---- — “A Man for All Seasons” — the great play by Robert Bolt concerning Sir Thomas More’s doomed battle to reconcile his conscience with service to his king — is narrated by a multirole character called the Common Man. He starts with an observation: “The 16th century is the Century of the Common Man. Like all the other centuries. And that’s my proposition.”
And a fine proposition it is, as can be seen now in the news from the 21st century. Two uncommonly common men are the heroes or villains, according to your taste, of leaking the government’s secrets.
Edward Snowden, described by The New York Times as a “relatively low-level employee of a giant government contractor,” recently revealed hitherto unknown government surveillance programs.
Pfc. Bradley Manning, a low-level employee of a giant armed forces, is now on trial for sending thousands of secret diplomatic dispatches to WikiLeaks.
These two could show up at the Nonentities Ball — although I think their ball-going days are over — and someone would say: “Who are those two ordinary guys over at the bar with their ears flapping and their thumbs a-texting?”
Whatever other sentiments come to my mind about these unauthorized disclosures — disgust, celebration, wonder, outrage, surprise or the lack thereof — it seems to me that humility also must be part of the mix.
Speaking as one who has been a common man for many years, I view these revelations with a tinge of jealousy. Despite disgraceful table manners and slovenly dress, nobody has confided any secrets in me. I have nothing to leak at all. What is the point of being so common, nondescript and of lowly station, I ask myself, if nobody will dish the dirt?
You are probably asking the same question yourself, unless you are one of those superior elitist persons, in which case you are rendered clueless by being so removed from the commoners who know all the secrets. By the way, we ordinary people have assumed you were clueless all along.
There’s an old saying: “No man is a hero to his valet” — the sense being that valets see their masters without their pants on, know all their secrets and are not impressed. Today, no executive is a hero to the contractor employee, no commander is a hero to the private soldier.
You might otherwise think that the best source of secrets would be the high and mighty, but spymasters might be better advised to fire all their agents trained to sneak around the halls of power and replace them with a crew of hairstylists in the salons of gossip. Hairstylist contractors would be better still.
But back to the point. My proposition is that we the common people are directly responsible for the government spying on us and keeping its secret close to its chest, so that they can only be seen by tens of thousands of odd characters lurking in the depths of the chain of command.
The natural temptation is to blame Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush and the Congress. That is fair up to a point. But as a great Republican once said, it is a government of the people and by the people. Whether it is a government for the people is the question of the hour.
Inconveniently, we cannot view this president, his predecessor and the Congress as a breed apart from the rest of us. They are doing what most ordinary Americans wanted them to do. That’s the unfortunate truth of the matter.
Consider surveillance cameras. They are everywhere, but they were erected with few complaints and now none, because the Boston Marathon bombers were identified by cameras. They seem like a very good idea in the light of that event. Thus, by seemingly reasonable degrees, privacy retreats.
The government is not the sole threat. Corporations collude with the government all the time. Snowden worked for one: Booz Allen Hamilton. And he said he was the source revealing that Verizon was handing over phone data to the National Security Agency under a secret order, and NSA had direct access to private Internet data.
And why did the government do this? Not surprisingly, because it feels it has to, or else be accused of being soft on terrorism in this age of the common man listening to his common talk radio. After all, the accepted wisdom after 9/11 was that the government could spy as much as it liked as long as it kept us safe from Islamic terrorists. Common men everywhere agreed.
Now the government camel is occupying the tent, nose and all, and we want to blame government leaders. So here we are, trying to reconcile our consciences with this dubious service to our country. Some common men have stirred themselves. Will others?
Contact Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Reg Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org.