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Is anyone else struck by how much Edward Snowden, in the few pictures that have surfaced and are used again and again, looks like a whistleblower of myth?
White, clammy-looking skin that seems like it hasn’t seen the sun in weeks, either because he has been hiding underground, sleeping in the Moscow airport, or holed-up with his computer (or all of the above); rimless glasses; colourless eyes; stubble; grey, nondescript clothes that throw no light on to the face; mussy hair that sticks up every which way – these are the clichés of the trade, but they also happen to describe his appearance in the image that has been passed round almost ad infinitum. The only other, presumably earlier pic available online – Snowden without glasses and beard, looking even more translucent and pointy – is no better (he looks kind of like an unhealthy Twilight-type).
In other words, if he didn’t exist, Hollywood would probably have invented him. In fact, they did: cross Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener (the slightly spiky, mussy hair, the colourless eyes and pasty skin) with Russell Crowe in The Insider (that skin again, plus frameless glasses), add some Matt Damon in The Informant! for good measure, and you get Snowden. Of course, Hollywood has created this image, and we simply now expect it. So why think about it in the first place?
Is this a ridiculous subject to discuss when issues of national security, privacy, and geopolitical relations are at stake? Who cares about appearance when someone is exposing government secrets that threaten already tenuous international relations, and said person is on the run and an arrest warrant has been issued and a passport revoked? We all should.
Credibility, for anyone exposing a wrong done by a major institution, especially anyone doing so in the court of public opinion, is crucial. And like it or not, one of the ways we judge credibility is by image. People decide whether they see someone as the Lone Truth-teller or the Traitor by how someone looks. So, even if such details seem unimportant, they matter. They have certainly affected how people react to Snowden.
Indeed, I would argue that some of the weirder conspiracy theories surrounding the whistleblower at the moment – Naomi Wolf’s theory that he is actually a tool of the “police state”; an idea floated by Jon Rappoport on infowars.com that he is a secret CIA agent deployed to discredit the National Security Agency – have arisen in part because he looks so tailor-made for the role. I mean, we have an image of a whistleblower in our heads – and then there he is, fully formed, in a Chinese hotel café, with not two but all three of the physical traits! How could anyone help but be suspicious?
After all, in support of her thinking, Wolf writes, “I gather that [Snowden] arranged for a talented film-maker to shoot the [Guardian] Greenwald interview,” and, “He is not struggling for words, or thinking hard, as even bright, articulate whistleblowers under stress will do ... To me this reads as someone who has learnt his talking points – again, the way that political campaigns train surrogates to transmit talking points.” He was scripted!
Snowden certainly resembles a fictional whistleblower more than his notorious predecessor and current champion, Julian Assange, whose former long blonde locks called to mind the hair of a Bond nemesis. He’s even closer than Bradley Manning, the army private who leaked documents to WikiLeaks and was court-martialled. If Snowden had been, say, a guy in a well-cut suit with well-groomed hair, I expect he might have sparked a series of different reactions and emotions from observers; he might have been ascribed different motivations. After all, he would have looked ... respectable, like part of the establishment. Which could work for or against him.
This is, of course, is basic courtroom manipulation; the reason why defendants wear jackets and ties when they sit for trial. So maybe this is actually a double bluff: for Snowden to don such garb would be too obvious a plea for public sympathy, whereas to look like a cinematic whistleblower is, in fact, to do exactly what everyone assumes you wouldn’t do – which is ultimately more convincing.
Whatever the real answer, it does make me wonder how he will look when he finally resurfaces, be it in Ecuador or another location. Will he appear ever more dishevelled, or cleaned up for public viewing? It all depends, I suppose, on which buttons he (and his advisers) are trying to press.
These days even Assange, currently living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, has buzzed his hair and put on a shirt and tie for press conferences about Snowden, and now resembles an overgrown boy scout. Visual clichés are clichés because we all buy into them. The complicated business of telling secrets is no exception.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman