Book review: Edward Snowden’s “Permanent record”

GIOVANNI BIRINDELLI, 26.11.2019

(Italian version here)

While reading Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record, I was astonished by the qualities of the author. Notwithstanding his understatement, these qualities clearly emerged from the details of his story: his courage, above all. His intelligence. His computing abilities, which to me seem almost supernatural. His rectitude. His profound kindness that is revealed in every line of his book. His great humaneness.

While each one of these qualities in itself would have already been extraordinary because of its intensity, the contemporary presence of all of them in the same person at the same time made me rethink the limits of what I once considered to be humanly possible.

In this article I will not discuss these qualities. I think that the best way to appreciate them is to buy the book and read it.

I’m so much humbled by them and by Snowden’s purely heroic gesture that I’m instinctively inclined to censor my own criticism of some aspects of his thought that I believe are logically inconsistent. In fact, in relation to the choices, the capabilities, the actions and the qualities of a hero of this magnitude, these inconsistencies have such little importance that they appear to be almost negligible. However, they are about the very ideas on which his gesture was based: namely, the very concept of privacy and the difference between what is legal and what is right. Therefore, perhaps a discussion of these inconsistencies may be not entirely useless. In addition, I do not believe that self-censorship would be the best way to homage the person who, at the beginning all alone, has defied the most powerful nation in the world (and its allies) to denounce its mass surveillance programs and start a debate on these issues.

Criticizing from the comfort of one’s desk, on a theoretical level, the ideas of someone who risked his own life to defend them (and who’s living in exile for having defended them), is not usually an aesthetically beautiful thing to do, I believe. However, in this particular case, I consider this criticism a tribute to the man who has risked his own life to start a much-needed debate on privacy and on the difference between what is legal and what is right. This criticism is for me a way to acknowledge the debt that I, together with my family, have with Edward Snowden and that I know I will hardly ever manage to pay back.

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