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Person of the year: Edward Snowden or the Pope

November 26, 2013, at 5:50 PM
 
Edward Snowden supporters carry a sign that reads "Shelter in Germany for Edward Snowden" while rallying in Berlin on July 4.

Edward Snowden supporters carry a sign that reads "Shelter in Germany for Edward Snowden" while rallying in Berlin on July 4. Photo: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/Reuters/Corbis

Even if you find people rankings tendentious, Time's Person of the Year provides a good opportunity to slow down and think. Since Time is an U.S.-centric publication with international editions, the criteria — the person who "for better or for worse...has done the most to influence the events of the year" — should be read to mean, I think, the person who has had the most impact on America, construed broadly.

This year, there is only one logical choice: Edward Snowden.

A 29-year-old managed to kneecap the most powerful institution on the face of the planet. His weapons were the secrets collected by its most powerful intelligence agency, and his methods were taught to him by secret-keepers themselves. More than health-care reform, more than the budget fight, more than the crisis in Syria, the prestige and power of the United States has been most damaged by Snowden's revelations.

In many ways, I think the Snowden revelations are the largest source of background noise and the functional cause of President Obama's falling approval ratings. They were, of course, the direct catalyst for a significant (and perhaps quite productive) public debate about intelligence, technology, and power surveillance.

The arguments against selecting Snowden fall into two categories: It would be immoral to reward a possible traitor with such a recognition, and Snowden's revelations have not yet led to any measurable retraction of the secret state. The moral question isn't operative. It doesn't matter for this discussion whether you think Snowden is a hero, a true patriot, a brave whistle-blower, or a villain, or whether you think he is a narcissist who managed to co-opt the privacy rights movement, or whether you think he is a pawn in a Russian spy game. It does matter that he is an ideological entrepreneur, one who exploited NSA's technological and cultural blind spots to create a single-point failure that has cascaded around the world.

Number two, in my opinion, is Pope Francis, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio. His effects on the Catholic Church may be significant enough to reverse years of decline and stagnation. His Jesus-centric, works-focused ministry, his technological savvy, and his sense of humor have made universal compassion and good works popular again in Rome, and may energize the laity.

 

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