I’ve recently been binge watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and yesterday—in one of those inexplicable accidents of perfect timing—I watched the episodes in which Oliver takes on predator drones and interviews Edward Snowden. The segment on Snowden, which also covered the dangers of renewing the PATRIOT Act, reveals in stark detail just how little the average American knows about government surveillance programs, the exact nature of Snowden’s actions, and why he committed them.
I won’t natter on too long here, nor will I commit the heresy of paraphrasing (and therefore culling the humor from) Oliver’s interview with Snowden. Nonetheless, the implicit question is whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor. Those who brand him a traitor are inclined to say that patriots defend their countries, their militaries, their elected leaders, and so on. But I’m disinclined to view the question that way. A patriot—a term I’m uncomfortable with, because it’s often used jingoistically—is one who holds the values of the nation first, with the goal of creating the best possible version of the nation: a more welcoming, tolerant America. (I’m turning “patriot” this way intentionally: otherwise, “the values of the nation” can become easily twisted to support reactionary, racist, sexist, and otherwise prejudicial worldviews. I prefer thinking of “inalienable rights” as universals.) In Oliver’s interview, the key moment is Snowden’s claim that we shouldn’t alter our behaviors to appease the government: if we do that, Snowden says, the government has succeeded in depriving us of our freedoms, thereby preventing any means of genuine reform.
Expressions of freedom and patriotic acts may not always appear that way: after all, the case for Snowden being a traitor—no matter what values or intentions compelled his leak of NSA data—rests on the fact that the disclosed information could prove harmful to U.S. interests at home and abroad. This debate is hardly news. To keep my thoughts in the realm of pop culture, a 2002 episode of Futurama (“A Taste of Freedom”) centers around the alien crab Dr. Zoidberg, who devours the flag. (You can read the episode blurb here.) Of course, in predictable cartoon fashion, the residents of Earth are dismayed and call for Zoidberg’s prosecution (and death), even as the bumbling Zoidberg tries to explain that desecrating the flag is the very embodiment of the freedom represented by the flag. The episode validates Zoidberg’s position: he has to light the flag on fire to attract a heat-seeking missile, thereby saving the inhabitants of Earth. (And, for the record, you can get the same spiel from President Andrew Shepherd’s speech at the end of Aaron Sorkin’s film The American President, if you want a more realistic defense of flag burning.)
My feelings about the Fourth of July are always lukewarm, because I’m uncomfortable with how patriotism, nationalism, and symbolism collude in condemning actions that actually embody the fundamental nature of American freedom, of American idealism. Defending freedom and liberty—that is, being a patriot—often entails doing things that are unpopular, that may rankle the public’s conservative thinking or its attachment to the symbols of that freedom. Snowden and Zoidberg may make an unseemly pair, but they both represent precisely this point. So, this Fourth of July, I hope that we can consider how freedom isn’t just the symbols of the flag, of ballparks, of fireworks. Freedom is the right to take unpopular stands, to question the actions of our leaders, and to stand up for fairness and equality.