Snowden takes rhetorical high ground in PR fight with feds

Edward Snowden is seizing the rhetorical high ground in the public relations battle with the federal government.

Snowden could return to the USA as soon as he accedes to a negotiated guilty plea, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder indicates. If Snowden wants to participate in “the grand tradition of civil disobedience,” he should take his chances at an espionage trial, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) asserts. An influential panel found that NSA bulk collection of phone records chills expression, has not helped to detect terrorist plots and exceeds statutory authority.  President Obama is setting new surveillance standards following the former national security consultant’s revelations.

Amid public policy and legal jockeying among public officials, Snowden is articulating cherished American values. In a Christmas message on Britain’s Channel 4, Snowden evokes philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson on individuality and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin on thrift    

By championing privacy, Snowden is salvaging individuality and solitude. “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy…,” Snowden cautions. “They'll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves -- an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that's a problem…Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.”

Emerson contends solitude is indispensable for individualism. “In the solitude to which every man is always returning, he has a sanity and revelations, which in his passage into new worlds he will carry with him,” Emerson observes in Experience. Romantic poet William Wordsworth “awakened in every lover of Nature the right feeling. We saw stars shine, we felt the awe of mountains, we heard the rustle of the wind in the grass, and knew again the ineffable secret of solitude,” Emerson discerns in Literature.  “We nestle in nature …and receive glances from the heavenly bodies, which call us to solitude, and foretell the remotest future,” he contends in Nature.

Snowden’s statement addresses how we communicate, too. Internet, mobile telephones and portable digital assistants make it is easy to confuse solitude with loneliness at the cost of individuality.  In an  interview on PBS Moyers & Company, MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle articulates the insight:

Turkle:We are living the kind of mediated…existence where…capturing the event…to post it…has come to seem normal.

…I call it, "I share therefore I am." …It's…a way of living where you don't feel fully as though you're living if you haven't shared it in this new way….you begin to feel yourself as you mesh yourself with the means of communication.

Moyers: So sending is being?

Turkle: "It is starting to be that sending is being…This has…a downside, because…you begin to not have as much a feeling of autonomy and sense of self if your way of thinking about yourself is so tied into sharing and texting and being enmeshed…. It really is a different way of seeing the self. …I come back to the importance of solitude, the sense that people need….to gather themselves…experience solitude, which is different from loneliness. Because the way things are now,…people think that loneliness is a problem that needs to be solved and that only technology can solve.”

When Snowden asks viewers to “remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying,” he’s warning about the high costs of surveillance.

The current black budget for covert action, surveillance and counterintelligence tallies $52.6B. Private contractors can be more than twice as expensive as federal workers, a Project on Government Oversight study found in 2011.

Congress and the Government Accountability Office could wisely investigate a revolving door of high level leadership between the National Security Administration and Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden’s former employer. The Justice Department is suing United States Investigation Services, the contractor responsible for vetting Snowden and many others with access to sensitive data, for charging for incomplete background evaluations.

Think no further than Benjamin Franklin’s maxim that “a penny saved is a penny earned” and its variants from Poor Richard’s Almanack.

In this deft statement, Snowden celebrates treasured values and common sense. In so doing, he mitigates characterizations he’s a traitor like Benedict Arnold or a spy like Jonathan Pollard. Federal officials are left proposing policy and procedure. It’s little wonder pundits are contending the tide is turning Snowden’s way following so a neat Christmas treat tapping Emerson to remind everyone to esteem himself and herself and Ben Franklin to tend taxpayer dollars.  

Donahue is adjunct professor of History at Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey. donahueh@rowan.edu