Jonathan Lethem on Edward Snowden's "Permanent Record"

Science fiction writer, essayist, and Macarthur "genius" Jonathan Lethem (previously) has excellent bona fides to write about Edward Snowden: not only has he helped make a short film about the Snowden leaks, he's also spent years on the right side of the fights over surveillance and free expression (and it doesn't hurt that he's an outstanding essayist).

In a long, beautifully written and insightful piece in the New York Review of Books, Lethem reviews Edward Snowden's memoir, Permanent Record. As with my review, Lethem focuses on the ways that Snowden's early life and his experiences with official corruption and a culture of impunity transformed him from an apolitical, hyper-patriotic, gung-ho military kid to this century's most consequential whistleblower.

Lethem's expansive piece delves into the personal blind-spots revealed by Snowden's tale (his valorizing of the early, anonymous years of the internet is contrasted with Jia Tollentino's experience of gender-based harassment) and also the blind spots that Snowden revealed in the world around him by coming forward -- particularly Malcolm Gladwell's hilariously obtuse attempt to use Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg as a standard that Snowden doesn't live up to.

Lethem is one of my favorite writers, and Snowden is one of the most interesting subjects in the mix today: Lethem's essay is a perfect Sunday read.

In Robert Sheckley’s 1978 short story “Is That What People Do?,” a man named Eddie Quintero buys himself a pair of binoculars from an army and navy surplus outlet, “because with them he hoped to see some things that he otherwise would never see. Specifically, he hoped to see girls undressing at the Chauvin Arms across the street from his furnished room”—but he was also “looking for that moment of vision, of total attention.” Since this is a science fiction story, Quintero accidentally ends up with a pair marked “Experimental. Not to Be Removed from the Testing Room.”

The binoculars turn out to have a fabulous capacity not only for seeing through walls but also for diminishing the distance between Quintero and those he would spy on. When he peers through the experimental device just so—an effort of contorting his body into increasingly bizarre positions—Quintero is suddenly granted visions of other human beings, behind closed doors, doing “what people do.” Which turns out to be, well, weird shit. The least disturbing of what Quintero surveils is what’s now called cosplay; the most extreme consists of giddy ritual murder, and of the deliberate calling-forth of a Satanic, sexually violent “smoke-demon.” On the last page, Sheckley’s parable attains an existentialist clarity: the binoculars grant a vision of a shabby, middle-aged man in a dreary room, standing on his head, with a pair of binoculars awkwardly wedged against his face. Quintero recognizes himself:

He realized that he was only another performer in humanity’s great circus, and he had just done one of his acts, just like the others. But who was watching? Who was the real observer?

He turned the binoculars around and looked through the object-lenses. He saw a pair of eyes, and he thought they were his own—until one of them slowly winked at him.

Snowden in the Labyrinth [Jonathan Lethem/New York Review of Books]

(Image: David Shankbone, CC BY, modified)