It’s fun to imagine that Edward Snowden has a “We the People” shower curtain. It’s even more fun to imagine that he sat in front of that shower curtain Monday during a video conference with South by Southwest Interactive, Austin’s annual festival for thought leaders and product pushers and tech idealists. Snowden appeared from Russia on giant video screens in the Austin Convention Center for a “virtual conversation” with a couple thousand festival goers.
Behind him on the screen? The first bit of the U.S. Constitution, preamble and Article I, with his head obscuring the middle part of “We the People.” Alas, it was not a shower curtain, or a beach towel, or a patriotic blankie. Snowden had rigged a fabric green screen at his undisclosed location and flipped on the familiar image before the Google Hangout began with Austin.
“I hate to disappoint people who think that’s the wallpaper in the embassy safe house,” says Snowden’s lawyer, the ACLU’s Ben Wizner, who notes that his client is a “remarkable technologist.” (Hey, if you’re capable of gaming a superpower’s national security apparatus, then you should be able to employ a trick used by local weathermen.)
Regardless, in his first direct conversation with his fellow citizens, Snowden chose to frame himself with the founding document of the nation that has charged him with theft and espionage.
“I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Snowden said, “and I saw that the Constitution was violated on a massive scale” through improper interpretations of its amendment on searches and seizures.
The image he used, though, is an embellishment of the parchment preserved in the National Archives — it’s not what the actual Constitution looks like. “We the People,” behind Snowden, is not an initial flourish on the left-hand margin but a banner headline that spans the width of the document and, therefore, bookends his head.
Look up the Constitution in Google Images, or in any popular representation, and you’ll see similar exaggerations of the preamble for effect. This tradition goes back to 18th-century newspapers, which printed the text of the Constitution without being able to see what the original signed document looked like. For example, The Pennsylvanian Packet, on Sept. 19, 1787, ran the preamble several font sizes larger than the ensuing constitutional articles, notes Yale University law professor Akhil Reed Amar, author of “America’s Constitution: A Biography” and “America’s Unwritten Constitution.”
“My claim is The Pennsylvania Packet didn’t want to ‘bury the lede,’” Amar says of the enlargement. “It’s not just about what would look good, and no one told them to do that. That’s bottom-up democratic culture in the printing age.”
Snowden is the latest in a long line of iconoclasts, elected officials and movements that have used the Constitution as a prop — both physically and symbolically. Both the tea party and Snowden use “We the People” as a large-font rallying cry. In 1854 the abolitionist and newspaper publisher William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution in public because he thought it was corrupt. In 1974, during a House committee hearing on the impeachment of Richard Nixon, Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) referred to the Constitution 15 times in less than 15 minutes for dramatic effect.
“If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here,” Jordan said, “then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder.”
The document is eminently quotable, flammable and suitable for any number of scenarios or presentations, including as a set piece at a 21st-century tech conference. Snowden rigged his green screen to claim co-ownership of — and sanctuary in — a populist document that begins with the first-person plural: “We.” This image of fugitive against founding document, though, presents a fundamental constitutional discordance, Professor Amar says.
“Someone who really understands ‘we the people’ should come before the American people and make his case to a jury,” he says. “I like his claiming [of the Constitution], but if he really claims it, he should come back here and make his case on American soil.”
More video: Snowden says former NSA director Michael Hayden and current NSA director Keith Alexander have harmed both U.S. Internet security and national security.