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Meditations While Painting Edward Snowden

The artist ruminates on his newly unveiled portrait of the NSA whistleblower

“The national security state and the rule of law are mortal enemies… the national security state’s apparatus needs arbitrary power. Such power has its own code, which is meant to govern or justify the behavior of the initiated—after the fact. It operates to protect the state apparatus from the citizenry.” —Marcus Raskin

“…and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” —Book of Job, 1:15.

The day after I read and watched the video of Glenn Greenwald’s interview with Edward Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong, I began to paint Snowden’s portrait for the Americans Who Tell the Truth project.

Portrait of Edward Snowden by Robert Shetterly (Credit: Robert Shetterly/Americans Who Tell the Truth Project)
Portrait of Edward Snowden by Robert Shetterly (Credit: Robert Shetterly/Americans Who Tell the Truth Project)


There were few images of Snowden available—some stills from the video in which the subdued indoor lighting gives his face a bluish cast. And a few snapshots with flash that turn him yellow and obscure detail. His hair seemed different in the two versions, and the video never showed the top of his head. I had to make some assumptions. I began drawing until I thought I had a decent likeness, laid in some medium toned color all over his face, then began painting his eyes. If I can get the eyes right, the painting transforms. It becomes a real presence, looks at me, begins to talk to me about doubt, about vulnerability, about courage, about loneliness, about conscience, about anger. Begins to talk to me about defining moments and no going back. About justice being more important than himself.

* * * * * *

Snowden seemed to me a tiny chunk of the vast, submerged NSA iceberg, a chunk that had chipped itself free and willed itself to drift in the opposite direction. The one lemming that ran the other way.

* * * * * *

The debates about whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero seem wrong to me. He is both. He is traitor to the National Security State, but a hero to the idea of democracy.

He is a hero to the rule of law, but traitor to the rule of legal hypocrisy. Or, put another way, he’s a traitor to the selective law of power and privilege. He’s a hero to the rule of justice.

I find it curious to hear our media and officials clamor on about the rule of law: Whatever else you may say, he did break the law! Well, of course he did. Haven’t many of our heroes broken the law? What did the law say to Rosa Parks about where she could sit on a bus in Montgomery? What did the law say to Susan B. Anthony about her right as a woman to vote? What did the law say to Harriet Tubman about the legality of slavery? It was not for nothing that Thoreau said, “The law will never make men free. Men have got to make the law free.” Isn’t that what Edward Snowden is doing—saving us from unjust law? What is the law but a lump of self-serving clay in the hands of power? How easily the law can be shaped to make preemptive war legal, or torture, or rendition, or murder without due process, or total surveillance. I think the political philosopher Marcus Raskin says it best:

“Democracy and its operative principle, the rule of law, require a ground on which to stand. That ground is the truth. When the government lies, or is structured like our national security state to promote lies and self-deception, then our official structures have broken faith with the essential precondition for constitutional government in democracy. “

Edward Snowden is a traitor to those who say the law is about looking forward not back.

He’s a hero to those who say that the law has to look back, requires a ground to stand on, in order to look forward. A law of convenience is no law at all.

Should Snowden have turned himself in? Confronted his accusers in court? I suspect his reason for not doing that was based in strategy rather than personal safety. He saw whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and John Kiriakou and Sibel Edmonds be denied the right to explain in court why they had to act. They are silenced in court. As a free but stateless man, he can continue to expose the duplicity of our surveillance state.

* * * * * *

In the 1950s and 1960s when I was young, a common Cold War refrain was Better Dead than Red! The slogan’s aggressive political and moral content was that it was preferable to blow up the entire world with nuclear weapons than succumb to a totalitarian surveillance state.

And here we are today being asked by our president to weigh our freedom against our security, to decide in favor of security and accept the surveillance of all of us.

This surveillance comes not by a hammer or a sickle, but from the paranoia of our own power. Communist moles have not infiltrated the State Department and the Pentagon—we can do that very well for ourselves, thank you, with the help of corporate true believers. Joe McCarthy was right about the infiltration, but wrong about the perpetrators. So, are we red but not dead? Or, fascist and dead? Should we not resist?

* * * * * *

Secrecy. I’d prefer to be responsible for my own secrets. As well as my endearments, my stupid jokes, my political rants, my plans to meet friends, my birthday greetings, my thank you calls, my favorite lines of poetry, my expletives, my sorrows, my indiscretions, my struggles to understand spirituality, my attempts at solace. They’re mine. They are me. I don’t want some NSA voyeur collecting what’s me and making it his. I empathize with some indigenous people who believe that taking their photo is stealing their soul. A man with a little black box walks away with you inside it. My secrets become his secrets. Who am I then?

* * * * * *

When I paint, I paint mostly with my fingers—more like sculpting, thinning and shaping color, mixing it, making the paint translucent to allow the color to come from underneath. The process is intimate. My fingers blot a highlight on the iris, smooth the pinkness at the inner edge of a nostril, rub a bluish shadow into the cheek, smudge the eyebrows into the occipital ridge, round a shadow to shape the lower lip. It’s all about the intensity of seeing but accomplished as though I am blind and learning the contours of the face with my fingers.

* * * * * *

While I was working on the portrait, the US revoked Snowden’s passport. He was in Russia, apparently sequestered in the airport, having one possible refuge after another cave to US pressure. He was now stateless. How strange! The man who believes so deeply in the purported values of his state that he risks everything for those values is then disowned by that state. In effect, by being disowned, he becomes the state. By disowning him, the state disowns its own values. He becomes the remnant of those values in exile. One person becomes bigger—morally, legally, courageously, spiritually—than the hypocritical state that denounced him. He’s like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver being staked out and tied to the ground by the swarm of ant-like Lilliputians.

* * * * * *

While Snowden was tied down in Russia, I had to leave the portrait to attend a conference in Jordan about civic engagement and democracy in the Middle-East and North Africa. I bought a book there of the great Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, Absent Presence. In a section describing how it feels to live under Israeli occupation and surveillance, Darwish says, ‘They interpreted your dreams before you had them.’ Oh, I thought, exactly the goal of the NSA as they decipher metadata and comb emails to predict my actions before I have formulated them myself. An invasion of the privacy of the future as well as the present.

* * * * * *

An Aside: We hear apologists for the NSA say, Well, hell, we’ve got the technology; it’s going to be used! As if there is no escaping the destiny of the invention. We also hear: We have the technology for hydraulic fracturing, so it will be used. And: Because the tar sands are there, we will use the oil. So, should I get used to the fact that because I have a big knife in my kitchen, I will have to stab myself in the back? Are we a species with conscious choice, or is our only option an inventive determinism leading to suicide?

* * * * * *

In his essay in the New Yorker about the NSA, Hendrik Hertzberg makes the good point that even if millions of people the world over are not being bugged except in terms of “metadata,” maybe the intrusion is not so great for any one person, “But that does not mean no harm has been done. The harm is civic. The harm is collective. The harm is to the architecture of trust and accountability that supports an open society and democratic polity. The harm is to the reputation and, perhaps, the reality of the United States as such a society, such a polity.”

Hertzberg’s sentiments are fine and correct. But I am deeply bothered when anyone presents an argument based on the assumption that a viable “architecture of trust and accountability” is still standing in this country. As surely as the World Trade Towers, that building of civic faith was knocked down a long time ago and it serves none of us any good to act as though its mirage is still standing. To comfort ourselves with the belief that it does exist only plays into the hands of the powerful dissemblers who have taken it down. If you think you can see it, they can still pretend it’s there for the good of us all. Of course, we can’t survive as a polity without that architecture of trust and accountability. Which is why, first, we must drain the swamp of special interest money from our politics.

* * * * * *

An aside on “service”: While tediously scratching in Snowden’s hair and stippling his short mustache and goatee, my mind wanders. I think about the service he has tried to perform for the people of this country through his sacrifice. It’s an unpaid and un-honored service. His service has some similarities to the service of our military. Their charge is to protect the Constitution. He took that oath and ordered himself to do that, too. But there are some vast differences. Our servicemen and women were betrayed by their government when they were sent to Iraq and required to risk their lives while killing people who were not a danger—nor intended to be—to this country or our Constitution. They are praised highly for their service—for the obvious reason that the praise obscures the crimes. Snowden is condemned for his service because it exposes crime and hypocrisy.

* * * * * *

A further aside: I travel a lot. Those of you who do, too, know that our domestic airlines offer a thank you to our military service personnel by letting them board planes first, sometimes upgrading them to first class, sometimes asking fellow passengers to applaud their service. This irritates me—not because these soldiers are not courageous & patriotic, but because it enforces the idea that the cause is just. I would love to hear—just once!—a flight attendant ask the passengers to acknowledge the peacemakers on board, to see a social justice activist be offered an upgrade to first class (and refuse it, of course).

* * * * * *

I decided to paint the background of Snowden’s portrait a deep brown/black. No other color seemed right.

* * * * * *

Somebody asked me if I was going to paint Snowden’s moles on his left cheek & neck. Of course, I said, my obligation is not to be a cosmetic surgeon. Quite the opposite. Part of my obligation as an artist is to paint whatever I see in people however it varies from the aesthetic ideal—the lopsided nose, the differently sized eyes, their blue-gray circles, a protruding ear, the thinning hair, crooked teeth. Nor is my task to judge what might be seen as character flaws in my subjects. We all have flaws. We all don’t have courage. Part of my obligation is to make visible the courageous integrity that informs the face, how it radiates as beauty.

* * * * * *

One metric by which to measure Snowden’s action: did it take courage or cowardice? The answer to this reminds me of Camilo Mejia, the first US soldier who, for refusing to go back to Iraq spent 9 months in prison. From prison Mejia wrote: “I was a coward, not for leaving the war, but for having been a part of it in the first place. I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being, and instead I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier. What good is freedom if we are not able to live with our own actions? I am confined to a prison, but I feel, today more than ever, connected to all humanity. Behind these bars I sit a free man because I listened to a higher power, the voice of my conscience.” He went on to say that he was also a hero—not because he led men into battle, but because he refused to do it anymore in that immoral war.

Edward Snowden was a traitor to the kind of duty that can make one feel part of something, but simultaneously rob one of humanity. He was a hero for following his conscience which required of him a profound and deeper duty.

In a recent essay in the New York Times, Roger Berkowitz, writing about Hannah Arendt, wrote,

“Arendt concluded that evil in the modern world is done neither by monsters nor by bureaucrats, but by joiners… Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that… makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.”

This quote may explain the deafening silence from others in the NSA to Snowden’s action. Two of the only NSA employees to support Snowden have been Tom Drake and William Binney, fellow NSA apostates and courageous whistleblowers who tried years ago to make the same warning.

* * * * * *

My last task was to scratch a quote from Snowden into the surface of the portrait. As anyone who has listened to him knows, Snowden is articulate, measured, thoughtful and philosophically accurate about the ideas that support democracy and that impelled him to act. After considering many possible quotes, I chose one of the simplest and most obvious, one which the NSA with all of its super computers, eavesdropping equipment, and secrecy could not begin to understand:

“…the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless…. The consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed.” —Edward Snowden

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly [send him email] is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, “Americans Who Tell the Truth.”

Please visit The Americans Who Tell the Truth Project’s website, where posters of the Edward Snowden portrait, and many others, are now available.

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