In America, we love our antiheroes and hate our snitches. The same people who harbor these emotions can direct them to singular people in the public eye, therefore proving our own deeply entrenched bi-polarity. There are tons of examples. Edward Snowden may be only the latest, but he is also the poster-child for this type of schism.
To preface, there is a phrase I hate particularly because it means virtually nothing and yet is spat out like it is important and meaningful. That is, “speak truth to power.” What exactly does that mean? Well, as I can interpret it, it means that we recognize power and the powerful live in an information vacuum. They are so insulated that it isn’t that they don’t want to know what’s actually going on in the world, but that they can’t. That’s the point of power. You create your own universe and everything within it adjusts accordingly to your rules. So to “speak truth to power” is to attempt to break through the self imposed prison of acoustic foam padding to say, “it ain’t necessarily so.”
Most people do not take kindly to having their carefully manufactured personal universes punctured. Therefore, depending on how you feel about these things, speaking truth to power means you’ve either got the brass balls to step up to the fire-breathing dragon and call him out, or you are a malcontent with a flamethrower on your back lighting things up with no regard to the ways things get done around here.
And then there are the aspects of the antihero that we as Americans just adore. We love that our forefathers left the oppression of the British Empire to strike out on our own, often carefully disregarding that we were as oppressive to the black slaves we held as chattel. We at first loved the idea of New York’s subway vigilante Bernard Goetz, taking the law into his own hands after being harrassed and mugged one too many times. The details that came out later about the incidents were more difficult to neatly file among the black hats vs. white hats. In fiction, we thrilled to Tony Montana who was never going to be given a break, so he took it, wherever and whenever he wanted. That he was a ruthless drug dealer only soured the mix for a few, some who dismissed it as only a movie character, and others who secretly would have liked to emulate it.
We as a culture also tend to dislike the disruptors, those who break the code even when we ourselves don’t like the code so much. we tend to call them “rats” and often call them much worse. The difficulty lies in the realization that one man’s rat is another man’s antihero. And so we come to the thorny proposition that is Edward Snowden, government contractor now living in exile in Russa. He was given access to classified information that showed the U.S. government was taking massive liberties with information that was advertised as only “targeted under the Patriot Act to keep ahead of the potential and latent possibilities for terrorism.” They claimed they were only looking into possible sleeper cell activity, when it instead appears the NSA was looking at everyone and determining the possible constellations of sleeper cells later. They purportedly spied on phone calls, peeped into emails, and bugged ally and adversary alike all around the world. They laid claim to some of your most personal records and your financial details. So for exposing just how insidious your own government’s level of snooping is, Snowden is a hero.
To others, Snowden was hired to do a job, knowing he had sensitive information, knowing that revelation of that information constituted a breach not just of his personal contract, but with the well-being of a post-2011 United States. To them, his personal integrity was sold out the moment he chose to put that information out there because he made a promise and broke it. These same people say that he didn’t not break it out of conscience but out of a desire to create a legend for himself. “He was a code jockey contractor. He was never going to be more than some schlub bashing keyboards until he was too old or carpal tunnel syndrome kicked in.” They hate him not so much for the perceived betrayal based upon the value of the data for good or ill, but because he spoke at all. You’re a rat. You’re a snitch. Fitting that you wound up in Russia because that’s where you belong.
Then you’ll have permutations of these extremes. Some hate him because he is a hero, and they have an inherent distrust of heroes. They all prove themselves little men in the end and must, in one swoop, be considered unworthy. Some love him because he is a snitch, because he took on the baddest mother in the world — the U.freakin’ S. of A. — and dealt them (us?) a solid sucker-punch. Some love AND hate him at the same time for all these reasons. This is the fracture that we find all over the place, especially in American politics.
Another example lies in the form of Sen. Ted Cruz, who either “held firm” or “threw bombs at” the process of law by not negotiating during the continuing resolution and debt ceiling crises. Some say he manufactured these crises while others say he showed resolve that is antithetical to our modern political nature. Some decried his intransigence as being ignorant of the greater good. Some likened it to religious fervor, feeling that Washington D.C., a place where you sell your soul first and worry about damnation later, needed someone who never would give an inch. They feel the intimation of agreement was akin to being in league with Satan, and so this fight and threat to not let the debt ceiling rise was less about policy and debt, good or bad, and more about “fighting the good fight.”
That stubbornness is considered a very appealing trait among Cruz’s backers, who in recent polls say that they agreed with everything he did and would vote for him for president, to the tune of a 90% favorability rating. Others will say that we have a democracy and that the foundation of democracy is reason and cooperation, and that by rejecting cooperation, the individual places themself on a higher plain, like a king…the kind the forefathers seceeded from. Therefore Cruz, in his disruption, was the greatest enemy to America because his actions were as much spit in the eye of the founders as anything else.
It’s a problem. Our culture is now so divided that there are no clear heroes and villians anymore, or at least, those we can agree on. Dare I say that the nostalgia for the “Greatest Generation” is as much a nostalgia for an unambiguous foe. The majority got behind the fact that Adolf Hitler was a bad guy, with only a few fringe pockets feeling otherwise. I am not equating either Edward Snowden or Ted Cruz to Hitler. That would be reductionist and absurd. I am saying that they are completely the opposite. Because of the pervasive split personality of America, equal parts will love and loathe each man, and the reasons they do so intermingle. It’s like being both overjoyed and filled with hate when being told, “yes.”
I don’t know what it means for the country that, in the background, we’re so achingly desperate for a clear-cut hero and a clear-cut villain, someone that is so iconic in their status that only the most fringe and deranged could refute it. I do know that, so long as we cannot accurately decide if the power we speak truth to is for us as a whole or against us, this multiple personality disorder in the national psyche can only get worse.