Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are models of citizen democracy

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Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are young male models of heroism, duty and self-sacrifice like the Hardy Boys or Tom Swift once were, in an earlier era. They're the Horatio Whistleblowers of our time.

They weren't motivated to release secret material by any ideology or mentor. Their motives were naive, moral and direct. In Manning's statement at his court martial, he said he came in contact with material on the Iran and Afghanistan wars showing how counterproductive they were and thought Americans should have it to think about, too. "For me it's all a big mess, and I am left wondering what these things mean . . . I hoped that the public would be as alarmed as me . . . to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live . . . As I hoped, others were just as troubled -- if not more. . ."

This isn't a traitor or ideologue, his simple good citizen quality couldn't be starker. He also used his own judgment on the risks of releasing the material. That's extraordinary in the sense that he just thought for himself, as a citizen in a truly democratic society would; he didn't want to do damage but felt he could make those difficult choices based on his own good sense and intentions.

Snowden, in his video interview from Hong Kong, said his greatest fear was that nothing would change after his revelations. He's clearly aware that most Americans -- at least in response to a rigged poll question -- are OK with the current "balance" between privacy and security. But he's content to defer to the results of a genuinely informed public debate; he is also citizenly and naive, as if he's inside a 1930s Frank Capra film like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

If you, too, yearn for a more participatory, "citizen" democracy -- instead of just voting and leaving the rest to elected reps who get to know and decide everything that matters -- you might ask: what could be done to produce more citizens like these? Part of the answer surely lies in the public educational system, though not in the directions it's heading in the U.S. right now.

The main trend there is standardized tests. Prepping for them crowds everything else out, depresses students and teachers and has no relation to nurturing thought that leads toward brave acts of citizenship. Another current is privatizing public schools into "charter" schools, using public funds which go to corporations with no inherent motive for instilling a democratic mindset that generates embarrassing leaks. It's also possible that the rising load of student debt there is meant, as Noam Chomsky recently suggested, to discourage the young from getting too much education. All these trends exist here.

I'm not naive about the public system. It's always been a conduit for official ideology but it has one excellent thing going for it: it's public. Everyone has a right to be there solely by being a citizen or resident. Kids can draw democratic conclusions from that, and from the mix they may encounter.

There are however no straight lines to noble citizenship. Both Snowden and Manning had patchy schooling. Snowden dropped out and got high-school equivalency at community college. Manning spent years at school in Wales before returning to the U.S. (I don't see any evidence, btw, of gender confusion in him, as has been implied; he's clear on being gay though he's distressed by reactions of others to his sexuality, much as he was perplexed by his country's behaviour in the wars that motivated his disclosures.)

Still, it's interesting to compare Barack Obama's schooling. He had some early hard knocks in Indonesia but from Grade 5 on, went to an elite Hawaii private school. He attended private universities like Columbia and Harvard Law. His kids are in private schools that don't waste time on standardized tests. He knows more about the real world than most leaders, but his formal training implies a view of democracy that says: Elect us because we know better than you what's best for everyone. It's the opposite of the think-for-yourself citizen democracy embodied in the young geeks now in jail or on the run.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: cool revolution/flickr

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