I added “my” to the headline because otherwise a reader would assume I’m referencing the annual feature in Time Magazine.
Given the usual content in this space you might expect me to pick a composer or a performer. Pollyanna will still offer his picks for 2013, just as I did last December. No, this is a different sort of message I suppose.
This is a year when I noticed a few people.
Nelson Mandela passed away near the end of the year. While the story of his life has been tidied up, the blemishes air-brushed away, he was a real person, genuinely larger than life. What I most admire about him? I am not sure whether I am more impressed by his steadfast opposition to the leadership in South Africa, his willingness to go to jail for his beliefs, or his enlightened refusal to hold grudges. He is a man for the ages, one of the great men of the 20th Century.
Where the 20th Century was a time of heroism, the 21st Century? more like a century of absurdity and banality so far. The biggest blip on the radar this year is the Ford phenomenon in Toronto, a pair of brothers who seem to be changing the rules. In a real sense Rob Ford must be Man of the Year, the unavoidable topic that has been #1 in the news. Yet I leave it to others to deal with that story. I don’t pretend to understand it, and most assuredly won’t celebrate either of the brothers in this space.
Hm no that’s not accurate. At one point I actually thanked Mr Ford for helping Torontonians appreciate our library system: one of the best in the world. Without the acrimonious conversation started by his acidic critique, would we ever have properly taken inventory, noticed what fabulous resources we had? I said thank you to him.
Pope Francis? I am pleased at his performance so far. Who ever expected a real Christian as a Pope (which is to say, a compassionate champion of the poor, rather than the leader of a big political organization)? Our expectations in the office-holder, after the last one especially, are so low that we jump for joy at the slightest thing. No question, Francis is remarkable, breaking the mold. But for me he’s not my person of the year.
At the same time I keep reading about Edward Snowden.
Today I saw something adding to the accumulating pile of evidence already pointing to the importance of this brave figure, one story among many saying the same thing. Was Mandela a moral compass? his choices were –however brave they undoubtedly were—inevitable. But he did not really face anything ambiguous, just daunting, terrifying and evil. He was brave & a perfect role model precisely because he faced down an authority that needed to be challenged and taken down, looming unavoidably.
Snowden? This man discerned wrong where others did not. That is an entirely different sort of bravery. Indeed, it’s ironic to be putting it alongside a Pope, given that he’s understood to be infallible. But of course it’s one thing to be infallible a priori—which is more or less, being right because you’re the boss—and something else again to be right because of your finely tuned moral sense, without any guarantees, without any support.
This story quoted above suggests his vindication, judges confirming that his moral compass points to the true north, when others had no clue, or kept silent when they knew they were doing wrong.
Snowden would have been considered a hero in the America of a century or more ago, when freedom was valued above safety. Since September 11th 2001 the game has changed, if you’ll excuse the choice of words. Given the primal importance of fear in the national psychology –it’s the cornerstone after all—no wonder personal security now trumps respect for our fellow human.
Warfare is prosecuted automatically by drones that sometimes hit the right target, and sometimes take out innocent people. But when security is most important, accuracy and respect for life are inevitable casualties.
I admire Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, Jon Stewart and Adbusters. Like Mandela they say what needs saying. Admiring them makes me feel good because the media make it easy, with Facebook pages, fans, friends with whom i can discuss their positions and laugh at their wit. They are brave people, but at least they have some kind of consensus of support behind them. And their positions are not just intelligible but well-known to both those in opposition and those in agreement. We know where they are on the moral compass.
Snowden is the bravest man I know because he doesn’t have an audience or a cheering section. My mind boggles at his bravery, without any parallel i can think of other than the one we are reminded of at Christmas season: the one generously risking Himself in a higher calling. Hopefully he will not follow the obvious martyr’s path that’s been blazed for him.