Time magazine revealed this morning that Pope Francis is their 2013 Person of the Year, beating out NSA leaker Edward Snowden to the chagrin of many who believed he deserves the top spot.
A number of publications made their views clear ahead of Time's announcement. The New Yorker published a piece titled "No Contest: Edward Snowden is Person of the Year," and The Guardian, which first published the documents revealed by Snowden, named him their paper's person of the year, as did Slate's Moneybox and The Washington Post's The Switch.
A number of critics of the Time's choice shared their thoughts on Twitter:
... and so on. To Snowden's many supporters on the left, it is simply self-evident that he should have won.
Those who contested the choice outlined a number of reasons why Snowden should have been picked. His revelation of the widespread NSA prism surveillance program, which indiscriminately tracks our texts and emails in a dragnet data mining operation, called national attention to our grave lack of privacy. The Washington Post writes that his leaks "have dramatically disrupted the cloud of secrecy surrounding surveillance practices." The New Yorker states that "Snowden unleashed a torrent of news stories," making him the de facto winner because, "According to Time, its award goes to the person who, in the opinion of the magazine’s editors, had the most influence on the news." These arguments are all basically right. Snowden's leaks opened our eyes to a level of government snooping previously unimaginable.
However, there is nothing remarkable about Snowden himself. It was the information he exposed that is newsworthy. He is simply the beneficiary of a culture that created him, not an individual who shifted the culture.
Snowden revealed the inner workings of an overwhelming federal program that was extremely poorly guarded. To access the secret documents, Snowden essentially just asked a coworker for a password. The precedent for this type of whistle blowing was set by Chelsea Manning, who went through WikiLeaks to expose a huge amount of secret government files. And WikiLeaks fostered the environment that both Manning and Snowden eventually played into. An individual hooks up with a news outlet to speak out against Big Brother — perhaps it is Glenn Greenwald who deserves the bulk of the credit here? — then relies on foreign assistance to seek asylum in another country. Anyone could have played Snowden's role, and if he had not decided not to blow the whistle, someone else eventually would have.
Time's story on the runner-up also doesn't go far in the way of distinguishing Snowden. Nothing he says to interviewer Michael Scherer is unexpected, his near tautological opinions are a generic version of what we already know:
“There is a far cry between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement - where it is targeted, it’s based on reasonable suspicion, individualized suspicion and warranted action -and the sort of dragnet mass surveillance that puts entire populations under a sort of an eye and sees everything, even when it is not needed. This is about a trend in the relationship between the governing and governed in America.”
He continues by reminding us of what federal snooping could lead to:
"The NSA is surely not the Stasi, but we should always remember that the danger to societies from security services is not that they will spontaneously decide to embrace mustache twirling and jackboots to bear us bodily into dark places, but that the slowly shifting foundation of policy will make it such that mustaches and jackboots are discovered to prove an operational advantage toward a necessary purpose.”
And says that Obama should regulate the extent of the NSA's reach:
“The president could plausibly use the mandate of public knowledge to both reform these programs to reasonable standards and direct the NSA to focus its tremendous power toward developing new global technical standards that enforce robust end-to-end security, ensuring that not only are we not improperly surveilling individuals but that other governments aren’t either.”
Snowden is important as a representation of our current state; as a symbol of the ways in which our government employs powers we never wanted to give them. His actions caused a domino effect that tangibly roiled the president's approval ratings and foreign relations. But the NSA is still in existence, and the government's intelligence networks remain in place. He changed conversations, but in practice he changed little else.
One can argue that the changes attributed to Pope Francis have not been very substantive either, but it was the force of his singular personality that brought them about. Since taking over from Pope Benedict in July, Francis has made relatively radical (if absolutely minute) statements on homosexuality, poverty and the culture of opulence in the Vatican. He may not have changed the Church, but he changed opinions of it, drastically, in a very short time, and in a way that no other person could have. That's more worthy of the title Person of the Year.