True Radical

Edward Snowden, Not Pope Francis, Is the Person of the Year

The year’s most surprising, consequential, and transformative figure wasn’t Pope Francis, he’s no revolutionary. But the NSA leaker, dark as his revelations may be, is all those things.

Thomas Peter/Reuters,© Thomas Peter / Reuters

Francis is an extraordinary human being and an extraordinary pope. But to be Planet Earth’s person of the year, to be extraordinary is not enough.

You must be superlative—the year’s most surprising, most consequential, most transformative figure alive. And by that standard, the only possible standard, Pope Francis is not the person of the year. That is a title that can only belong to Edward Snowden.

Many people do not want this, or this kind of thing, to be true, but it is—whether measured by scope of change, depth of change, or something even deeper.

Consider the breadth of change wrought by Francis and Snowden. If the pope, writes TIME magazine, “could bring the church into a new relationship with its critics and dissidents—agreeing to disagree about issues that divide them while cooperating in the urgent mission of spreading mercy—he might unleash untold good.” Perhaps. So far, he has created the possibility.

And possibilities, once created, are powerful things.

But Snowden has created an even more powerful possibility—by shocking America and the rest of the world into apprehending what a truly global tyranny would be. Francis is showing the world a new way of approaching the “good news” of the gospel. Snowden has given us access to bad news of a kind we never knew existed.

From his platform, Francis is free to dazzle. From within the machinery of the surveillance state, Snowden’s freedom was radically confined—reduced to the single, world-altering choice to leak or not to leak. While a life outside the papacy would leave Francis no less full and forceful a Christian, a life unleaked would have made Snowden far more a burial ground for secrets than many a Catholic priest.

While the faithful preach the Bible openly, nearly every person alive and aware of the secrets Snowden released sits—still!—beneath a coercive cone of silence. Members of Congress withhold the truth while those they call to testify lie under oath. Without Francis, a cosmopolitan civilization a billion strong would rise to its own defense. Without Snowden, who knows how long Americans would grope around in gloomy ignorance of our true relationship with our own government? Without Snowden, the global character of “total information awareness” would be no more than a superstition—no doubt assiduously dismissed by all the powers that be.

Now the depth of Snowden’s change comes into focus. Francis is not a revolutionary. As TIME observes, “Francis signals great change while giving the same answers to the uncomfortable questions.” Now, becoming person of the year is not about winning a change-agent contest. Defeat the Confederacy, survive the Blitz, and you’ve got pretty good odds on the honor. As an agent against a certain sort of change, Francis is, again, extraordinary. But again, Snowden has him beat. Who has done so much, in so short a time, to return the human mind to the most basic questions of liberty—what it is, how to keep it, how to know if it is lost?

Yet at the same time, there is no topping the radical quality of the Snowden-led rebellion against omniscient rule. You are right to wonder if it might not turn out for the best, especially outside America, where the false alternatives of a return to innocence and a perpetual revolution so stubbornly vex the spirit. But inside America, we should not be deceived by the riots and assassinations that haven’t followed on Snowden’s monstrous disclosures. Organized resistance against Washington’s permanent collection of all data—whether among elites or the rest of us—would be unthinkable in a world without Snowden.

Even more significant, however, is the reorientation of anti-establishment politics that follows. Before Snowden, the prospect of a successful bipartisan alliance for radical reform was a fantasy, a laugh. Today it is real, and the closest we come to an answer to the cynicism and despair draped around popular opinion. Meanwhile, no matter how profound Francis’s response to human discontent, no pope can fully attend to earthly justice, as students of Catholic history know all too well.

Dramatic as the scope and depth of Snowden’s impact may be, the case for him does not end here. There is a darker, yet more transcendent, sense in which he is our unchallengeable person of the year.

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Francis greatly moves and inspires many of us. (No, not all.) But the way he does is defined by a simple fact: It flatters our favorite prejudices. He is humble; he loves all; he’s unafraid of unattractive people; he knows how to smile. Pope Francis appeals to some of the deepest Christian intuitions about how to live into the brotherhood of Man. Inevitably, he also appeals to the vanities of our warm, fuzzy, quasi-spiritual popular culture.

In that happy place of the collective imagination, Snowden is practically an avatar of our secular devil—“negativity” incarnate. Snowden is a bummer; Snowden is a rule-breaker; Snowden is non-compliant; Snowden is “not constructive.” Some say he is even a traitor. Either way, Snowden’s acts place the possibility for awakening our moral imagination at our own feet… and for that, in a secret part of our hearts, we might just hate him.

But in that anger and disappointment, we are pulled back from the kind of shared delight that can become a conspiracy of consolation for the death of our deeper dreams. As enchanting as the experience of heavenly servitude may be, Americans know that when it is offered together with earthly subjection, our instinct for life turns against itself.

The celebration of Pope Francis should not become just such a therapy for the unfree. Nor should our recognition of Edward Snowden occasion our rejection of peace and joy as a wellspring of our lives. Fortunately for us all, to confront the darkness is still not to curse the light.