How to Watch Citizenfour Without Losing Hope
Snowden’s story — and the fact that it moves us — is reason to believe in a better future
Yesterday, my wife and I squeezed into a sold-out matinee of Citizenfour, the film by Laura Poitras telling the story of Edward Snowden’s NSA leak. The film, filmed as the story develops, as Poitras was one of the two journalists (Glenn Greenwald the other) that Snowden brought into the story to tell the story, is the most hopeful fact about our democracy that exists anywhere today.
It’s not hopeful on the facts: The story it tells, familiar to anyone who has followed this closely (but recognize, that’s about 5% of America, if that) is incredible. Whether or not the United States Supreme Court would uphold as constitutional the behavior of our government (and ever the optimist, I don’t believe it would), what is absolutely clear is the complete failure of democratic process. The administration lied to Congress; it conspired with foreign governments to construct the Stasi’s wet-dream of a world surveillance system. And now, with no sanction from any democratic decision by any democracy anywhere, we have a world wired for the watchers. Yes, the terrorists are terrible. But when exactly did America vote to repeal the fundamental ideals of privacy and liberty in order to get the terrorists? We didn’t in 2004 (remember, the New York Times kept from us the fact that Bush had begun the surveillance system that Obama has now perfected). We didn’t in 2008 (the film opens with Greenwald recounting Obama’s promise to restore the rule of law, not double down on Chenyism). We didn’t in 2012 (that election was more about whether the 47% were citizens or not, not whether we still had a constitution). Snowden’s aim was to get us to see just how far our government had strayed. Finally, we have a use for that absurd battleship banner: “Mission Accomplished.”
Nor is the film hopeful for this President, or any other public figure on the side of the surveillance state. Snowden kills it in this film. Of course, we’ve seen edited bits before: His initial interview when he came out of hiding; a few video interviews he’s given since. What has been striking about all of these is the calm and balance and basic brilliance of this incredible soul. In my interview (difficult because so difficult to achieve interactive engagement with the 7k mile lag), my aim was to make clear just how narrow Snowden’s justification for the act of disobedience is — and yet, even justified so narrowly, it justified what he did. All the facts before this film pointed to a balanced, and reasoned, and incredibly careful citizen, acting on his oath, as he understood it, to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
But now we see a broader picture of Edward Snowden. We see him in the middle of the anxiety about what’s about to happen as the story unfolds; we see him suffering the pain of recognizing the anxiety he has created for those he loves; we see him explaining himself, patiently and calmly, yet with recognition that everything he’s doing is about ending his own life. I can’t believe that anyone watching this film will come away doubting the integrity of this American, whether they like what he did or not. And integrity is all that matters in a fight like this. He has it. Our government doesn’t.
So where then is the hope? The most striking fact about this film is that 500 people were sitting in a theater in the middle of (MIT’s half of) Cambridge watching it. There could be no better testimony to the potential we still have than this. If the ultra-conspiracy theorists were right, this film would not exist. But it does exist. And it will spread as widely as the market allows — protected from the government by a norm of free speech that apparently still lives.
Greenwald made the strategic decisions that have made this reality possible (that story isn’t told here, but is elsewhere); the ACLU plays a critical role too (also underplayed in the film, and also told elsewhere).
But that this film is playing is the reason there is hope.
There will be plenty who will continue to hate Edward Snowden. There will be plenty who will continue to justify a system that would prosecute him, but not the officials who blatantly lied.
But there is a core who will be moved. And I suspect that if you are a public official on the wrong side of this fight, that core will stand against you. They are young. They still believe. They will catch all the internal references (the EFF sticker; Cory Doctorow’s book). And so far, when they have turned out, they have won.
There is a corruption at the core of our democracy: our democracy rests on ideals; it needs leaders who believe in those ideals; yet ours are “a priesthood that [has] lost their faith [but] kept their jobs.”
They don’t believe in representative democracy any more. That’s why we have the corruption I call Tweedism.
Nor do they believe in liberty anymore. That’s why we have the story told in this film.
But we can see this film.
Which means we may still have the power to do something about it.
Which means there still is a reason to try.
Someday, we will look back and see how free society was reborn in the streets of Hong Kong. First Snowden, then the Umbrella Movement, and then the recognition of how both are the very same fight.
This originally appeared on Lessig Blog, v.2