem to feel that you have broken their nation’s laws – which you admit – and endangered national security – which you argue is less important than moral issues – what did you think they would do? Send chocolates and flowers to Moscow? But bludgeoned? Oh come! Bieber has been bludgeoned. Baldwin will be. You haven’t even been spanked. As for complaining about the “clutch of circumstance”, no one shoved you in a box, flourished the duct tape and forced you to Moscow.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

Wrath and tears?.Were you a 16 year old young man who had survived an undeserved ordeal, only to find it returning, I would be moved to weep for you. But this is not the case. You are an articulate and educated adult. You claim to be outraged by the systemic abuse of human rights by the government expected to defend those rights. To address this, you deliberately broke laws and endangered what others regarded as necessary measures. You claimed this abuse was secret; others argued that safeguards were in place. In short, you are right smack dab in the middle of what most would call a debate, one that you began. There’s been some wrath but no tears and as for “the Horror of the shade”, well, Death seems as bored by the whole business as Obama so let’s try to be a tad less hysterical.

I have not yet entirely decided whether I personally approve or disapprove of the action you took that precipitated your current condidtion. I am, however, beginning to find you tiresome. More and more, you strike me as a person with an “i” who dearly wants an “I” and more than anything an I. Your bio suggests a life of flitting here and there in search of a convenient cause. And you would not be the first to use such a cause to arrange a painless and temporary crucifixion as the first steps toward a guest shot on “Piers Morgan Live” and a condo on Fifth Avenue.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

It is in this last stanza that I find the greatest lie. In its first two lines, Henley announces his determination to go forward, to accept the uncertainties and pains that life brings to all of us. He notes that the expectations placed upon him are high and that he must acknowledge his own sins and possible punishments. You, Mr. Snowden, for whatever reason, have set yourself above the law and placed your own morality above what we sometimes term “shared values”.  This is your right as a free person in a democracy. What you face now are simply consequences – expected and deserved – unless in your paradigm you feel you have achieved a higher status, one transcending the reach of the nation’s or God’s laws. If so, you have greater issues to deal with that the comfort provided by waiting room seats in Moscow.

And given your current situation, the last two lines are simply ironic. You are now the tool of The Guardian, a source for writers seeking lucrative stories, a plaything to be used as Putin slaps around Obama to score points back home, and yet another stick Ecuador’s Correa will use to beat up the US to deflect his people’s attention from the ongoing crisis that is Ecuador. From this I suppose will come some benefit – a book deal certainly (though the book tour might be necessarily limited in scope.)

But you are not Henley, Mr. Snowden. And “Invictus” was not written for you.

Sunday Morning Coffee (2): Of Edward Snowden and Iago

 In which the Elegant Bastard is surprised by the sheer number of Iagos running about the stage and hopes that a few will leave.

I lead a happy life.

I would like to claim that this is true because of things I do. In fact – were I to be honest – I would have to admit that things I no longer do get a lot of the credit.

I gave up smoking, thereby gaining both the funds required to pursue other expensive sins and the energy that  pursuing them requires . I gave up driving. Not only did this free me from the clutches of the Great Car Conspiracy – what do you mean you`ve never heard of it? –  it allowed me to fully embrace pedestrian anarchy: I jaywalk, I cross at the red, I stroll on the grass,  I gambol at STOP signs, I smell and on occasion pick the flowers. And do you know something?  No one cares! Giggle.

And last, I gave up being left-wing or right-wing. Strait-jackets, be they tie-dyed or tailored, never really appealed to me. It was as easy abandoning my 20-something Marxism as it was my 30-something Capitalism. Both philosophies had the tight and sweaty feel I associate with cheap polyester. My current mushy middle-ism goes comfortably with the world around me. I don’t have to hurt anything. I don’t have to give up more than is good for me. I get to be nice to most people. And – most importantly – I don’t have to make Edward Snowden into my hero or my villain.

This is fortunate because making him into either would require feats of intellectual engineering (or pure fiction) far beyond my ability. He exudes the kind of pathos we have all seen before. He is nothing more than a modern day Iago.

People love to make Shakespeare’s ultimate villain into something far more impressive than he was. Some claim Iago was Satan himself, a dark and powerful figure stalking and destroying Good wherever he could find it. Others lament his fate, characterizing him as an oppressed and emotionally abused gay man forced into the closet by a repressive society, unable to live openly with the Moor he loved. In fact he was nothing more than a seething mass of resentment, a petulant and whining little bit of nastiness who wanted to be so much more than he knew he was.

This is understandable. Everyone around him had wealth, or a title, or youth, or goodness, or a strangely exotic background that mesmerized all others. As Iago plots the death of one such unwitting tormentor, he says in an unguarded moment that the man he will destroy “hath a daily beauty in his life/ That makes me ugly.” He was right. At another moment, he gloats that his chief victim, Othello, will soon “thank me, love me, and reward me. For making him egregiously an ass.” Here Iago almost croons, salivating over each soul satisfying “me” as it issues forth. His day will come. The world will know how great he really was. For Iago, it was all about … well … Iago.

Edward Snowden seems to embody that same needy narcissism, mixed with a teaspoon or two of paranoia. True, we hear his words largely through The Guardian and its reporter, Glenn Greenwald, both of which ideologically and commercially need Snowden to be viewed heroically. It is in their reports that we discover carefully presented poignant personal sorrows, or forgivable past failures or the virtuous and bravely borne moral certainty that his actions were right. We are almost invited to weep. But it’s hard to do so for the Snowden who peeks through the selected and sanitized prose oozes self-love and self-pity.  He articulates no concern whatsoever about what he might unleash or what harm he might do. He speaks with the certainty of the zealot, the fanatic.

He is almost comic, but Dangerfieldian or Ricklesenian rather than Chaplinesque. He mentions that the CIA is all around him. Whether that’s a reference to the nearby American embassy or the presence of nearly 100 Starbucks outlets in Hong Kong is never made clear. He will, he says, “be made to suffer”. At this point, I think even the casual reader is wondering. If  “the greatest evil” in the world (the American Government) is after him with their “massive surveillance machine”, why haven’t they found him yet? By his own admission, they could have stomped him. Are they perhaps not trying as hard as they are pretending or he feels they should?

In a wonderfully paranoid moment, Snowden suggests that  “they” will send the “Triads” after him. The triads are notorious criminal organizations operating in Hong Kong. Who knew they were at the beck and call of the U.S. government?

In another Iago moment, Snowden mentions that “they” will “demonize” him. (On three separate occasions in the play, Othello, little Iago refers to himself in demonic terms! He’s such a wannabe!) By now the reader has had enough. Demonize? Oh please. Dorkify, perhaps. Bratisize, maybe. Prickify if we are all in a bad mood. But demons come in larger sizes than your own, Mr. Snowden.

Snowden has not come close to matching the accomplishments of  Daniel Ellsberg or Colleen Rowley. Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers alerted Americans to the fact that a succession of presidents had lied. Rowley’s famous memo to FBI Director Mueller makes it clear that the opportunity to prevent or at least contain the tragedy of 9/11 was wasted by either high level incompetence or careerism.

Snowden tells us that the NSA is “watching” both Americans and foreigners. After Oklahoma City, New York, Madrid, London and Boston, just who is not aware of that? He makes it sound as if Uncle Sam’s agents are watching every word we type, hovering over each of our shoulders as we go places we shouldn’t to watch things we mustn’t. They aren’t. As one non-hysterical commentator put it, the NSA looks for patterns, not individual calls. It collects “dots”, motifs that might indicate the presence of a threat. Once a pattern emerges, it must then seek warrants to actually listen in – and those warrants are not easy to obtain.

Who knew this great “secret”? Given the content of the scathing comments about Mr. Snowden being expressed by congressmen, senators, defence analysts, pundits, jurists, journalists and security watch-dogs from both the left and the right, quite a lot of people really. True, The Guardian is “outraged”. Michael Moore is “outraged”. Julian Assange is “outraged”. But when are they not?

Frankly, I think most people are more bemused at the uproar than anything else. There may be some concern that self-canonized St. Edward’s actions could impact security. Personal liberties are important to us all. Yet most of us remember the tragedy of the twin towers. We saw the bodies plummeting to the ground. We are still in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing. The image of one impossibly innocent child has not yet receded. If the NSA and other governments can prevent something similar by collecting essentially anonymous “dots” and then following due process when possible patterns emerge, so be it. Google and Facebook do much the same for lesser motives.

Edward Snowden is neither hero nor villain. He is nothing more than a sad little man in pursuit of a satisfactory self. The more his reasons are considered, the less credible they become. I suppose we could speculate about possible financial gains that would dwarf his previous “good salary” or a publicity tsunami so large it would make a Bieber want to shut the door and hide. But there really is no point. It is still the sadness that prevails. Were I the U.S. government, I would let him go wherever the winds might blow him.

For Mr. Snowden is a hero only to those who need a villain. There are many who vilify America generally or the U.S. government specifically. By creating Mr. Snowden as a “hero”, they simply reinforce the idea of the American Super Villain. Why do they do so? Because the existence of America as villain allows them to proclaim themselves as hero in their own narratives. Mr. Snowden is grist to their mills. It is as such that he will be used.

It is happening already. The Hong Kong Government – which breathes only when China permits – has allowed Mr. Snowden to “escape” and “seek asylum”. Subtext? “Oh you nasty America, you!” Russia’s Mr. Putin will permit Snowden to land in Moscow. Same subtext. (Would now be a good time to mention Tienanmen or Pussy Riot?) And where will Mr. Snowden end up? Ecuador or Venezuela. Oh Lucky Man. Both countries are currently led by populists who attempt to create cult-like status via venomous anti-American rhetoric.

In fact, if I were you, Mr. Snowden, I would be worried about what countries I flew over and on whose planes. You may for the moment be a convenient hero, but the longer you are out there making statements and giving interviews, the less you are controlled. What better way to ensure that you remain a potent symbol of American “evil” than by having your plane plunge into a mountain somewhere and then blame the CIA? And if you do arrive safely in the hiding place of your choice, be careful what you eat and drink.

At the end of the play, Iago is asked why he did what he did. He has helped destroy Othello. The virtuous Desdemona is dead, as is his own once-loving wife. His schemes have failed. He is trapped in his own smallness. He tries a final moment of bluster: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.” He impresses no one and he is dragged off stage.

Et tu, Mr. Snowden. Et tu.