Why Personal Opinons About Edward Snowden, The PRISM Leaker, Matter

NSA leaker Edward Snowden (Credit:

Time’s television critic, James Poniewozik, is irritated over the debate about whether Edward Snowden, the now-former Booz Allen Hamilton employee who may or may not be hiding out somewhere in Hong Kong is a hero, a traitor, awful to the girlfriend he ditched in Hawaii, a narcissist, or a shining light in our increasingly murky classification culture:

Edward Snowden, leaker of the NSA surveillance programs, is a hero. No, he’s a narcissistic criminal. Scratch that, he’s totally a hero. Far from it: he’s an alienated loner, a traitor, a bad boyfriend. But also? A smokin’ hottie! Barely a day after Snowden revealed himself as the source who gave information to the Guardian about phone and Internet data collection, the debate over privacy and security was joined by a debate whether Snowden was an icon or a villain…

But in the end, these arguments are stand-ins for the actual issues; they’re not the issues themselves. A Snowden or Assange could be a not-so-great person advocating a worthy position, or vice versa. It’s also possible to argue, say, to condemn the government Hoovering up phone records yet question whether people with access to state secrets should be able to declassify them unilaterally. Or it should be, anyway. Dividing the debate between Team Snowden and Team NSA, though, crowds out the room for the arguments in between both poles.

Obviously, James’ point that “a hero is: someone who is aware that ideals and principles are finally more important than personalities,” is correct. But I think it’s worth mentioning that what happens to whistleblowers, leakers, and other people who might or might not be worthy of the term “hero,” is often highly dependent on personality, even if it shouldn’t be. If you’re going to mount a sustained campaign to try to convince the federal government not to pursue certain charges or penalties against someone, to make sure they’re treated decently while they’re incarcerated, or to make sure they get a reasonably speedy trial, all things that were at issue in the government’s prosecution of Pvt. Bradley Manning, the sheer facts of the case itself aren’t necessarily enough to sustain enthusiasm and financial support. Calling Edward Snowden “the ultimate unmediated man,” or speculating about whether or not he’s a terrible boyfriend to the live-in girlfriend he appears to have left behind in Hawaii isn’t really about the morality, efficacy, or lackthereof in his decision to leak material to Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post. It’s a combination of prurience and a decision about whether we should invest in him in a larger sense. And whether that’s right or not, it’s not without consequence.