When I was in high school, I had a religion teacher who used to quote Voltaire, whenever someone would disagree with what he was teaching. “I disapprove of what you say,” he would intone, “but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It was only later, when I came to appreciate what a mean-spirited, grasping reprobate Voltaire was, that I wondered not only why this quote had become the mantra of a religion class in a Catholic school, but also why we were being told something which, upon closer examination, was patently not good advice at all – let alone actually BY Voltaire.
Today the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Stephen, who from Voltaire’s perspective would be the patron saint of those who do not know when to leave well enough alone. “You received the law as transmitted by angels,” he observed to the Sanhedrin, at his trial for blasphemy, “but you did not observe it,” (Acts 7:53.) We all know how well that went over, and no one defended his right to say it.
Society at present is more interested in secular martyrs, who suffer for mutable concepts rather than for eternal truths, Of course they never actually die, and therefore never become true martyrs. And among these, none has been more interesting to observe of late than pseudo-martyr Edward Snowden, the self-appointed new high priest of the god “privacy”.
Initially, I wrote off Mr. Snowden as little more than a thief, this season’s must-have media accessory now that Julian Assange is passé. Then yesterday, as you may have read or seen, Mr. Snowden delivered a Christmas Day message on the UK’s Channel 4, as an alternative to the annual Christmas Address by Queen Elizabeth II. In the course of said message, Mr. Snowden essentially argued that privacy is paramount to effective childhood development.
Of course “privacy”, that endless quest of the magical mystery tour known as the Warren Court, is an evolving concept. In Ancient Rome it meant having your own seat at the public toilet, but no wall between you and the next fellow. If you were a Medieval king, it meant you had your own bed, but your subjects could come visit you while you were in it. It is now, per Mr. Snowden, a sort of pixie dust which allows children to grow up and become whatever they choose to be – rainbow unicorn not included.
This is not an argument I find I could defend to the death, Voltaire or no. The online world is a place where one’s presence, particularly as a child, should never substitute for developing real relationships in the real world. Imagine if St. Stephen and the six other men whom the Apostles chose to minister to the early Christian community decided that the best way to serve that ministry would be to sit at home and think about it, while downloading old episodes of “Family Guy”. The Church would not have survived twenty years, let alone twenty centuries.
As common sense will tell you, allowing a child to have privacy whenever they want is a key ingredient for the development of anti-social behavior. Children learn how to function in society through being compelled to interact with other children, and by obeying rules. They cannot always have their way, so they must learn to share and to compromise, in order for them to have a good shot at becoming well-adjusted, law-abiding, responsible adults.
While government over-intrusion into our lives ought to worry us, we should also worry about one man deciding what “privacy” means for all of us, taking us over the cliff with him as he does so. In Mr. Snowden’s case, arguing that he did what he did – essentially – “for the children”, shows that he not only behaved like a child, he reasons like one as well. And to top it all off, he ran away.
We can be grateful that Mr. Snowden showed us what this Administration has been up to, on a scale which at times defies belief. Yet particularly following yesterday’s address, I daresay most of us would have been more impressed had Mr. Snowden simply released what he had stolen to the Washington Post or New York Times, and then turned himself in to the authorities. Even Voltaire, I imagine, would find it difficult to defend to the death someone lacking in the courage of his own convictions. Mr. Snowden may be many things, but a martyr to anything other than his own ego he is not.