A Genuine Hero

The following is a brief excerpt from a story by Rebecca Stolnit. I found it on a website called TomDispatch, dated July 18th. For me Snowden is one of the few people who truly define the word hero. He gave up everything and now has the most powerful country on earth trying, vainly so far, to get its hands on him. He did what he believed was right knowing that his government would kill him in a heartbeat. He did what he did without knowing if anyone in the world would or could protect him. He gives meaning to the word courage.

Dear Edward Snowden,

Billions of us, from prime ministers to hackers, are watching a live espionage movie in which you are the protagonist and perhaps the sacrifice. Your way forward is clear to no one, least of all, I’m sure, you.

I fear for you; I think of you with a heavy heart. I imagine hiding you like Anne Frank. I imagine Hollywood movie magic in which a young lookalike would swap places with you and let you flee to safety — if there is any safety in this world of extreme rendition and extrajudicial execution by the government that you and I were born under and that you, until recently, served. I fear you may pay, if not with your death, with your life — with a life that can have no conventional outcome anytime soon, if ever. “Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped,” you told us, and they are trying to stop you instead.

I am moved by your choice of our future over yours, the world over yourself. You know what few do nowadays: that the self is not the same as self-interest. You are someone who is smart enough, idealistic enough, bold enough to know that living with yourself in a system of utter corruption would destroy that self as an ideal, as something worth being. Doing what you’ve done, on the other hand, would give you a self you could live with, even if it gave you nowhere to live or no life. Which is to say, you have become a hero.

Pity the country that requires a hero, Bertolt Brecht once remarked, but pity the heroes too. They are the other homeless, the people who don’t fit in. They are the ones who see the hardest work and do it, and pay the price we charge those who do what we can’t or won’t. If the old stories were about heroes who saved us from others, modern heroes — Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Rachel Carson, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi — endeavored to save us from ourselves, from our own governments and systems of power.

The rest of us so often sacrifice that self and those ideals to fit in, to be part of a cannibal system, a system that eats souls and defiles truths and serves only power. Or we negotiate quietly to maintain an uneasy distance from it and then go about our own business. Though in my world quite a few of us strike our small blows against empire, you, young man, you were situated where you could run a dagger through the dragon’s eye, and that dragon is writhing in agony now; in that agony it has lost its magic: an arrangement whereby it remains invisible while making the rest of us ever more naked to its glaring eye.

Comments | 4

  • Hero with a 1000 faces

    Expanding on the hero theme, Snowden’s actions bring to mind Prometheus’ theft of fire. This act is often characterized as the catalyst for the birth of civilization. A deed for which Prometheus was chained to a rock forever, his liver pecked each day by eagles.

    The tale relates that each day his liver was eaten, grew back overnight, only to be eaten again the next day. An apt metaphor for exile. Prometheus was chained to the rock for all time, but was rescued by Hercules.

    One version of the myth, also applicable here and now, has it that the gift of fire was already given by the Gods, and then taken back by the capriciousness of Zeus. So, Prometheus stole for all mankind what was already given.

    An interesting question for scholars and pundits- were the Greeks as indifferent to the fate of he who acted for their benefit as it seems Americans are to Snowden’s plight?

    • Liver & Onions

      Gives the query “What am I — chopped liver?!?” a whole new meaning, eh.

      • Did He Think It Out Correctly?

        One talking point I’ve heard about Snowden was that he didn’t think this out very well, given how it has ended up for him. This is based on the assumption that he should have been thinking about what was best for Edward Snowden and acted accordingly (and screw the constitution, presumably).

        What I find heroic about Snowden is that he is a smart guy who looked at Bradley Manning’s situation and thought about what Manning’s experience meant for him (Snowden). He knew very well what the result was going to be for him. I’m sure he had no idea he was going to be trapped in the Moscow airport for a month, but he knew he was going to be on the run.

        Snowden’s act has also brought to light other whistle blowers (such as Thomas Andrews Drake) that I did not know about or had forgotten about. The information Snowden has revealed is damning to the government because he has sourced it so well, but also because it confirms what the early whistle blowers revealed.

  • Would we do it?

    I’m sure many of us have been in situations in which speaking up and speaking out might not be in our best personal interest. I can think of a few examples:

    – speaking up for civil rights in the late 50’s and early 60’s, risking beatings or arrest
    – speaking out about injustices at work, when it might cost you your job
    – speaking up about starting a union, when management is against the idea
    – defending the first amendment, when the speech being defended is disagreeable
    – telling the crowd the emperor has no clothes, when the crowd likes the emperor’s clothes

    Usually when one chooses one of these paths, it isn’t so much a choice as a thing that must be done. Situations bubble up, we learn things, and we cannot forget them. Our actions are informed by what we know.

    I’ve heard people say (regarding NSA spying) that there is nothing we can do, and that we better watch what we say or we’ll be on some list deserving of extra spying. People are afraid to speak in America. They are now fearful of standing up for themselves and others. It’s quite a stunning era for a country that likes to celebrate its independence and freedom.

    Luckily, not everyone is afraid and not everyone shuts up just because the government and cooperating corporations would find it more convenient.

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