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Snowden Shrugged

Is the NSA whistleblower the ideal Ayn Rand hero?
atlas shrugged books on shelf

I don’t know exactly when the world turned into an Ayn Rand novel. It seems, in retrospect, to have been a gradual process, a slow realization that life is imitating art in the most curious, even uncanny way. I do know when the realization hit me: it was when I learned that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks now holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, had arranged for Edward Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong, and that the 30-year-old whistleblower was accompanied on the plane to Moscow by a veritable platoon of high-powered Wikileaks lawyers. In a flash, the image of Ragnar Danneskjöld—the philosopher-turned-pirate of Atlas Shrugged, who raided the ships of the future collectivist regime—appeared before me clear as day.

In the novel, Danneskjöld is a pirate whose decade-long career of raiding and robbing government facilities has made him a notorious figure. Hank Rearden, Rand’s prototypical industrialist, meets him one night in a wood, as if by chance. Backed into a regulatory corner by government bureaucrats and their crony capitalist friends, Rearden is walking alone down the road when Danneskjöld suddenly appears, as if out of the mist. They engage in conversation; Rearden is wary. When Danneskjöld reveals his identity, explaining that he has come to return some of his money stolen by the “looters” in Washington, the good bourgeois industrialist, speaking out of one side of Ayn Rand’s mouth, expresses shock and disapproval. Danneskjöld’s response is very Assange, in style if not in content:

“Why should you be shocked, Mr. Rearden?” says Danneskjöld—speaking out of the other side of Rand’s mouth, the swashbuckling Romantic side—“I am merely complying with the system which my fellow men have established. If they believe that force is the proper means to deal with one another, I am giving them what they ask for. If they believe that the purpose of my life is to serve them, let them try to enforce their creed. If they believe that my mind is their property—let them come and get it.”

“But what sort of life have you chosen? To what purpose are you giving your mind?”

“To the cause of my love.”

“Which is what?”


As the novel reaches its climax, after some 1,000 pages—not that I’m complaining—Danneskjöld and his men make short work of the cringing looters as they rescue John Galt, the leader of a secret anti-government conspiracy that Danneskjöld has been a part of all along.

As for Snowden, he’s an amalgam of three Rand characters, one at the periphery of the Atlas narrative, another at its center, and the third at the heart of a different novel altogether.

Eddie Willers is Rand’s rendition of the Average Man at his best, a man who, in the degraded culture of Rand’s dystopian fiction, achieves the stature of a hero all the same. This limns the course of Snowden’s career, much derided by the fancy-pants Beltway Ivy Leaguers, who sneer because he attended—and didn’t even finish—a community college. Like an increasing number of young Americans, he didn’t finish high school, either, but instead got his GED, almost as an afterthought. He worked as a security guard at a government facility and, entirely self-taught, worked his way up until he was making as much as $200,000 a year as an IT specialist and a contractor for the National Security Agency.

Yet there’s that two-year stint in the CIA—not a job for the average man—which lends Snowden an air of mystery and patient cunning, just like John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged. The reader gets his first sight of John Galt—who doesn’t make an appearance for over 700 pages, but nevertheless looms large over the preceding two thirds of the novel—through the eyes of the heroine Dagny Taggart as she awakens in Galt’s Gulch, the Randian Olympus hidden deep in the mountains of Colorado. The first thing she sees is “A face that bore no mark of pain or fear or guilt. … a face that had nothing to hide or to escape.”

Now here is Glenn Greenwald’s impression of Snowden after spending eleven days with him:

What was truly staggering and continues to be staggering to me was there was never an iota, never any remorse or regret or fear in any way. This was an individual completely at peace with the choice that he had made because the choice that he made was so incredibly powerful.

Rand describes the invulnerable “serenity” of her hero, while Greenwald is astonished by Snowden’s utter “tranquility.” These two conspirators against supposedly powerful governments run rings around the authorities, evading capture until the very end—when, at least in Rand’s fictional version, the hero is rescued by his fellow conspirators. In real life, however, we may be in for a different ending, despite Assange’s best efforts. Indeed, as the denouement of this drama approaches, it seems more like the conclusion of We the Living, Rand’s first novel, where the heroine dies in the snows of Russia while trying to escape. There is no Galt’s Gulch in our world, only the rather unassuming prospect of life in Ecuador, but then you can’t have everything.

The Randian parallels don’t end there; indeed, they are just beginning. For if Snowden bears a certain resemblance to the hero of Rand’s 1957 magnum opus, then he is the spitting image of her red-haired architect, Howard Roark, the protagonist of her 1943 bestseller The Fountainhead. In the novel, Roark helps another architect design a building, but his plan is changed by a committee—it’s a government project—and when the structure is completed his original vision has been corrupted—so he blows it up. He is vilified as an evil narcissist, a rabid individualist-run-amok, a moral monster, and a traitor to the human race. Newspaper columnists call for his head. At his trial, he makes a speech extolling the virtues of individualism, the jury is won over, and Roark gets the girl.

In the real life version, Snowden joins the military, then the CIA and the NSA out of idealism: he imagines these institutions are what they once were, the guardians of a free country. His original vision is corrupted, however, by the discovery that he is a well-placed cog in a vast and all-pervasive Panopticon, the “architecture of oppression,” as Snowden put it — which his revelations may yet topple. What Snowden took with him in those laptops is the equivalent of Roark’s dynamite, which just may have the explosive power to bring down the house.

Our self-anointed literary sophisticates sneer at Rand, and I recall the favorite refrain of my high school English teacher—who at one point forbade the mere mention of Rand’s name in class—with particularly vividness. Her capsule critique of Rand’s fiction, perhaps gleaned from a piece in the old Saturday Review, was the following: Life just isn’t like that! Ah, but it is, my teenage self insisted—and it turns out I was more right than I ever imagined.

This is why Rand’s retro-noir Romanticism has aged so well, and why Atlas, a novel with a background in the old railroad and steel industries, continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year. Literary pyrotechnics are fine, but like a fireworks display, their effect soon dissipates and is quickly forgotten. Rand’s visionary novels shimmer with an uncanny prescience, casting a clear, enduring light on a future she fought hard to prevent. “I’m not brave enough to be a coward,” she once said, because “I see the consequences too clearly.” It’s the kind of thing Edward Snowden might have said, explaining why he turned himself into the world’s most wanted fugitive.

Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com and author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.