It’s the revolt of the geeks. Edward Snowden is John Peter Zenger digitized, a post-Internet free-press hero soaring above the security obsessions of the past decade to assert the inalienable requirements of individual sovereignty in a wired world.
It was Zenger whose journalistic efforts to expose the wrongdoing of a colonial governor appointed by the crown landed him in jail facing the charge of “seditious libel,” quite similar to that brought against Snowden for exposing the NSA’s illegal spying.
Their defense is the same: True patriotism demands a vigilant confrontation with government infamy. “I know not what reason is,” Zenger published in his defense back in 1734, “if sapping and betraying the liberties of a people be not treason.” After Zenger spent more than eight months in jail, a jury of his peers exonerated him and his cry for an unfettered free press came to be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
The patriotic ideology that drives Snowden is a throwback to that innate American sense of personal liberty in the face of government excess for which Zenger stood. In every interview Snowden has relied on the simple notion that informed the founders of our nation regarding the primacy of truth in public discourse.
His commitment to that ideal cannot be comprehended by a mass media culture of careerism informed by public relations that trivializes all differences of truth and logic into incomprehensible mulch. His is instead the simple veracity of the once-honored slogan that the truth shall set us free and that it is overwhelming government power that is most threatening to that freedom.
What is at issue in the information Snowden’s courageous actions have revealed is our government’s denial of the core principles of the enlightenment: rule by, and of, an informed and thoughtful citizenry that has come to be smothered by the omnipresent corporatized national security state.
He has translated those ideals from a vastly more primitive time technologically into a cry for freedom in the age of an Internet that contains both the seeds of human liberty in an increasingly informed and cosmopolitan public and its opposite, in the wired world’s capacity to totally obliterate the right to personal privacy that is the essential oxygen of a free society.
As power came to be ever more concentrated and its rewards more inequitably distributed, it was all rationalized as somehow harmonizing because of the onslaught of a neutral sounding technological revolution whose new billionaires seemed to profit not by exploitation but by enhancing the lives of the masses.
Rather suddenly, as technological revolutions go, people ended up with a gadget in hand that informed them as to the best choices they might make, not merely in consumption of goods and services but in all matters including politics and education. So much so that school districts, Los Angeles being the latest, have equated the distribution of tablets with meaningful mass education. But few seemed to notice that the adjective “consumer” had come to be the essential modifier of “sovereignty,” and that education and journalism were now synonymous with shopping.
For most, this was an acceptable bargain, and they freely turn over not only the details of their physical location, expenditures, mail and reading habits, but also, and increasingly the most significant, biometric identifiers of self to any commercial agency eager to exploit their tastes.
So far so good, until the government entered the game and in the aftermath of 9/11 came to overwhelm the prerogatives of the private sector.
As long as it was only a matter of private corporations, even those as omnipresent as Google, doing the snooping, it fit the demands of freedom defined as consumer sovereignty in that one’s freedom of market choices was infinitely refined, and when it was not, the service provider could be exchanged for another.
Not so with the government, as its activities are revealed in the documents leaked by Snowden. Its snooping began in friendly alliance with the corporate giants that appeared in control of the Internet, but as they have since protested in the wake of the Snowden revelations, even mammoth multinational corporations like Google, Apple and AT&T are subject to the whims of government agencies, whose intrusive powers into the World Wide Web of communications shocked even the most knowledgeable of Internet engineers.
We learned, again thanks to Snowden, that there are no rights of the individual that are any longer inviolate, and the very notion of the sovereignty of the individual, in his or her home or minds, as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, is now a fiction.
Hence the revolt of the geeks, and Snowden soon will be recognized as one of many. These are folks of no clear party or cause other than the fear of unbridled government power. Like John Peter Zenger, they know, “Every crime against the public is a great crime.”
Robert Scheer is a nationally syndicated columnist.