Books

'Snowden' Is a Good Introduction to Our Era's Struggle for Free Speech and Privacy Rights

Award-winning cartoonist Ted Rall offers a graphic novel to inspire the next generation of whistleblowers and activists.


Snowden

Publisher: Seven Stories
Length: 224 pages
Author: Ted Rall
Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-08
Amazon

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.”

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image