Unpopular Heros

As mentioned in this column before, I’m a movie fan. With divisions of opinion becoming more complicated in our world it was timely to see The Life of Emile Zola about the famous French political journalist.

During the depths of the Great Depression, this movie won the Oscar for best picture in 1938, five years after Franklin Roosevelt’s miraculous recovery. The movie was riveting to me, but then I see muckraking as an honorable and patriotic act.

Emile Zola lived in Paris with the impressionist master Paul Cezanne. He wrote about people like himself, impoverished and on the edge of civilization. When the police were rounding up prostitutes and Nana ducked into a restaurant to escape them, she sat at Cezanne’s and Zola’s table and Zola ended up writing about the woman’s life. The book became a best seller and that lent credibility to Zola’s rants.

He had been under scrutiny by authorities for exposing the incompetence of the military high command that led to slaughter and defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Now he was turning out best sellers and entered the upper crust and a comfortable life. On the day he received notice of a medal from the government which he had previously tormented, he was also visited by Lucie Dreyfus, whose husband had been unjustly convicted of espionage.

Mrs. Dreyfus had acquired leaked documents proving her husband’s innocence and implicating another officer in the spying. But the establishment military would rather Dreyfus rot on Devil’s Island than admit they had railroaded an innocent man to a “living death.”

Zola’s conscience, with help from Paul Cezanne, wouldn’t let Zola go on without using his notoriety to free Dreyfus. He published an open letter to the president accusing the high command of covering up Dreyfus’ unjust imprisonment and then was arrested and convicted of criminal libel. He fled to England and continued his crusade until the government fell in 1899.

Emile Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902. Decades later a roofer claimed, on his deathbed, to have closed the chimney for political reasons.

Does this story sound familiar? Emile Zola was the sort of guy who tried to keep the government honest, like Edward Snowden. Like Snowden, Zola was driven into exile. Like Snowden, the prevailing view was that Zola was a traitor.

Take these facts into account before you judge Snowden to be a traitor. If you are honorable and a patriot, you owe it to your country to read the Constitution. You are warm and snug and well fed because someone like Edward Snowden or Emile Zola came before you to guarantee your right to acquire and use wealth as you see fit.

We are losing the battle. The FBI now uses the cameras on computers used for Skype to watch you in your home. Local police are now using devices that listen in on cell phone conversations. The TSA regularly violates the Fourth Amendment and Americans are thankful for it even though most so-called terrorists were later proven to be government informants.

These precedents may not seem important to us who are law abiding citizens. But when they are in place and the elected government is your enemy instead of your friend, as happened in 1930s Germany, we will see things differently. Rules made in stable times are important to restrain rules made during emotional turmoil. A warrant to spy on everyone at any time is expressly forbidden in Amendment Four.

Director of the NSA, Keith Alexander and National Security Director, James Clapper both lied about the scope and effectiveness of government spying programs. They are the ones who should be in exile or tried for perjury.

Time has proven Emile Zola to be a French national hero. It is said the winners write the history. Let’s hope coming generations of Americans view Edward Snowden as a hero as well.


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