Edward Snowden as Socrates?

By Ruth StarkmanNovember 20, 2015

Edward Snowden as Socrates?

EDWARD SNOWDEN has been described as a “troublemaker” and a “traitor to the state.” In some ways, the former NSA contractor, who leaked classified documents in June 2013, has adopted the posture of a fearless, lone Socrates. Hopefully, he will not endure the same fate as the ancient “corrupter of youth.” Change — even if it will come slowly — seems afoot. 

On October 29, Snowden welcomed the European Parliament’s 285–281 vote to grant Snowden asylum as a “game-changer.” Yet the narrow and symbolic decision to “drop any criminal charges against” Snowden and recognize “his status as whistleblower and international human rights defender” will only become effective if a national government accepts him. Rumors of potential states to take Snowden in include England, Denmark, and Germany. Meanwhile, he remains a highly divisive figure. Only those most convinced of his guilt or innocence with the least to lose are willing to comment on him. Experts and novices, policy experts, academics and students alike, are wary of having their names in print alongside his.  

NSA and defense spokespeople responded to the European Parliament decision by reaffirming their position on his criminality. David Shedd, former director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, asserted: 

Snowden may be the most significant traitor in the history of the United States and deserves to be prosecuted for espionage under the full extent of U.S. law. 

Other responses have been tempered. Those who come to his defense, like German Green Party politician Malte Spitz, whose 2013 op-ed in The New York Times declared, “Give Snowden Asylum in Germany,” responded to the vote cautiously, uncertain whether “the EP decision will have any consequences”: 

Due to the EU structures it is only a call for the member states, even if it is an important, strong and clear one. At the moment, I see no situation coming up, where a government of an EU member state will give Edward Snowden asylum. This may change due to the talks that are going on between Snowden’s lawyers and the US administration, but for my knowledge, this will take time. 

Universities remain notoriously divided on Snowden even as students debate his actions in classrooms and campus papers. At Stanford University, prominent security specialists as well as internet civil rights lawyers decline to comment on him. 

Yet no group is more impressed with Edward Snowden than American college students. Even skeptical or indifferent students change their opinions of him when they hear him speak — by Skype — in packed college auditoriums.  

Snowden addresses topics dear to students: democracy, access to technology, privacy, and justice. At college, theories of justice often seem remote from action. Some students engage in service learning and political protests, but none have taken action like Snowden. He is the epitome of daring or disloyalty — and students are much less likely to charge him of the latter after they’ve seen him. 

Still, many students have been anxious about having their views recorded in print or online. This should come as no surprise, since college students have so much more to lose than Snowden had at 29, when he chose to release those documents. Unlike Snowden, who never went to college, American students at all types of institutions of higher education often shoulder enormous debt and are eager to pay it back as soon as possible. They understandably want to maximize their employability and avoid anything that might jeopardize career opportunities. As much as they may applaud him, they fear that a comment on Snowden may harm them in a future job interview. But when Snowden appears per satellite to campuses, it is clear that many admire him — the lone hacker dude who, as he reminds students, acted for the greater good of the public. 

Thus far, Mr. Snowden, now residing with temporary asylum in an undisclosed location in Russia, has spoken via satellite to students at Harvard University, Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Iowa, Bard College, and universities abroad such as Simon Fraser and Glasgow. Next appearances in 2015–2016 will be at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Irvine.   

At the Bard College conference “Why Privacy Matters,” hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center on October 16, students cheered wildly when Snowden’s image appeared on the screen. Snowden demurred, “I wasn’t expecting that.” 

Or was he?  

Snowden, who eschews the label of “hero” or “celebrity,” received a similarly adulating welcome at Harvard and Princeton and a standing ovation at Stanford last spring. University of Iowa students also greeted him with a highly positive response in September of this year. Generally, those who come out to Snowden appearances are supporters. But those agnostics and curious students who attend largely for the spectacle end up cheering too.  

Snowden, meanwhile, speaks with an affectingly earnest modesty and seems to understand his potential to influence college youth. Asked about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her comments that Snowden “could’ve been a whistleblower,” Snowden not only clarified her lack of understanding about the absence of whistleblower protections for NSA employees, but he also offered his view of American elites: “There’s a lack of political courage in the established class.” 

The audience cheered loudly.  

On whether he’d be willing to stand trial, Snowden affirmed his position: “I wanted a fair trial and to speak to the jury, but I wasn’t allowed to. They said we won’t torture you.” 

The auditorium rumbled with laughter.  

Not that anyone thought torture was funny, but rather because the audience believed it understood too well the consequences he faces. The widely shared assumption in the college audience is that years after Abu Ghraib, the US government is more likely than not to subject Snowden to torture, if it gets a chance. 

After Snowden’s appearance at Bard, the auditorium emptied, even though there was another very prestigious speaker: Office of the Director of National Intelligence General Counsel Robert Litt, who had come to present the NSA perspective. Scanning the few remaining student faces in the hall, Litt tried irony first: “I now have a greater appreciation for the Biblical story of Daniel …” Failing to elicit a response to his illusion of entering a lions’ den, Litt compared his chances at celebrity with those of an obscure act that had appeared alongside the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, and thereafter promptly vanished into pop oblivion.  

No response from the audience.  

Unlike Snowden, Litt speaks quickly, with an off-the-cuff delivery. It doesn’t help either that this NSA lawyer likened students to beasts of prey, and compared himself to the hero Daniel. At least Litt was right in his Beatles analogy: Snowden is a hard act to follow, especially for the NSA.  

Unlike most celebrities, however, Snowden speaks at institutions of higher education for free, largely. Stanford and Harvard are on record for not paying him, while only one university is rumored to have offered an honorarium around $20,000. Snowden attorney and ACLU activist Ben Wizner affirms these numbers and remarks that his client is indeed living off of non-university speaking engagements to corporate institutions abroad, and is represented by the American Program Bureau, the same institution that represents most American celebrities. 

To be sure, not all college students swoon for Snowden. But detractors rarely come out to see him. Stanford University student James Stephens — the only one willing to be named — who recently wrote an article entitled “Edward Snowden: Not a Hero” in the student newspaper The Stanford Daily, did not attend Snowden’s Stanford appearance.  

Stephens fears no repercussions seeing his name in print alongside Snowden’s:   

I am comfortable in coming out against the way in which Snowden disclosed as much information as he did. From both the operational harm he caused and his undemocratic decision, we cannot discern how thoughtful he was in dumping all of this information.  

Students interviewed at state and community colleges in California, Arizona, Virginia, and Texas often articulate a position similar to Stephens’s, but don’t want their names mentioned alongside Snowden’s. Most of these students obtain their information from recorded interviews on the web, or to a lesser extent from Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary on Snowden’s interviews with investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill. Some students know of the documentary’s availability, but unless they’re fans, they don’t want to pay the $14.99 to download it from Amazon. 

Many observers who are wary of speaking about Snowden nevertheless approve of his message. Asked what students should do to improve their privacy, Snowden responds:  

The internet used to be a place where anyone could say anything and not fear repercussions. Students can restore that by building new platforms and better encryption. 

Not merely an internet nostalgist, however, Snowden would like to be known as the person who stood up against US post-9/11 surveillance practices and as a role model to future whistleblowers.  

Indeed, Snowden flung the doors wide open on public discussions of privacy and the internet. His legacy was clear at the Bard College “Why Privacy Matters” conference, which featured prominent speakers whose careers have one way or another been shaped by Snowden, including Ben Wizner. Senior editor from The Intercept Peter Maass interviewed Snowden. Fritz Schwarz of the historic Church Commission took student questions about information before and after 9/11. Kate Crawford asked questions about the sort of ethical education computer science students should receive. Jeremy Waldron argued for “an accountable, open” surveillance, which allows people to talk back to and cooperate with government agencies. Astrophysicist and sci-fi author David Brin took the radical position that students and the general public at large should fight surveillance with their own cameras, as people have in the Black Lives Matter movement. Brin describes this kind of grassroots, defensive surveillance as “sousveillance.” 

Sousveillance appeals to students of all stripes. In fact, when the Bard College Debate Union invited the West Point Debate Society to debate the question of surveillance, both sides argued that surveillance could become an instrument of the public as well as the government, and could protect “black and brown bodies, the LBGTQ community and other vulnerable populations.” West Point debaters on both sides of the debate reminded the audience that this debate was purely educational and did not reflect the opinions of the United States or its military.  

Snowden disagrees with sousveillance: “We don’t need a surveillance arms race; we need to protect individual privacy.” 

Bard students defended grassroots public surveillance as a tactic against the elite (an elite to which institutions like Bard, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton also belong). Snowden didn’t budge much here. 

So, when college students ask Snowden for suggestions on how to best serve the privacy of the public, his answer was already well prepared for an audience of young admirers who have no ambitions of fleeing to Russia:  

There are many ways not to cooperate when you see something is wrong. Use Tor and SignalApp. When enough people resist and share their ideas constructively, the value of mass surveillance declines.  

These are nice-sounding words, but they amount to little more than a very vague call to action. Likewise, so is Snowden’s declaration: “It’s time to democratize privacy, privacy is not something just the elite should enjoy.” How can privacy be democratized?  

Many approve of Snowden’s whistleblowing but not of his blanket revelations. Students also disagree with his position that since the NSA won’t change, the only solution is to build better technologies. Most doubt that technology alone will return privacy to individuals. But if Snowden can point the way to cooperative action, they are willing to listen.  

“I’m not Snowden,” asserts a Stanford University sophomore computer science major. “Nor do I want to suffer like Chelsea Manning has. As a woman of color in the high tech industry, I know I’m vulnerable. But at least there’s a growing national discussion on privacy and the rights of whistleblowers. I just can’t step into the light on this.”  

“I don’t identify with Snowden,” says Bard graduate Tekendra Parmar.  

He’s a military brat with an almost religious reverence for the Constitution. I’m not American and don’t share in this reverence. But I do believe in the purity of his values and think he is one of the most eloquent speakers on the right to privacy today. I think the recent news of the EU resolution highlights the difference between how Europeans and the United States view the right to privacy. Hence they have no problem calling Snowden an “international human rights defender” — which I think is great. 

Parmar refers here to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects an individual’s “private and family life, his home and his correspondence,” and has thus far upheld privacy cases in Europe in civil rights, gender, and surveillance cases. Clearly, Europe — especially Germany, with its recent memory of the once dreaded East German police, the Stasi, and all their informants — is uneasy with a surveillance that can poison both public and private spheres.   

Snowden can appear to Europeans as that Socrates willing to defy the mighty Athens in all of its contradictions. Were he really Socrates, though, he’d come back to the US, but this will not be the safest route for him. Nor may Europe be either.  

“Ideally,” says an Arizona State University senior, “I’d like to see Obama pardon Snowden, so he can come back to teach at a university. Believe me, he’d fill a stadium.”


Ruth Starkman teaches at Stanford University and writes on ethics, higher education, and Middle East politics.

LARB Contributor

Ruth Starkman teaches at Stanford University and writes on ethics, higher education, and Middle East politics.


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