The recent haranguings of Edward Snowden are all too unsurprising for the usual suspects of statist apologizers. We have been treated to a slew of creative criticism – all based on characterizations that apply to accusers as much as the accused. Every smear in the book has been thrown at Snowden. Traitor, narcissistic, anti-American, an enemy of the state – these words are always the weapons of Washington’s most trusted mouthpieces. For being the most significant leaker in American history, Snowden has seen little respect from self-styled intellectuals and not much more from the guy on the streets.
It’s a shame, really. To show the world – not just the United States – Uncle Sam’s sprawling surveillance activities meant instant criminal status. Snowden gave up a six-figure, cushy job to, in his words, “not to live in a society that does these sort of things.” He is now a refugee stuck in international limbo at a Russian airport. The future is cloudy and undecided. By whisking away to Hong Kong before dropping the proverbial bomb on an all-encompassing police state, Snowden plunged into an ocean of uncertainty. His life is no longer in his hands. Rather, it is being molded by various states playing a tug-of-war over a valued prize. The only thing we know is more revelations are coming thanks to his efforts and those of journalist Glenn Greenwald.
If only the rest of us could embody the lifepath of Edward Snowden. Soon after the leak, he told the South China Morning Post that he purposefully took a position with Booz Allen to gather evidence that would later be shared with the public. Basically, he conspired to show all of us the truth – unvarnished, unyielding, and unrelenting. Thousands of analysts have the same access to information, yet remained static and not bothered by the transgressions taking place. Snowden witnessed the monitoring firsthand. His conscience forbid silence. As Jeffrey Tucker observed, Snowden “provided a model of what it means to live a principled life.”
We would all like to think that our lives are consequential. To our family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, we may leave an impact. But it takes a greater deal of effort and courage to do the everlasting. The great question of humanity, steeped in Aristotelian tradition, has been what does it mean to live the good life? The southern poet Allen Tate, in a Phi Beta Kappa address at the University of Virginia, spoke to this great inquiry and the emergence of the economic man at the turn of the twentieth century. With the advent of consumerism and “financial capitalism,” northerners were advancing materially beyond their southern cousins. This, in Tate’s view, was contributing to a detachment from tradition – particularly a way of life where morality is exhibited through every facet.
The idea that free markets contribute to spiritual degradation is not new. It goes back to the erroneous theories pushed by Karl Marx. Modern leftists hold the same view – and use it to bludgeon laissez fairests for being heartless cretins. In actuality, the marketplace is just an extension of human nature. Men trading the sweat of their labor in a remunerative setting is in perfect accordance with the principles of peace, self-ownership, property law, and general harmonious behaviour. The impelling force behind this action is the ever-present scarcity of resources. Until nature decides she is no longer a cheapskate, we are stuck directing our ingenuity to transform the Earth for our betterment.
Calling the propensity to acquire more “immoral” is misguided. To invest and profit is perfectly in balance with human nature. But to enrich yourself through violence is where the threshold of morality ends and unscrupulousness begins. This is where Snowden found himself. He was financially comfortable despite never achieving the “proper” academic accolades. His humble beginnings as a tech geek did not scream “success.” Most would be perfectly happy working their way up to a salaried position for a government contractor. Yet, it was not enough. Snowden saw a higher purpose in the person he could and should be. The ringing clarity of a state that watches on its subjects safely from an out-of-view perch was too evil to let pass.
To Tate, the nine-to-five routine many of us find ourselves in should not interfere with our own moral being. He saw a dignified quality in the antebellum man who regarded “no difference between the Georgian house and the economic basis that supported it.” Northerners – in their new economic well-being – were still sorrowfully looking back to the South and its homogenous way of life. Economic life was perfectly intertwined with traditional values – at least that’s how Tate sees it. Whether he is exaggerating or not, his almost transcendentalist message of striving to live morally – in accordance with human nature – through all of life’s avenues seems to be totally lost in today’s society. Snowden spoke truth to power, but he is a rare exception to the masses.
Here in Washington D.C., principled living is as hard to find as rolling farm hills. Between the lobbyists, politicians, bureaucrats, and homeless, there is always some scheme afoot on how to acquire the giant booty of stolen dough. The pols call it representing “the people” when they enrich themselves and keep the citizenry placated with welfare checks. Lobbyists do the bidding of employers looking to saddle state power. Bureaucrats wage a war of violent enforcement on the economy. If you are looking to exude the principles of peace and liberty, the state is not your friend. It is a temptress – dying for enablers and the susceptible. I can only laugh when individuals in the government tell me they are fighting for liberty.
The same holds for the repugnant “just following orders” excuse that surfaces in the midst of any police or military mauling. To be a paid assassin of the state is an agreed-to occupation. Following immoral orders is a conscious decision, for which there is no justification. By taking up arms against others in the name of monopoly coercion, all government soldiers of fortune systematically violate human rights. No amount of flag-waving can change that.
Living one’s life “deliberately,” as the famed Thoreau quote goes, in accordance with core beliefs requires wearing morals on your sleeve. It asks for a determination in mindset and action that is not easily swayed by popular opinion. For a culture sapped of the ability to distinguish what is right and wrong in its the most esteemed institutions, asking for a good faith effort to find truth in everything is too much of a burden. Often, it is easier to accept the slogans of homage that get casually tossed around. Drunkenly reciting the national anthem at the ballgame and feeling good about empty patriotism are about as far as most will go when it comes to deep thought.
To exist as a human being does not entail a grand, far-flung journey to find the absolute truth and instill it into millions of lives. Put bluntly, you don’t have to save the world – if such a thing is even possible. Like everything else, the resolve falls on the individual. Only the sole man can decide to change himself. He need not be someone of great means, size, or influence. He can simply embody the “little way” of Saint Thérèse when it comes to living morally. It is paradoxically difficult, yet easy, at the same time.
Snowden is an oddity to the rule. The decisions he made have already created a more open and enlightened society. The impact will be felt for decades to come. Perhaps more consequential, Snowden no longer has to bear a guilty conscience for keeping misdeeds hidden from the public eye. If that were his only motive for action, I could not fault him one bit.
Those who continue to decry Snowden’s actions in favor of a ubiquitous spying apparatus are not men – or at least fail in the capacity of being full-fledged human beings. Reverence given over to state authorities is a reflection of weakness. High-profile figures who defend overarching government are often in bed with the leaders they laud. They are untrustworthy, and not good exemplars of what it means to live truthfully. As Tate stated, “the way we make our living must dictate the way of life.” If you are not striving to be Edward Snowden in spirit, then you are not really living.