Patriotism and Edward Snowden

Wait! I know, I know — another NSA leak commentary. What could there possibly be left to comment on, right?

Despite the rapid fire of coverage this story has received in the past few weeks and with the media’s emerging character assassination freight train moving ahead at full steam (and, worst of all, a disappointing 48% of Americans approving of the NSA’s program), it still seems necessary that we keep the important aspects of this story in the spotlight.

This post isn’t going to go much into the details of what was leaked, but with terms like “traitor” or “unpatriotic” or [insert empty nationalistic jibe here] being thrown around, I felt that it would be worthwhile to take a look at what exactly we mean when we say “patriot” or “traitor.”

When I say “patriotism” I don’t mean it in the sense that George Bernard Shaw meant when he said, “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” Indeed, this sentiment dies hard and I’m sure plenty see it as the purest definition of the term. It is my argument that this is actually a definition more appropriately attributed to nationalism, not patriotism — but more on this in a moment.

I’ll come right out and say it, I think Snowden is a patriot. His actions have done more in a couple weeks to open America’s eyes to the behemoth that lurks over them in Washington then arguably anything you or I have ever done. In this, he deserves infinite applause.

Yet, while he may have caught people’s attention, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he has convinced them that what the NSA has been doing is wrong — or that Snowden himself is in the right. I’m all for people paying attention, but we can’t just assume that they will up and become libertarians because they know the government is doing something that you or I disagree with.

So what is a patriot? Is it something we want to be? More importantly, how is a patriot different from a nationalist?

The way I see it, Americans, despite their incredible diversity, have at least one universal characteristic which unites them: history. Whatever your demographic background – whether race, age, sex, etc. — we all can look back to the times before us as a story which we all actively continue to shape and develop. It is in this, I think, that we can distinguish between the “patriot” and the “nationalist.” For what historical point is more applicable to every American than the story of her founding? By this, I do not mean merely the novel events like Washington crossing the Delaware or the Boston Tea Party. No, the most important historical point of America’s founding is the importance that higher ideals played in shaping the country that she was to become.

As Americans, we can look back to the classically liberal virtues enshrined in our founding documents — values such as individual liberty, the rule of law, equality under the law, personal freedom, etc. — and we can honestly hold them up and say, “these values are part of me.” We can all look to them as a shared identity.

If you know the history of America’s founding, then you know that it wasn’t “authority” for which Patrick Henry howled his support; it was not “government” which the founding generation bled and died for; they did not cast an “obedience bell” to hang in Independence Hall. The founders had a loftier object in mind; they sought more than a country which was absolutely secure. They sought to build a country upon the ideals of freedom and equality – and they became patriots as a result.

In short, my definition of a patriot is not one who seeks merely to promote the formal bureaucracies of the state and protect the apparatus of government from those who seek to undermine it with sunlight. Instead, a patriot is one who recognizes that “country” and “government” are not synonymous; that the higher ideals through which our country was birthed are what take precedence. The patriot, in America at least, clings to these principles even if they face the leviathan of the state in opposition.

The nationalist, then, is the opposite. Principles are not immutable; they mold and change depending on whatever the halls of authority decide are important. In other words, virtue requires an official stamp. Authority is the principle.

Snowden may not look at the situation in the same way that I do, but I think we’re in the same ballpark. He did say that he wanted information that would directly endanger people in the field to stay under wraps and I think, to this point, the case for his action being one of civil disobedience becomes very strong. He had a point he was trying to make and he felt that he was stepping up to the plate to inform us where our system was unable to.

Yeah, I think I’m okay calling him a patriot (come get some, NSA!).

However, while I applaud his actions, the fact that at least 48% of Americans do not is such a disappointment. I honestly don’t know why they’d take that position. Perhaps that even though we have the smoking gun evidence, the scope of the program is so large that people can’t really comprehend how insane it is. Perhaps the lack of direct, noticeable involvement is to blame; that until some average Joe American is the one that is directly targeted, then they’re oblivious to the implications or they just don’t care.

The cynic in me makes me think its something even more pernicious. Since the story broke, people have been throwing around words like 1984 and Orwellian. While they are absolutely appropriate, I think a more important theme of 1984 is being overlooked. There is a moment towards the end of the novel where the main character is being tortured by an agent of the Party. The antagonist repeatedly asks, “What does 2 + 2 equal?” The protagonist answers, again and again, “4,” and each time he tortured more and more. Eventually he breaks and answers, “5,” but the torturing continues. The villain does not want him to just answer “5” in order to stop the pain because he’ll still believe the answer is “4.” Eventually, the protagonist answers, “5” not because he is in pain, but because he actually believes that 2 + 2 equals 5.

My pessimistic side can’t help but see this as the real reason why so many Americans are okay with the NSA’s program and, really, the post-9/11 society in general. It goes deeper than fear of terrorism and a desire for security; we have been so immersed in the culture of PATRIOT Act America, where authority is the only reality we can stomach, that we honestly believe that this perverted, warped vision of America is the only one we can have. In 1984, the Party could get the people to believe that war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength – in our world they’ve made us believe that our rights don’t even matter.

So I guess the real question we should ask ourselves is not if Snowden is a patriot, but if we are.

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