Edward Snowden

Sorry Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg: If Daniel Ellsberg Is a Hero, So Is Edward Snowden

The crew of The Post celebrates leaking the Pentagon Papers but gets all touchy when Obama's secret surveillance is mentioned.


If you need more proof that baby boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, aren't quite up to living in the 21st century, look no further than this BBC interview with Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Meryl Streep, about the new movie The Post, which details the Washington Post brave and precedent-setting commitment to publishing the Pentagon's secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a.k.a. "The Pentagon Papers." Despite massive political and legal pressure not to do so, Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham (played by Hanks and Streep), pushed ahead with printing secret documents stolen by Daniel Ellsberg, winning a massive victory for press freedom and almost certainly shortening the Vietnam War.

Of course that was the right thing to do, Hanks tells Sam Asi. But when Asi brings up Edward Snowden, who in 2013 revealed massive, warrantless, secret surveillance of all sorts of electronic communications among American citizens, Hanks gets tongue-tied. Skip to about the five-minute mark:

After brushing aside the Snowden revelations—"I wasn't that surprised" that the government was spying, says Hanks—the Oscar winner plays social-media whataboutism. "Facebook makes money off of us based on what we're interested in," he says. "Do you think it's wrong that Google has an algorithm that can essentially you know, say, hey, Sam only likes black suits, so we're going to start sending you advertisements for black clothing." When asked whether Snowden is "a traitor or not," Hanks waves off the question, joking that it's above his "pay grade."

Asi makes the point that Hanks, along with Spielberg and the movie's other star, Meryl Streep, were public supporters of Barack Obama, whose secret programs Snowden opposed, and Hillary Clinton, who called Snowden a traitor. He then asks Spielberg why Hollywood was silent during Obama's unprecedented reliance on the World War I–era Espionage Act. Obama pursued nine prosecutions, compared to just three since the law's start under Woodrow Wilson. Snowden's revelations were "different for me," says Spielberg, because Snowden simply had information about agencies with the capabilities of spying on individuals and infringing on our privacy, while "Daniel Ellsberg was trying to stop the Vietnam War." Ellsberg was a "hero," says Spielberg, who refuses to call Snowden by the same term. "I don't have the same information." Streep, speaking at the end of the clip, at least grants that it's good and "valid" that the programs and activities Snowden unmasked are now in public view.

Asi ends his segment by asking whether The Post is actually intended as a defense of a free press or "a warning" to President Trump that, you know, the media took down Richard Nixon, so watch out.

That's a provocative question precisely because Barack Obama was, in the words of one of the journalists prosecuted by him, "the greatest enemy of press freedom" to hold the Oval Office. Of course Hanks, Spielberg, and Streep are simply representative Hollywood liberals ready to give Democrats a pass regardless of their actual policies. But more important, they are also aging baby boomers who are quick to fetishize outlaw heroes of their youth while throwing shade on younger mavericks. To the extent that they are self-absorbed and morally certain about events from their own past, baby boomers are simply playing to type. Indeed, while promoting Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg reduced World War II to a footnote to the birth of his own generation, calling it the "key, the turning point of the whole century…It was as simple as this: The century either was going to produce the baby boomers or it was not going to produce the baby boomers."

20th Century Fox

But such generational solipsism also renders them un-serious, if not next to useless, in a 21st-century in which Millennials now outnumber boomers. Although the circumstances in which Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers will never be repeated exactly, there was nothing unique about what he did, and what's called for by all men and women of good will. What exactly has changed about the ways in which government, especially the surveillance state, functions since Lyndon Johnson opened up the "credibility gap" and today? In the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, the Church Committee, Iran-Contra, the revelations of William Binney, Thomas Drake, Chelsea Manning, Snowden, and others, is there any reason to believe that the federal government is not duplicitous? Not at all, and it's a shame to see three articulate, thoughtful people stumble on the altar of partisan loyalty when it comes to such a question. If they don't have enough information on which to evaluate Snowden, that's on them (read and watch his interview with Reason here).

To his credit, Daniel Ellsberg calls Snowden "a hero of mine." Speaking to Reason in our December 2017 issue, he said he hopes his legacy is something like this: "I would like others to believe that they have the power—and the obligation, really—as patriots, as human beings, to reveal what they themselves know are unjustified dangers to human existence. And not simply, for reasons of career and promises to superiors, to conceal dangers of that nature. In other words, to be truth tellers."

As a boomer myself (born near the end, in 1963), I understand that resisting generational and moral nostalgia is no easy thing. The past is past and it's easier and quieter not to worry so much about the current moment, I suppose. But for those of us who not only want to see the future but participate in it, keeping up is the first business of the day and partisanship should be left off the to-do list altogether. If Ellsberg is a hero (and he is), so too is Snowden and all the others who put their lives on hold in order to rein in powers that dare not show their hands.