In light of the recent spate of whistleblowers and their subsequent unprecedented persecution by the Obama administration CNN has taken to asking whether a given individual, be it Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, or Edward Snowden, is a “hero or traitor.” Ignoring the fact that Assange is an Australian and thus incapable of being a traitor to the US (or perhaps CNN is asking its viewers if Assange has committed treason against the Commonwealth of Australia by publishing leaked US diplomatic cables?) this dichotomy reflects a rather broader view taken in the discourse surrounding whilstleblowers. Whistlblowers must either be totally and completely unblemished individuals, and thus heroes, or completely and utterly villainous beyond redemption and thus rendering their acts of personal sacrifice completely beyond the reach of our collective admiration.
This has led to an increasingly disturbing fetish on the part of the corporate media with the personal lives of whistleblowers. This fetish often times ends up overshadowing whatever the whistleblower exposed. Instead of talking about the killing of civilians by American Armed Forces in Iraq, the secret and possibly illegal bombing of Yemen, or just how large and secretive the surveillance apparatus of the United States has become we end up talking about the personalities and personal conduct of Assange, Manning, Snowden, etc. Because, of course, any personal defects, minor or major, on the part of the whistleblower instantly nullifies any criticism of the government conduct they exposed. This exploration of personal misconduct does range the gament from very serious to very laughable. Assange is wanted for questioning (but is not currently charged with) very serious sexual crimes. The New York Times which does not see fit to send a correspodent to cover the trial of Bradley Manning, did see fit to discuss whether Assange flushes the toilet after every use.
Mark Felt, better known as Deep Throat, was not only the man who brought down Richard Nixon and caused a larger evaluation of the shadowy and criminal practices of the United States government at home and abroad. He also oversaw the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations and was convicted of violating the constitutional rights of American citizens. Felt was certainly not a very likable or noble person (I’ll leave it to CNN viewers to decide if he was a hero or traitor), but it certainly doesn’t undermine the significance or importance of his actions.
Personally, I believe the act of revealing the misconduct of a state at great risk to oneself to be an inherently heroic act. I also don’t think there is any requirement for the individual to be a saint for this to be true. That being said every time I see “Hero or Traitor” scrolling across the bottom of CNN I cannot help, but recall an exchange from Bertolt Bretch’s play The Life of Galileo. It is worth prefacing that regardless of the traits of the historical Galileo Brecht’s Galileo was a drunkard, glutton, lackluster father, and self-admitted coward. Whether he flushed the toilet after every use Bretch, much to the dismay of the fine journalist at America’s paper of record, neglected to mention. Near the end of the play, Galileo after having publicly renounced his findings that the Earth revolves around the sun is confronted by his assistance Andrea. Andrea, enraged by Galileo’s cowardice tells him “Unhappy the land that has no heroes.” Galileo replies “No. Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.