To the growing body of literature surrounding the tech industry’s often controversial free speech activists – WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, Chelsey Manning, and others – award-winning journalist and cartoonist Ted Rall offers a short, succinct and impassioned contribution to the sub-genre concerning exiled former defense contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Snowden is written for the concerned member of the public who would like to know more about the Snowden saga but doesn’t know where to start. The short graphic novel provides a brief and succinct overview of Snowden’s biography, the government surveillance programs he blew the whistle on, the subsequent reaction and Snowden’s journey into exile, and the broader implications the whole saga holds for the future of free speech, privacy rights, and government-endorsed law-breaking in the United States. Rall cuts to the chase of his subject matter, arguing passionately in defense of whistleblowing, free speech and privacy rights.
Rall’s magic lies in situating his subjects within a broader parable. This is a biography with a point to make, not merely a dispassionate account of facts. Snowden opens with a discussion about George Orwell’s iconic dystopian novel 1984, demonstrating just how closely US government surveillance has come to echo the villainous totalitarianism depicted in that novel. As recently as Snowden’s high school years it would have seemed facetious to imagine a surveillance state like 1984 could come into being; yet technological breakthroughs coupled with a lack of ethical political oversight would lead Snowden to find himself working right in the heart of such a framework barely a decade later.
Rall underscores the hypocrisy of US politics mercilessly throughout. He dwells on Snowden’s youthful dedication to the boy scouts, emphasizing again that the ethics Americans are brought up to pay lip service to are those which compel whistleblowers and dissidents to act. What made Snowden different from his peers in the intelligence community was that he chose to act on the beliefs Americans are raised with, rather than simply paying them lip service and then turning the other way.
What was it that compelled Snowden to act ethically and reveal the epic criminality of the US intelligence regime? Rall ponders the question as he chronicles Snowden’s early years. Was it the virtues drilled into him through Boy Scouts? Was it the unlikely idealism of pop culture: role-playing games, Magic: The Gathering, and video games like Tekken (which he would later cite as influencing his sense of morality)? Was it his parents’ divorce, which Snowden is still reticent to talk about, and the desire to seek a sense of security in the form of a set of ethical virtues?
What led this idealistic youth to turn against the government he’d been raised to cherish and honour? Both his parents were government employees; he grew up in communities that were founded and economically reliant on government jobs. Transcripts of early online chat-room discussions show a Snowden who was opposed to whistleblowers like WikiLeaks as he felt they threatened American security, while he responded to the Iraq War by trying to enlist and fight for democracy. Perhaps, suggests Rall, it was the aggressive racism of US military trainers and their thirst for Arab blood that repelled Snowden and led him to start questioning the direction in which his country was headed.
Snowden isn’t the only former government employee who’s blown the whistle on government misdeeds. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David K. Shipler outlines other, less well known cases in his recent and insightful tome Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword. One of these individuals was Thomas Drake, another former NSA employee and whistleblower who faced extensive harassment and blacklisting by the US government for his role in exposing government misspending, conflict of interest and spying on citizens. For his book on Snowden, Rall interviewed Drake, in an effort to better understand the psyche of the intelligence community, and what makes employees go along even when they know or suspect government is doing something terribly wrong, unethical, or even illegal.
“It’s the herd instinct,” explains Drake. “People go along to get along… You want to be loyal. Subservient. A team player. The need to belong is extraordinarily powerful – even more in the secret world.”
What made Drake act differently? Drake reflects on the values of individuality and independence that were instilled in him when he was young. He also cites the importance of seeing civil disobedience in action – as a youth in the ‘70s he saw activists burning their draft cards.
What made Snowden unique, says Rall, is that “in an organization that selects for unthinking conformists, he searched for truth and followed it to an ideological awakening.”
Rall offers Snowden as a model for the virtuous citizen in the 21st century. “Snowden wasn’t following the baby boomer model of the civil disobedience martyr,” he writes, “but the Gen X example of the pragmatic activist. Snowden’s strategy was to work with established media organizations… he was determined to stay out of jail – and become an explainer, a spokesperson for a cause that desperately needs one.”
Rall’s graphic novel is a quick and engaging read, heavily illustrated with a blend of cartoonish sketches and clips of photos and screenshots. Easily readable in a single sitting, and meticulously researched with plenty of citations and reference notes, it’s a great introduction to our present era’s struggle for free speech and privacy rights in an era of murky and confusing technological intrusions.
Suitable for a broad audience of all ages, Rall offers a stirring defense of civil liberties and the protection of privacy that juxtaposes it against the easy dip into fascism that Orwell warned of in 1984, and that history already bore witness to during the reign of Nazi Germany and its fascist allies. Above all, Rall calls the reader to action, to learn from the example of independent and virtuous thinkers and actors like Edward Snowden.
“We sing that we live in the land of the free and the brave, but that’s a lie,” he concludes. “Most of us do what we’re told.”
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