“I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don’t realize it.”
— Edward Snowden
Can Snowden, striking as he does at the heart of our system of governance be a loyal patriot? Can he be anything else?
For most of history, being opposed to the government was treachery.
The more munificent of the empires of time could allow for a bit of disagreement here and there, but the majority were compelled, sometimes by their own laws, to torture dissenters and put them to death. Law has never been a natural function of justice, but of organized force. Placing justice above that force was a relatively recent societal innovation. In most of history, the elites and kings represented what was right, and made law. By definition, disagreement was illegal and wrong.
Democracy was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be more flexible, not just for the benefit of the dissenters, but to keep the whole project from spiraling into the kind of craziness that caused empires and great nations to rot, fail, and fall from within. The rule of law became justice as it represented the needs of people, not just the majority, but of wisdom and progress — a balancing of thought and time.
History taught us opposition was not only a right, but the only quality that kept power sane. As power devolved to populations over the last few centuries, and higher rates of literacy let many wise people compare the present to the past, cultures came to understand how often those who disagreed with power were not only right, but often trying to avert a disaster so complete that it would cost a nation its very self.
Dissent needed a place of honor at the table, no matter how hard that was to sit with.
In the slow and difficult civilizing of political discourse that has accompanied democratic history, governments had to find ways of describing the political opposition other than as traitor. A term born in Victorian Britain made this point elegantly: Her Majesty's loyal opposition. It was the term for those who departed from the prevailing opinion, a term that acknowledged that disagreement, even disagreement you take action on, was not treason.
If Parliament is to be preserved as a living institution His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition must fearlessly perform its functions. When it properly discharges them the preservation of our freedom is assured. The reading of history proves that freedom always dies when criticism ends. It upholds and maintains the rights of minorities against majorities. It must be vigilant against oppression and unjust invasions by the Cabinet of the rights of the people… It finds fault; it suggests amendments; it asks questions and elicits information; it arouses, educates and molds public opinion by voice and vote. It must scrutinize every action by the government and in doing so prevents the short-cuts through democratic procedure that governments like to make.
— Canadian Prime Minister, John G. Diefenbaker, 1949.
The Loyal Opposition says to us: we can disagree and be on the same side in a greater sense. And perhaps the most important feature of the Loyal Opposition is that it reminds us of the greater sense.
For the last 40 years, the American parties have steadily polarized on every issue. They goad each other, call each other traitor, and behave without honor in a winner-takes-all politics reminiscent of the late hours of corrupt dynasties.
This idea of a common fate that is greater than our immediate political battles is lost in our America. Instead our politicians stumble blindly into the future like brawlers on a cliff's edge.
In a country where you are either with us or with the terrorists, there is no space for a loyal opposition. There is no enfranchisement of the shadow government, and all forces push in one direction. Without a loyal opposite you end up with insanities no one can really support, but are politically impossible to back down on. Out of control prisons, failed drug policy, endless wars. Failed social services and banks that can't be prosecuted -- all these are what happens without a loyal opposition. Life becomes an endless state of exception no one can question in anything but cosmetic ways.
Today the only real political opposition comes from the internet. It was the net that killed SOPA, it was the net that killed ACTA. The net was pivotal in the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and the halting and difficult rebirth of feminism and queer activism we are at the start of.
The net's strange aggregation of attention is pushing back on both the good and the bad. The net has made opposition incorporate and omnipresent. Not all the opposition is loyal, much of it is just screaming.
Dissent, lacking its seat at the table of power, has become the air itself.
In Edward Snowden’s careful comportment, America finds its loyal opposition -- the honorable opponent with the goal of the common good. His loyalty is demonstrated by his choice of curation and publication. If he were a disloyal servant of either Russia or China we would never have heard of him. That he lives abroad now reflects terribly on the leadership of America -- our critics must hide behind uncooperative powers now, instead of taking their rightful seats at the tables in Washington DC.
Starved of real criticism our freedom is slowly dying, and our Congress is less and less a living institution.
Right now, Snowden is our national shame. The Snowden revelations shouldn't have happened. They shouldn't have been necessary. We shouldn't have to depend on one smart young man giving up his life for our accountability. We should all be ashamed that Snowden is our Loyal Opposition. That he had to do what he did is our failure as a nation. But for now, until we have reinstated the Loyal Opposition to their rightful seats of power, we should honor Snowden as the Loyal Opposition, and remember that we are still a lucky country.
Without a vibrant opposition the best one can hope for is Edward Snowden.