Snowden with computer facing forward, Dec 2013, Barton Gellman for The Washington Post
The Nation Magazine published an interview with National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, and one of the parts that is most remarkable is his commentary on civil disobedience and the movement that was ignited in 2011 by Occupy Wall Street.
First off, there have been numerous interviews published with Snowden at this point. He appeared in a major television interview with Brian Williams for NBC Nightly News. He was interviewed by journalist and NSA historian James Bamford for a feature story that appeared in Wired Magazine. A documentary directed by Laura Poitras called Citizenfour has opened in select cities and will be opening in a few more cities next weekend. It apparently is so powerful that it has the capacity to change one’s view that Snowden is a traitor.
But this interview conducted by Nation editor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen Cohen is different than those interviews in that it seeks to explore his views on politics, government and the role of citizens in society in a manner which complements what many already know about what he did.
“We are a representative democracy. But how did we get there? We got there through direct action. And that’s enshrined in our Constitution and in our values,” Snowden declares.
“We have the right of revolution. Revolution does not always have to be weapons and warfare; it’s also about revolutionary ideas. It’s about the principles that we hold to be representative of the kind of world we want to live in. A given order may at any given time fail to represent those values, even work against those values. I think that’s the dynamic we’re seeing today.”
Snowden adds, “We have these traditional political parties that are less and less responsive to the needs of ordinary people, so people are in search of their own values. If the government or the parties won’t address our needs, we will. It’s about direct action, even civil disobedience.”
Yet, Snowden argues the state can then come in and determine what is “legitimate civil disobedience” and require citizens to follow certain rules.
They put us in “free-speech zones”; they say you can only do it at this time, and in this way, and you can’t interrupt the functioning of the government. They limit the impact that civil disobedience can achieve. We have to remember that civil disobedience must be disobedience if it’s to be effective. If we simply follow the rules that a state imposes upon us when that state is acting contrary to the public interest, we’re not actually improving anything. We’re not changing anything. [emphasis added]
Either vanden Heuvel or Cohen asks him, “When was the last time civil disobedience brought about change?” He answers, “Occupy Wall Street.
Snowden’s answer is met with skepticism (perhaps, surprisingly, given that it is an interview for a left-leaning publication). “Arguably, Occupy was a very important initiative, but it was soon vaporized.”
I believe strongly that Occupy Wall Street had such limits because the local authorities were able to enforce, basically in our imaginations, an image of what proper civil disobedience is—one that is simply ineffective. All those people who went out missed work, didn’t get paid. Those were individuals who were already feeling the effects of inequality, so they didn’t have a lot to lose. And then the individuals who were louder, more disruptive and, in many ways, more effective at drawing attention to their concerns were immediately castigated by authorities. They were cordoned off, pepper-sprayed, thrown in jail.
Snowden is asked again whether he thinks Occupy really had an impact. He maintains that it impacted the people’s “consciousness.”
“It was not effective in realizing change,” Snowden argues. “But too often we forget that social and political movements don’t happen overnight. They don’t bring change immediately—you have to build a critical mass of understanding of the issues. But getting inequality out there into the consciousness was important. All these political pundits now talking about the 2014 and 2016 elections are talking about inequality.”
This part is captivating primarily because one of the ways establishment liberals or left-leaning commentators have sought to delegitimize Snowden is by arguing he did not truly engage in an act of civil disobedience because he fled the country.
For example, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry once said, “Heres my beef with Ed Snowden – once you’ve decided to be a defender of those ideals, you have to be prepared to face the consequences. That is the whole point of civil disobedience, to show that you are willing to risk your own freedom, your own body, in order to bring attention to something that needs to be known.”
It misses the reality that Snowden sacrificed quite a bit by disobeying the law and leaving the United States. He had his passport revoked and was trapped in a Moscow airport. It seriously disrupted his life and forced him to begin a new one away from his home country.
Such a viewpoint also distorts and narrows what is civil disobedience in a manner that serves the powerful. The government would have had no problem with Snowden turning himself in to face a trial where he could defend his actions as documents were disclosed and published. However, the trial would have become the story instead of the disclosures. The government would have been able to silence him and prevent him from doing the numerous interviews he has done. And it would have been much easier for the government to stymie the shift in consciousness that has been taking place.
Additionally, there are establishment liberals like Sean Wilentz, who have sought to engage in a kind of McCarthyist investigation where they seek to expose Snowden as a “paranoid libertarian,” who should not be celebrated by people on the left because he seeks to “wound the liberal state.”
That he finds any value in what Occupy Wall Street did should put all this nonsense to rest. In fact, Snowden’s view on the impact of Occupy Wall Street is in the spirit of the great people’s historian, Howard Zinn, who recognized the power of small acts of civil disobedience in changing the world.
Finally, toward the end of the interview Snowden addressed this issue of being cast as this “archlibertarian:”
…As for my personal politics, some people seem to think I’m some kind of archlibertarian, a hyper-conservative. But when it comes to social policies, I believe women have the right to make their own choices, and inequality is a really important issue. As a technologist, I see the trends, and I see that automation inevitably is going to mean fewer and fewer jobs. And if we do not find a way to provide a basic income for people who have no work, or no meaningful work, we’re going to have social unrest that could get people killed. When we have increasing production—year after year after year—some of that needs to be reinvested in society. It doesn’t need to be consistently concentrated in these venture-capital funds and things like that. I’m not a communist, a socialist or a radical. But these issues have to be addressed.
It probably will not pacify the shrill brigade of progressive critics, who think their dear leader, President Barack Obama, did not deserve to be the victim of some political stunt to turn people against his presidency. But it shows that, like any person, Snowden is complex individual who understands the value of dissent.
Those who criticize him for his action because he did not reveal information the way they think he should have done it are enabling powerful interests, which seek to suppress movements that challenge the global security state and aim to enrich democratic society.