Let’s make one thing perfectly clear as we begin: Edward Snowden is an American hero. You may feel differently about the subject of Edward Snowden than I do. If so, I’m going to advise you that you’re perfectly welcome to read the rest of this book review, but it’s probably going to make you mad. I’m probably not going to change your mind and you’re probably not going to change mine.
But to reiterate: as far as I’m concerned, it is an absolute truth that Edward Snowden is a hero and will eventually go down in American history as a hero. When he leaked those National Security Agency documents, he was revealing the greatest secret in the world. It quickly became apparent to everyone that America was spying on everyone: allies, law-abiding citizens, innocents, criminals, other governments, other American government agencies. People may have suspected this in the years since 9/11, but Snowden supplied proof - sickening, concrete proof - that their suspicions were correct.
In the time since Snowden’s revelation, Americans divided into several factions: you have the people who are upset about NSA wiretapping and attendant unconstitutional programs, the people who see it as a necessary evil, and the people who just don’t care. Sadly, the latter group seems to be the largest, and apathy seems to have won the day. The NSA isn’t even a major issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, and polling indicates that the American people don’t seem to think it deserves to be a major issue.
But apathy always dominates nationwide polling. The truth is, only a small number of Americans are at any time interested in politics, and those Americans tend to care enough for the rest of the population. This is where a representative government really shines. I truly believe that one day Snowden’s revelations will bring about a massive change in the way this data is collected and handled, and it will work like this: a handful of young people will be so outraged by what they’ve learned about the government that they will get involved in politics. They’ll run for office themselves, or they’ll take jobs in government, and they’ll chip away at the NSA until these wiretapping privileges are revoked.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t give the rest of us a pass; we need to keep agitating against wiretapping and data collection laws, and keeping Snowden’s revelations alive, to give time for those political operatives to get their work done. That’s where book like cartoonist Ted Rall’s Snowden comes in.
Snowden is a comic-book biography of Edward Snowden, and Rall makes no attempts toward objectivity; he, too, believes that Snowden is a patriot and a hero. It’s a blocky blue plug of a book, and it’s tenacious in the story it tells. Rall has smartly devised Snowden to be a primer for people who know little to nothing about Edward Snowden. In this way it’s a book that doubles as a political act of protest, a call-to-arms. But even people who have been following the story from the very first day Glenn Greenwald launched it into the public conversation will find plenty to learn from the way Rall constructs his argument.
Rall begins by describing the security state described in George Orwell’s 1984. If we were solely concerned with literary criticism, here, we might call the comparison a cliché; a vast majority of news reports about the NSA over the last few years has included a 1984 mention. But because Rall is dealing with reportage, another cliché comes to his rescue: just because something is a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true. The 1984 analogy fits perfectly; it’s downright eerie, in fact, how well the novel works as an explanation of what the government has done to its citizens.
Before Rall can introduce the man on the cover of the book, he has to establish exactly what it is the NSA does. He accomplishes this by listing all the various programs that are often described as “NSA wiretapping,” usually on a single page with lots of text and an illustration: on one page, a shirtless man is in an embrace with a woman on a couch. On the end table, there’s a phone, its screen dead. Rall explains, “The agency can use your smartphone to track your movements and listen to conversations in your home, even if your phone is powered down to ‘off.’” Then, as a punchline, he offers the program’s real name: “Captivated Audience.” Elsewhere, he says the post office “scans and stores the 160 billion pieces of mail sent by Americans every year.”
Though very little of Snowden is rendered in traditional comics format - it’s more like an ongoing monologue with one illustration per page, not a series of panels with word balloons and captions - Rall masterfully employs the juxtaposition of words and pictures to evoke a reaction from the reader, which is to say it’s an excellent use of comics. Rall’s rough art style is not for everyone. He’s taken heat for illustrating President Obama in an unflattering light that some interpreted as apelike. But the truth is, none of his drawings are flattering.
The illustration of Snowden on the cover is as close to a highly rendered portrait I’ve seen from Rall, and it’s doubtful that most people would be able to recognize it as Edward Snowden without the word SNOWDEN printed above it in large white letters. Inside, Snowden appears more like a typical Rall man - a doltish-looking figure with an enormous nose, a Homer Simpson-style protruding upper lip, and a tiny pair of eyes. (This is not to say that Rall draws everyone alike; whereas most of his men have tiny dumb dots for eyes, Rall’s interpretation of Snowden’s eyes are flat and thin, and they peer about suspiciously.) The intentional crudeness of the art helps the damning complexity of the words sink in.
Rall tells the Snowden story with more than a little sense of awe. He wonders several times in the narrative what makes him so special, why Snowden would leak the information when thousands of other people did not. Was it his dedication to the Boy Scouts? His libertarian leanings? A sense of fairness learned from video games? He doesn’t come to any conclusions, but the questions lead to a conclusion of their own: Snowden is absolutely special, Rall is saying. He’s a unique figure in American history.
And though many regard him as a hero, it’s unclear what Snowden’s future holds, or what the impact of his revelations will be. Rall informs us that if Snowden were to stand trial in America, even though his “revelations are all over the internet,” all the information he has released is still technically classified, which means “a jury wouldn’t get to see them or hear testimony about NSA spying against America.” Further, Snowden’s duties as an NSA and CIA contractor are all still classified” and...
“...a trial wouldn’t be televised, so he wouldn’t be able to argue his case to the American people. A trial would focus on one question: Did Snowden break the law? The verdict was a foregone conclusion: guilty.
And so here we are. Rall’s vision of the future is fairly dark. I tend to believe that things will get better incrementally. Neither one of us thinks Snowden will be setting foot in America again anytime soon, and if he does, he certainly won’t receive the hero’s welcome that he deserves.
So what is there to do? If you’re an American citizen who’s outraged by Snowden’s revelations it’s easy to feel helpless. Everyone tells you to vote - and you absolutely should vote - but often both names on the ballot are candidates who favor the continuation of the surveillance state. The media seems to have moved on from Edward Snowden to more pressing issues, like the Donald Trump candidacy. What’s left?
Rall seems to have made Snowden out of a profound sense of duty, even patriotism. You get the sense that he crafted his argument to address all the criticisms of what Snowden did and why he did it, to change hearts and minds, to turn the inactive toward action. And he did that by using his talents to keep the story alive, to keep the name in circulation. In short, he’s doing everything he can do as a citizen to let people know he cares about this issue and he’s not going tot shut up about it. We can all learn from Rall’s example and use our voices to pass the message on, any way that we can.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant