Snowden is no saviour or saint
The Australian, 14 June 2013
IN 24 hours, Edward Snowden has gone from being a former contract worker at America’s National Security Agency to a godlike figure who has apparently “saved us” from “the United Stasi of America”. It’s the religious terminology that is striking.
For leaking info about how the NSA keeps tabs on the communications of US and foreign citizens, Snowden has been referred to not only as a saviour but also as a “martyr”. He’s praised for revealing to us, the sleeping ones, “the truth” about our world.
His codename in his dealings with hacks was Verax, Latin for “one who tells the truth” and a recurring word in the writings of old-world Catholic scholars on the lives of the saints and seers. If Snowden possesses Christ’s capacity for “saving” people, he lacks his humility.
As befits a modern-day truth teller, Snowden has been beatified by the guardians of liberal values. The Guardian plastered his picture across its front page, taking the very unusual step of moving its masthead down and replacing it with the words: “The whistleblower”. This wasn’t news reporting; it was an invitation to readers to look into the eyes of St Snowden, the latest in a line of brave revealers of liberal gospel, who, according to one Guardian columnist, has carried out “extraordinary human acts” and showed “an endless willingness to self-sacrifice”, just like You Know Who.
The creepy Jesus allusions are even more apparent in the Twittersphere, where Snowden is referred to as saviour, martyr, even “libertarian messiah”.
This reveals a great deal about the increasingly irrational worship of whistleblowers, which speaks to the profound passivity and deep moral lassitude of modern journalism and radical politics, whose practitioners seem content to have the truth revealed to them from on high rather than uncover it themselves.
Even worse, the cult of the whistleblower reveals how widespread the conspiratorial mindset has become, and how commonplace it now is to believe that the world is governed by dark, unknowable actors, even by machine-like “networks” that we have no hope of challenging unless a detractor from “the network” comes to enlighten us about our own repression.
Snowden isn’t the first whistleblower to be beatified by the section of society that scoffs at people who believe in saints and gods. Bradley Manning has been turned into a semi-religious icon. A new, highly praised book about him is called The Passion of Bradley Manning. It seems everyone needs a Christ, even the fashionably atheistic set. The book refers to Manning as “an icon and martyr”, even a “patron saint of the Occupy Wall Street movement”. It compares him to St Thomas Aquinas, claiming he embodies Section 158 of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, which calls for “righteous anger at injustice and evil”.
It claims there’s widespread “wilful ignorance” among “working-class people” and “those without formal schooling”, but also in the upper echelons of government.
Wikileaks’ head honcho, Julian Assange, was also treated as a secular messiah before his spectacular fall from favour among the opinion-forming set. Guardian journalists described him as a mix of “Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela”. Assange was also labelled a possessor of “the truth”, come to enlighten mankind. One conspiracy theory website claimed: “Just like Jesus of Nazareth, Julian Assange had a mission to reveal the truth.”
The borderline medieval elevation of the whistleblower is a depressing sign of the times. First, it reveals a profound slack in modern journalism. Journalists are losing their dirt-digging drive and becoming grateful recipients of discs or graphs from disgruntled individuals. Indeed, some of the claims about the NSA are now being called into question, which suggests that getting mere info from one man is no substitute for spending a long time looking for a story, and then discussing it, checking it, contextualising it and making it something bigger than simply, “Look at what was whispered in my ear.”
The cult of the whistleblower also casts a harsh light on modern-day radicalism. The reliance of everyone from anti-war activists to civil liberties agitators on the revelations of One Brave Man speaks to an increasingly elitist politics, which treats social change as something to be brought about by tiny numbers of brave individuals in the face of general stupidity.
Worst of all, the cult of the whistleblower reveals the mainstreaming of conspiratorial thinking, of the belief that dark forces rule over a weak and emaciated public that is kept in blissful ignorance. The crossover between respectable worshippers of whistleblowers and irrational purveyors of crank theories is great.
The Guardian has a list of “brave whistleblowers” that includes Annie Machon, formerly of MI5 and now a notorious 9/11 “truther”. Assange has written cranky essays with titles such as “Conspiracy as governance”. And a top Guardian columnist says the Snowden revelations “seem to confirm all the old bug-eyed conspiracy theories about governments and corporations colluding to enslave the rest of us”.
That’s the real impact of the cult of the whistleblower: the further promotion that evil networks control the unenlightened horde. Yes, there are numerous attacks on our civil liberties but we are more than capable of seeing who is carrying them out without a secular icon of “truth” to hold our hands or massage our allegedly tiny minds.
Read more of my articles for The Australian and other publications here.