With US President Barack Obama slated to meet Vladimir Putin some six weeks from now in Russia, the fate of Edward Snowden, that NSA leaker the American press calls “fugitive” will have to be decided by his reluctant hosts soon. According to ABC reports, Snowden may seek temporary asylum in Russia agreeing to Putin’s condition that he will not leak secrets anymore. But ABC also reported that plans may be afoot to get Snowden out to Havana, directly skipping the US airspace.
The labels attached to Snowden tell us a lot about ourselves. To the American press, he is a fugitive because the US Government has revoked his passport and he is a “wanted” man. To many sympathisers who may have even considered him a brave man for taking on the US Government single-handedly, he seems pathetic. Some columnists have wondered how he can claim refuge in Russia of all places that gave history the Big Brother syndrome and still dispatches dissident journalists. Suddenly, a man’s worth is known by the country he chooses or offers him refuge, rather than by the larger significance of a moment’s profound tryst with his conscience that makes his actions so heroic.
The illusion of consistency
It would seem that we want our heroes to remain consistent, for their lives to be fashioned by their moment of heroism. Snowden’s destiny should lead him to death or imprisonment; that would be the heroic thing to do because then we could immortalise him in a rock song and on T-shirts. But Snowden’s moment in history is over; his revelations passed on the burden of responsibility into the social realm.
Now Snowden is back to being a mortal; a man turned a fugitive, but a human being like us who wants a life even if it’s in a country as alien as the moon and perhaps as hostile once he gets there.
For its part, the US must do what it has to do: Look and behave like state power keen to protect its exclusive privileges, while the other countries in the soap opera must do realpolitik and use Snowden as a bargaining chip. Snowden, the human being has become trivialised, his dramatic, indeed epic, moment of freedom will now be bathetic and pitiable in its ending.
Revelations of darkness
But the epic moment needs recalling for us to understand the ramifications of what he did. His revelations opened doors to a world we thought had vanished with the Soviet Union, with east European regimes spying on its citizens. We thought Orwell’s 1984 mirrored the former socialist republics. To many, it will seem alive in the US as well? But to ordinary American citizens gripped by insecurities they do not understand and to Indians coping with their own fears of “terrorist” attacks or Maoist insurgency, the dedication of the US administration since that fateful September to making US intelligence ruthlessly efficient is justified. Big Brother needs to watch over us.
Too huge to manage
So reality seems to have imitated that superbly devised story. But in the 12 years after 9/11, the Orwellian tyranny machine may have just become far too huge to work.
The Washington Post carried out a two-year investigation into the build-up of the national security network after 9/11. Codenamed “Top Secret America” the results were made public in various media: Written as articles starting 2010 by its reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, and digitally available on the Post ’s Web site under “Top Secret America.”
In the introduction to the Web site, the results of the investigation showed that: “The government has built a national security and intelligence system so big, so complex and so hard to manage, no one really knows if it is fulfilling its most important purpose: keeping its citizens safe.”
Priest and Arkin discovered “an alternate geography of The United States, a top secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight.” Some 1,271 government organisations, 1,931 private companies working on counterterrorism, homeland security in about ten thousand locations across the US creating a vast network of redundancy, inefficiencies and superfluities, such as some 50,000 executive summaries of reports from around the world every year, “a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.”
Like affluent societies supersizing on junk foods, the Post’s story reveals an intelligence network supersized on information that geeks like Snowden working for private companies such as Booz Allen daily fed into multiple systems.
This is not an Orwellian world. Technology has spun out of control and its economies of scale are so humongous that it is its own reason for existence, redefines its limits of ever-expanding influence and renders superfluity the norm.
That sounds familiar. We drown in oceans of information through the Internet; technology and its gizmos have made snooping common place:
Nations are spying on their citizens, listening in on conversations; spying is on its way to becoming a zero-sum game; people may not even get worked up about it anymore.
Big brother has become flabby and supersized and, in the bargain, trivialised. Snowden is an oddity; with a few notable exceptions, no one cares. So we have to locate an explanation of this reality not in Orwell’s 1984 but in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World .
Huxley painted a sybaritic world in which governments would stay in power not with guns or by banning books as Orwell feared, but through an excess of information and pleasure that would rob people of their capacity to think for themselves.
Looking back on his work three decades later, Huxley warned civil rights groups of “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
It was Neil Postman, the social critic who highlighted the relevance of Huxley in his seminal book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business .
That was in 1986, two years after Orwell’s 1984 had come and gone. For Americans, liberal democracy had held.
But in his foreword, Postman suggested that Huxley’s dystopia had come true and his book was meant to show how.
Postman wrote before 9/11 introduced manufactured paranoia as an irritant to the pursuit of “distractions.”
That, as people the world over are discovering, legitimises the use of the gun to protect our brave new world.