Edward Snowden and the Humanities

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Edward Snowden and the Humanities

In his new book, No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald portrays Edward Snowden as a young American idealist who possesses the courage, knowledge, and daring to expose the overreach of the covert surveillance apparatus of a prominent modern nation-state.

From his point of view, Snowden is a hero for bringing to light the secret information gathering techniques used by the United States National Security Agency, as well as its problematic “corporate partnerships” with the Internet, telecommunication, and defense industries.

Greenwald, a civil rights advocate and journalist, promises even more revelations, yet the Snowden documents already released have demonstrated that the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) can “monitor or collect information from hundreds of millions of people around the globe, that it has broken into the communications links of major data centers across the world,” and that “it has broken privacy laws or exceeded its authority thousands of times a year.”

Based on his own experience with national security officials, Greenwald believes that they tend to “act abusively and thuggishly only when they believe they are safe, in the dark.” He identifies secrecy as “the linchpin of the abuse of power,” and argues that transparency “is the only real antidote.”

In her review of No Place to Hide, Michiko Kakutani asserts that Edward Snowden has revealed that the ability of the United States National Security Agency “to spy on our daily lives has grown exponentially to Orwellian proportions.”

In point of fact, Snowden’s interest in Greek mythology, and Joseph Campbell’s work on the archetype of the hero in particular, may have provided him with a narrative framework into which he could project himself.

Campbell’s comparatist approach to world mythology aimed to identify perennial patterns (archetypes) of the hero in global literatures. For instance, the mythic hero is capable of accomplishing what no one else can, and he does so for the sake of others, not merely himself.

In the Western tradition, “Jason sailed through the Clashing Rocks into a sea of marvels, circumvented the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece,” while “Aeneas went down into the underworld, [and] crossed the dreadful river of the dead” to converse with the shade of his father.

The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (AD 700–1000) features a young warrior protagonist who slays the monster Grendel that terrorizes King Hrothgar and the members of his court. He must do away with Grendel’s fearsome mother as well, before becoming king of his own people.

In the Indian epic the Ramayana  (circa 300 BCE), the righteous hero Rama has a karmic obligation to kill the ten-headed demon Ravana (who kidnaped his wife Sita in a blatant transgression of the laws of dharma).

It is a possibility that Edward Snowden took inspiration from mythologies in which the protagonist (often an ordinary person) fights, rather than flees, in the face of some grave injustice represented by what Campbell calls “the figure of the tyrant-monster.”

In A Hero with a 1000 Faces (1949), Campbell describes the tyrant-monster as a “hoarder of the general benefit” who must be slain by “the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.”

Snowden himself asserts that both mythology and history show that “seemingly ordinary people who are sufficiently resolute about justice can triumph over the most formidable adversaries.”

Moreover, the hero should at some point quit the world and turn inward—for there exists a mirror-like relationship between the outward quest of the hero to slay an unjust monster, and the inner one for self-knowledge.

So, if reading great works of literature helped to awaken in Snowden a critical insight that culminated in his quest to slay the modern dragon of the surveillance state with the sword of transparency, shouldn’t the relevance of humanistic learning in exposing the massification of surveillance become one justification for its preservation?

The liberal arts are in dramatic, and well-documented, decline at the modern American university with some pundits arguing that they may soon go the way of the (nearly extinct) Classics department.

Citing federal data, the New York Times reports, “nationally, the percentage of humanities majors hovers around 7 percent — half the 14 percent share in 1970.” Victor Ferrall, author of Liberal Arts on the Brink (2011), writes that between 1987 and 2011, “graduates whose majors were vocational (as opposed to liberal arts)—rose from 10.6 percent to 27.1 percent.”

Compounding this flight from traditional undergraduate humanities majors (such as English and history), the Great Recession of 2008 eviscerated state funding for higher education. In response, tuitions rose steadily, and soon students began to seek out academic programs that they perceived as leading directly to a specific occupation.

Institutions of higher education around the nation responded rapidly, and according to John Tresch, most universities now seek to “build up the STEM fields, both because national productivity depends in part on scientific productivity and because there’s so much federal funding for science.”

However, there are many reasons to preserve the arts and humanities as the basis of university curricula in our age of technological advancement and globalization. Foremost among them must be to gain a comprehensive knowledge of other cultures and their histories, languages, and customs, so as to minimize conflict around the world, and facilitate the peaceful flow of knowledge and commerce across borders.

Even students in the technical professions, such as business or engineering, may gain great utility from a liberal course of undergraduate study, should they remain mindful of its potential value. “Studying philosophy,” observes Leon Botstein, “might be just the thing an undergraduate engineering major needs to become an innovative engineer.”

Economist Christina Paxson concurs that there are “tangible benefits to the humanistic disciplines.” In the complex, globalized world we are moving toward, “it will obviously benefit American undergraduates to know something of other civilizations, past and present.”

Walter Coppedge, Professor Emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University, observes that the humanities are “fundamentally about encouraging human beings to ask searching questions: Who am I? What am I suppose to do? How am I to live?” To that end, we might follow the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in advocating for the return to a “fully balanced curriculum—including the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.”

After all, we have an obligation to provide students with “opportunities for integrative thinking and imagination, for creativity and discovery, and for good citizenship.”

The emphasis on the liberal arts made American universities the envy of the world in the twentieth century. Let us not allow that privileged position to be eroded in the wake of financial recession, high unemployment, and the retrenchment of public funding for higher education.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!


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