Something has always bugged me about the case of Edward Snowden. He worked in a massive professional machinery of enormous power, prestige, and money. His world was the pinnacle of achievement for his skill set. Everything about the massive surveillance state broadcast that there was no escape. Everything about his environment demanded compliance, service, and submission. His job was to check at the door his individualism, integrity, and character and become a faithful cog in a machinery of superiors.
Unimpressed by the machinery all around him, he saw it not as his master and not even his equal.Everyone else went along. They didn’t question it. If they did question the goings on, it was purely abstract. Surely there was no real escape. You could only adapt, enjoy the power, take the money, and die someday.
Snowden, for whatever reason, decided to take a different direction. Alone, and without consulting even those closest to him, he struck out on his own. He took the unfathomable risk of copying all the most pertinent files. He put them on a tiny disk and embedded it in the Rubik's cube he often carried. He plotted his escape. He walked calmly out of the National Security Agency and boarded a flight to Hong Kong, where he met two reporters he had contacted through encrypted email. What he revealed rocked the world.
Throughout it all, he was scared but never indecisive. Unimpressed by the machinery all around him, he saw it not as his master and not even his equal. He saw it all as beatable. He knew that what he was doing was right, and he did it all because – against all odds – he thought he could make a difference. He literally risked his life in the service of human freedom.
What would drive a man to do such a thing? Many may have thought about it. That running a global and indiscriminate dragnet was both illegal and immoral was not unknown to his colleagues. But only Snowden stepped up to do something about it. It’s actually remarkable that such a man exists in our time.
Having followed the Snowden case carefully, this always puzzled me. It’s fine to say he has character, that he acted on principle, that he showed courage. That’s all great but where did this come from? He is not particularly religious. He seems to have a libertarian streak, but he doesn’t seem particularly ideological in his politics. I’ve always wondered: what is the moral guide that led Snowden to do the unthinkable in the service of truth?
Here is where I’m deeply grateful for Oliver Stone’s new movie Snowden.
Rand Was His Muse
Each person who confronts this machine must make a decision: join it, defend it, ignore it, or fight it through some means.There is a moment early on in the movie when Snowden is being interviewed for his first national security position. He is asked what books have influenced him. He mentions Joseph Campbell. (The influence on Snowden of Campbell’s notion of the “Hero’s Journey” would itself be a fascinating topic to pursue.). And then, crucially, Ayn Rand. The interviewer quotes a line from Atlas Shrugged: “one man can stop the motor of the world.”
Snowden agrees, and the movie proceeds.
This is it! This makes sense of so much. In the novel, everyone faces a gigantic and oppressive state apparatus that is gradually pillaging the producers and driving society into poverty. Each person who confronts this machine must make a decision: join it, defend it, ignore it, or fight it through some means. Those who take the courageous route know better than to take up arms. Instead, they do something more devastating. They walk away and deny the regime their own services. They decline to partake in their own destruction. In so doing, they are doing society a great service of refusing to have their talents contribute to further oppressing society.
There we have it. Edward Snowden must have had this riveting story in his mind. As any reader of Atlas can attest, the book creates in your mind a huge and dramatic world filled with epic moral decisions. People are tested by their willingness to stand up for what is right: to stand as individuals confronting gigantic systems against which they otherwise appear to be powerless. Her message is that one human mind, inspired to action by moral principle, can in fact change the world.
Here is where Rand’s book is decidedly different from all the other postwar literature in defense of freedom against the state. She was emphatic about the individual moral choice. She created a fictional world, a tactile and unforgettable world, in which history turns on doing what is right, regardless of the personal risk and even in the face of material deprivation. (The silliest rap on Rand is that she favored material acquisition above everything else; the truth is that she favored moral courage more than security, power, or even a steady income.)
Why Is This in the Movie?
One way to understand Rand's books is as entirely autobiographical.This movie was made in close cooperation with Edward Snowden himself, and he actually appears in the final moments of the film. He surely signed off on all the biographical elements of the film, including this one.
Why would Oliver Stone – a famously left-wing, conspiracy-driven producer – want to include this bit of biographical detail? Part of the drama of the film chronicles Snowden’s own ideological enlightenment, from being an uncritically pro-American patriot type to becoming a deep skeptic of the military-industrial complex. In order to see the truth, he had to gradually shed his conservatism and embrace a broader point of view.
It is possible that Stone included this vignette about Rand as a way of illustrating his right-wing biases and how they gradually became something else in the face of evidence. I don’t have evidence for this, so it is pure speculation on my part. But it makes sense given the popular impression of Rand as some kind of goddess of right-wing thinking.
But the truth of Rand’s influence is very different. One way to understand her books is as entirely autobiographical. She was born in Russia and fated to live under communist despotism. Had she acquiesced to the systems around her, she might have lived and died in poverty and obscurity. But she wanted a different life. She wanted her life to matter. So she plotted her own escape from Russia. She came to the US and lived briefly in Chicago.
Snowden followed the example of John Galt in doing what was right regardless of what society expected. Alone she moved again, this time to Hollywood and built a career as scriptwriter, before writing her own plays and becoming a novelist. This peasant born in Russia made a brilliant career for herself, becoming one of the 20th century’s most influential minds – all without an academic career or any champions in the centers of power.
Rand’s greatest characters follow a similar path of refusing to go along just because powerful and rich people are in charge. Her message is that one person with a mind and moral stamina can stand up to even the most powerful machinery of oppression. It takes cunning, daring, and a single-minded focus on doing what is right by one’s own lights.
This is precisely what Snowden did. He followed the example of John Galt. Instead of shutting off the motor of the world that he invented, Snowden sought to shut down the motor of the state that he was helping to build. And he did it because it was the right thing to do.
If Stone included this passage to show Snowden’s evolution, he is deeply mistaken. It makes far more sense to me that Rand was actually Snowden’s muse throughout. And this makes me personally very proud of the mighty contribution she made in this world. Though she died in 1982, her influence is still being felt in our times. In fact, her influence is usually underestimated.
If I’m right about this, Rand’s influence is still making the world a freer place.
And consider whether he made the right choice. He is now one of the world's most in-demand speakers. He can pack in a crowd anywhere in the world. He is a leading spokesperson for human dignity, privacy, and freedom. Thanks to technology, he now reaches billions and billions. He has a lifetime of good work ahead of him – all because of the choices he made.
Ayn, you have done it again.