In the winter of 2014, Arundhati Roy and actor John Cusack met Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg, the Snowden of the 1960s. Their conversations touched on some of the great themes of our times – the nature of the state, surveillance in an era of perpetual war, and the meaning of patriotism. This extract from Things That Can and Cannot Be Said introduces how the four came to meet, and what their conversations would be about:
One morning as I scanned the news—horror in the Middle East, Russia and America facing off in Ukraine— I thought of Edward Snowden and wondered how he was holding up in Moscow. I began to imagine a conversation between him and Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War). And then, interestingly, in my imagination a third person made her way into the room—the writer Arundhati Roy. It occurred to me that trying to get the three of them together would be a fine thing to do.
I had heard Roy speak in Chicago, and had met her several times. One gets the feeling very quickly and comes to the rapid conclusion that with her there are no preformatted assumptions or givens. Through our conversations I became very aware that what gets lost, or goes unsaid, in most of the debates around surveillance and whistleblowing is a perspective and context from outside the United States and Europe. The debates around them have gradually centered on corporate overreach and the privacy rights of US citizens…
I knew Dan and Ed because we all worked together on the Freedom of the Press Foundation. And I knew Roy admired both of them greatly, but she was disconcerted by the photograph of Ed cradling the American flag in his arms that had appeared on the cover of Wired. On the other hand, she was impressed by what he had said in the interview—in particular that one of the factors that pushed him into doing what he did was the NSA (National Security Agency)’s sharing real-time data of Palestinians in the United States with the Israeli government. She thought what Dan and Ed had done were tremendous acts of courage, though as far as I could tell, her own politics were more in sync with Julian Assange’s. “Snowden is the thoughtful, courageous saint of liberal reform,” she once said to me. “And Julian Assange is a sort of radical, feral prophet who has been prowling this wilderness since he was sixteen years old.”
My phone rang at three in the morning. It was John Cusack asking me if I would go with him to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden. I’d met John several times; I’d walked the streets of Chicago with him, a hulking fellow hunched into his black hoodie, trying not to be recognized. I’d seen and loved several of the iconic films he has written and acted in and I knew that he’d come out early on Snowden’s side with “The Snowden Principle,” an essay he wrote only days after the story broke and the US government was calling for Snowden’s head. We had had conversations that usually lasted several hours, but I embraced Cusack as a true comrade only after I opened his freezer and found nothing but an old brass bus horn and a pair of small antlers.
I told him that I would love to meet Edward Snowden in Moscow.
The other person who would be travelling with us was Daniel Ellsberg—the Snowden of the ’60s—the whistleblower who made public the Pentagon Papers during the war in Vietnam. I had met Dan briefly, more than ten years ago, when he gave me his book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.
Dan comes down pretty ruthlessly on himself in his book. Only by reading it—and you should—can you even begin to understand the disquieting combination of guilt and pride he has lived with for about fifty of his eighty-four years. This makes Dan a complicated, conflicted man—half-hero, half-haunted specter—a man who has tried to do penance for his past deeds by speaking, writing, protesting, and getting arrested in acts of civil disobedience for decades…
Perhaps my initial unease, my inability to react simply and generously to what was clearly an act of courage and conscience on Dan’s part, had to do with my having grown up in Kerala, where, in 1957, one of the first-ever democratically elected Communist governments in the world came to power. So, like Vietnam, we too had jungles, rivers, rice fields, and Communists. I grew up in a sea of red flags, workers’ processions, and chants of “Inquilab Zindabad!” (“Long Live the Revolution!”) Had a strong wind blown the Vietnam War a couple of thousand miles westward, I would have been a “gook”—a kill-able, bomb-able, Napalm-able type—another body to add local color in Apocalypse Now. (Hollywood won the Vietnam War, even if America didn’t. And Vietnam is a Free Market Economy now. So who am I to be taking things to heart all these years later?)
But back then, in Kerala, we didn’t need the Pentagon Papers to make us furious about the Vietnam War. I remember as a very young child speaking at my first school debate, dressed as a Viet Cong woman, in my mother’s printed sarong. I spoke with tutored indignation about the “Running Dogs of Imperialism.” I played with children called Lenin and Stalin. (There weren’t any little Leons or baby Trotskys around—maybe they’d have been exiled or shot.) Instead of the Pentagon Papers, we could have done with some whistle-blowing about the reality of Stalin’s purges or China’s Great Leap Forward and the millions who perished in them. But all that was dismissed by the Communist parties as Western propaganda or explained away as a necessary part of Revolution.