Wednesday night saw the premiere of NBC’s “Inside Snowden” exclusive interview, which America’s TV watchers considered, if their viewing numbers are any indication, “just barely less interesting than a rerun of CSI.”
But one thing left me baffled: Why is NBC’s framing of this issue coming down to the blindingly simple question of “traitor” or “patriot”? (“Do you view former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as a #Patriot or a #Traitor? Post your message on Twitter using the appropriate hashtag and check back here to see what others are saying,” the website urges.)
I don’t think this issue is exactly served by shouting, “Pick a team! Pick a team!” Look at the tangle so far.
If you don’t have time to watch “Rashomon,” just read the coverage of Edward Snowden, and you’ll be fine. He, and the news he generated, have always been a minefield of contradictions: Did his information help shed needed sunshine into the workings of U.S. intelligence- and data-gathering? Or did it irreparably jeopardize current operations and put personnel at risk? Does it matter, in answering the first question, whether he personally is a “grandiose narcissist” or a “national hero“? If the information he provided was valuable enough to the public debate to earn a Pulitzer, why is it bad that he put it out there? Did he do the right thing for the right reasons, the wrong thing for the right reasons, the — well, you see where this is going. It’s, in a Facebook status, complicated.
But no. Traitor, or patriot?
Patriot! (Yay!) Traitor! (Boo!) Tiny American flags for some, stern disapproving frowns for others. And hashtags, hashtags, hashtags toward freedom!
I realize that the gross oversimplication of complex issues is something of a national pastime, along with overeating and pretending that scientific facts are up for debate. Blue team or red team? With us or against us? Traitor or patriot?
But even the definition of “patriot” has some quibble-worthy areas embedded in it. Online, Merriam Webster defines a patriot as either “a person who loves and strongly supports or fights for his or her country” or “one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests.” Well, what if supporting its authority and supporting its interests don’t line up? That’s certainly Snowden’s sense of what he did. “I mean, I’ve from day one said that I’m doing this to serve my country,” he told Williams.
What if his sense of what he did and its actual consequences don’t line up? “Leave it to history to tell. What I did, I did well. And I did it for my country. Let them cry, ‘Dirty traitor!’ They will understand it later,” sings one character in Sondheim’s “Assassins”: John Wilkes Booth.
“My country, right or wrong,” G. K. Chesterton wrote, “is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.'”
Ambrose Bierce had a similarly jaundiced view, calling a patriot “the dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.”
Good thing they didn’t have to navigate this hashtag. Does this question really get at anything other than how Snowden seems to feel about what he did? What is it actually shedding light on?
As someone who’s constructed an online poll or two in my time, I can see the temptation of shunting everyone onto Team Patriot and Team Traitor. Later the Patriot-colored knight can joust with the Traitor-colored knight and we can all eat turkey legs and cheer. “Tune in tomorrow night when Ryan Seacrest reveals votes of judges and your texts and announces whether Snowden is a #patriot or #traitor!” as @pourmecoffee quipped on Twitter.
Some things come down into simple dichotomies — paper or plastic, black or white, any issue being discussed by a Sith lord. I don’t think this is served by being one of them.