It was supposedly Margaret Mead who first uttered the phrase immortalized on car bumpers everywhere: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It’s a great line, with a setup that leaves you feeling full of lofty ambitions and an ending that reminds you that change requires not just words, but deeds.
It’s an idea that has been on my mind this week following the recent revelations about PRISM, the government-run domestic intelligence program. (In short, Big Brother really has been watching. And listening. And maybe smelling.) It was brought into the media spotlight largely due to the actions of one man, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old technical contractor who worked for the NSA. In the course of his work, he saw the extent of our government’s reach into our private lives and decided that we had the right to know about it. Otherwise, he declared in an interview with British paper The Guardian, “the ‘consent of the governed’ is meaningless.”
But for all his newfound fame (or notoriety), Snowden is still just one man—a fact brought home recently by a friend’s revelation that he had attended high school with the man. They’re even on the same page of the yearbook. In that way, he is not so different from Bradley Manning, the young Army private who leaked classified documents detailing questionable war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But though both men acted largely on their own, one thing has changed considerably since the day that Mead first let slip her famous phrase—if indeed it was Mead; the exact origin of the phrase has never been established. Today, a single source has the world at his fingertips.
That is the new truth at the heart of We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, now screening at Amherst Cinema. In his documentary look at this uniquely 21st-century issue, director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) turns his lens on an outfit that made it their business to let others know they were being watched. Launched in 2006 by the Iceland-based Sunshine Press, WikiLeaks, run by the Australian “hacktivist” Julian Assange, made its name by publishing a raft of top-secret documents and other private information about high-level government and military operations the world over. It was Manning who made them a household name by using WikiLeaks as the conduit through which he made his leaks public.
But is what they do always in the best interest of the public? Is absolute transparency always the best policy, or—as many of its critics suggest—is it too often a handout to opposing governments who would use that knowledge against us? These are some of the questions WikiLeaks continues to face.
Today, Manning is in the middle of a court martial, and Assange remains in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has been holed up for nearly a year as he tries to avoid being extradited. (More than one country would like to get its hands on him.)
Snowden, last we knew, was in Hong Kong, where he fled ahead of his revelations, leaving behind his home, partner, and career. His current whereabouts are unknown at press time. In his Guardian interview, his closing statement left little doubt about his commitment, or his future: “I could not do this without accepting the risk of prison…I do not expect to see home again, though that is what I want.” Wikileaks remains online.
Also this week: I went to see my dad for Father’s Day last week, and if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this—men of his generation will most definitely not be going to see the opening of The Lone Ranger. Despite being such a Western fan that he had kept a replica of an old six-shooter on one of our bookcases (right next to the Zane Grey and Cormac McCarthy novels), he, and I’m guessing many men like him, cannot quite get past the look of Johnny Depp’s Tonto. If you haven’t seen it, the getup is heavy on headdress and heavier on face paint (think 70s-era KISS, or a black and white Captain Jack Sparrow), and is inspired mostly by a painting by artist Kirby Sattler called “I Am Crow.” If it seems a little over the top, it just may be; Sattler notes in his bio that he attempts to “satisfy my audience’s sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy.” The emphasis may be mine, but the face paint is all his.•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.