Sunday, July 14, 2013

On Bastille Day: Edward Snowden and the Hegelian Germans

Americans seems to believe that Edward Snowden is either a hero or a villain, a whistleblower or a traitor, a thief or a Robin Hood, a this or a that.  They think that if he's a good guy he can't possibly be a bad guy, and vice versa.  Call it our cowboys-and-indians sensibility:  the posse only chases the bad guys.  They never sit down with them and have a drink and a smoke, unless it's not really a western but a film noire (the category is already French, not American.) 
Take Bastille Day:  it's a symbol of freedom, the myth remaining that the good guys stormed the ugly prison and released the other good guys.  But the prison was almost empty and the event lives on as a symbol of the way the equally indecisive midnight ride of Paul Revere lives on in the stirring, but inaccurate, Longfellow poem.  The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen followed the storming of the Bastille, but so did the guillotine.  Le Roi est mort, feudalism aussi, but terror erupted when the democracy-seekers siezed power.  Can one separate the good guys from the bad?  "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," said Lord Acton.   Enough terrorizing chaos, and you get a balance of power eventually.  Unfortunately, PRISM has refracted our balance of power--distorted it, corrupted it.
The German perspective--captured by Der Spiegel--remains the idea that Snowden is a hero and a traitor.   If Americans find that hard to wrap their brains around, maybe it's because Hegel's way of thinking isn't part of the American national heritage.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a 19th-century German philosopher, loved to pose a "thesis" against its opposite or "antithesis" in order to get a new thesis, a synthesis.  He didn't think the thesis knocked the antithesis dead, or vice versa.  He thought that through their struggle, they produced a new truth--the synthesis--the child of these two opposing parents.  Here's an example:  

Thesis:  Marriages are made in heaven

Antithesis:  Divorces are made in hell

Synthesis:  Divorces are made in heaven

Well, more or less.  That's Hegel via Oscar Wilde, whose mother translated a number of works from German into English, and once remarked that "the Germans have ideas of freeing mankind on a vast scale too vast to be altogether practical. We have no idea how a crusade of nations would work."  Well, Lady Wilde, maybe now we do, now that the notion of nation is changing.  

If the Germans pose a thesis and its antithesis on the cover of Der Spiegel (Hero or Traitor?) then they feel that Snowden is the synthesis--a new category of thinker, who knows that a betrayal of "national security"is really only a betrayal of national paranoia and hysteria.
So who is Edward Snowden, really?  That depends on whether you're asking 

(1) an American woman my age, who reads The New York Times with, well, a sense of betrayal.  (Are they just angry that Snowden didn't give them the exclusives?) I'm someone who'd like to protect him the way I would protect my sons.  Or, 

(2) alternatively, an American man who expresses on an earlier post of mine his hope "that somebody kicks that fucker, Snowden's, ass!" Or,

(3) a German, who tends to feel that nobody can betray without protecting, or vice versa. 

 Snowden is protecting the right to privacy and betraying the desire of the state to have its nose in your love affairs, medical records, chosen websites, marriages, divorces, children (schooling of, health of, friends of, problems of).  Some cyberfile contains more information about me than the journals I've been writing since I was fourteen years old.  Whatever I forgot all about is stored electronically.  
This abuse of my privacy excuses itself as a weapon against terrorism.  How many times has America fought some presumed threat to national security by betraying its citizens?  McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, the plight of Japanese-Americans, Vietnam, Iraq, the plight of Arab-Americans . . .  much more harm than good was done by the "good guys."  The Snowden case almost makes me want to change my citizenship, but something--and it may only be sentimentality, but it may be the dream that I can still improve the situation as an American--holds me back.  He really is brave and he really has fought an honorable battle, and continues to fight, apparently aware that safe passage to some country willing to take him can only be achieved through major compromises.  He does not want to make those compromises--he's not going to work for the Russians or the Chinese or anyone else.  He's David pitching a stone at Goliath's forehead, and I hope he hits his mark.  
It is America's blessing and its curse to imagine itself as a "city that is set upon a hill" that "cannot be hidden," and America watches other countries as much as it watches itself.  America exists in the idea of its exceptionalism, but that always seemed to me to be predicated on its adolescence.  It's the adolescent who knows that the eyes of the world are upon him or her.  And the eyes of the world are on those traits that seem attractive--coca cola, promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  If we lose the right to privacy--or fail to regain it--we lose these fundamental Jeffersonian rights.

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