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The Psychology Of “Something Completely Different”

“And now for something completely different….”  So started many of Flying Circus’ funniest moments.

In a way, that was the simple slogan of yearning in all of us for “something completely different” in the world we live in.  Something we could see, experience, or do.

I thought of that phrase recently, when I read about Edward Snowden, the NSA surveillance program leaker/defector/informant/traitor/hero/villain/whatever.  Yes, there are many words to describe Mr. Snowden now in the last few days.  I try to come up with a truly accurate term for him, and the only thing I could think of is that Snowden is just “Something completely different,” because he has done the “something completely different.”

Yes, you could compare him to people like Manning, Assange, but Manning and Assange were both “outsiders” of the system.  Assange was always outsider.  Manning was a homosexual in a military that did not accept his lifestyle very willingly.

What’s shocking and different about Snowden was perhaps his ordinary-ness and low noticeability, which undoubtedly aided him in obtaining his profession in the world of Government secrecy.  He was a quiet, shy, IT guy, secretly working for the NSA.  If he was your neighbor, you would have never suspected how much he had access to.  And he was getting paid well (no matter the actual figures).  At 20-something, Snowden was deeply in the heart of the Government System of Secrecy.

Some men would kill (not literally) for a career and life like that.

But deep beneath it all, Snowden was disenfranchised by the system that provided for him.  Many people are asking why?  WHY the betrayal/change of heart?

Regardless of his education level, one can image being in his shoes.  Day in and day out, sitting at a computer desk, controlling a computer system capable of calculating movements of atoms in a nuclear explosion.  Then imagine, one day realizing (perhaps from a memo), somewhere some people have gotten hold of communication records of MILLIONS of citizens and non-citizens, and dumped them in the computer system, which you have near 100% access to.

Some people would react with a kind of power lust.  They may not be content with mere MILLIONS of people’s records.  They may want more, BILLIONS, and if possible, throw in the credit card numbers too.

Some folks react with a kind of dread in the realization of how much power and how much potential danger that poses.

Snowden fell into the second category, because like many Americans, he was brought up to believe that there is something suspicious with the creation of such government power, especially when they don’t tell anyone what they are looking for (IRS, at least is confined to financial matters).

Snowden professed that he couldn’t just be a part of that system.  In other words, he felt the yearning to be “something completely different” than the 1000’s of others who have been in his position before.

For only 1 of him, there were 1000’s who also knew about the PRISM program and went along with it, and perhaps even made it a bit bigger.

Yes, you can also compare Snowden to Dan Ellsberg, who authored and later leaked the Pentagon Papers.  But Ellsberg disclosed his own opinions of events.  Snowden was leaking the EXISTENCE of a MASSIVE SECRECY itself, a secrecy that was well maintained and built upon by 1000’s of others for years before.

This was the magnitude of Snowden’s “something completely different.”  This is why the US government reacted so harshly so quickly.

This is also why Snowden knew he could not stay in US to face the music.  This was not any thing like what Manning, Assange, or Ellsberg did.  In a way, Snowden screwed not just his own career, but he did indeed bring down the career of many others who helped build PRISM (who are all in damage control mode or looking for jobs elsewhere).

*Some would no doubt also call Snowden an outsider who didn’t fit.  I think he fit rather well in his profession.  As he calmly explained, he could have disclosed a lot of other secrets if he really wanted to endanger US national security, but he was very discerning as to only disclose information about PRISM.

He had a specific objective, and he did it, executing his escape, disclosure, and his own identification revelation with forethought.  In all, Snowden may have been forced into the decision based on his own beliefs, but he was not forced into the situation and timing by being an “outsider”.

*Deeper than that, Snowden was perhaps driven by the quintessential American spirit of doing “something completely different” than the rest of his colleagues.  And his actions only demonstrated further how he planned for that goal.  It was a public statement of his manifesto, why he disclosed, and why he escaped to HK.

Others may choose to disagree or agree with him, hail or condemn him.  Snowden got what he wanted, “something completely different.”  And nothing can take that away from him.

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  1. June 11th, 2013 at 17:13 | #1

    The quintessential American spirit of doing something completely different?

    Is that really American?

    According to this poll (http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/11/poll-finds-disapproval-but-little-personal-concern-about-record-collection/), looks like most Americans like being watched – at least don’t mind being watched as long as the gov’t keep them safe. Looks like Americans and Chinese are really the same after all – despite all the ideological rhetoric. Many of the things that we think set Americans apart actually is just part of the American fairytale narrative – as in the American Dream – as if others don’t dream…

    To do something different is human (to justify a unique existence? to matter?) … but not , err, American.

  2. Black Pheonix
    June 11th, 2013 at 17:28 | #2


    It is supposed to the idealized version of American Spirit, hence quintessential.

    Unfortunately, it is not all.

  3. Black Pheonix
    June 11th, 2013 at 17:29 | #3

    remind me to do another post: The Psychology of “Nothing to see here.”

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