In his dramatic attainment of enlightenment and precipitous slide back to worldly corruption in the graphic novel Weathercraft, Manhog, the often abject figure of humanity in Jim Woodring’s Frank comics, illuminates my ambivalence about Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding the overreaching scope of PRISM, the NSA phone surveillance program. On one hand, it takes guts to risk your life—and that means at the very least giving up your life as you know it—doing what you believe is right. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t have been able to do what Snowden did. And I agree with him that PRISM is the kind of program the public should be able to weigh in on, discussing whether or not we feel the degree and kind of information being gathered by the NSA, with its possible abuses, is an acceptable exchange for the possibility of greater security against terrorist attacks or the ability to exact retribution more expediently should an act of terrorism not be prevented.
Still, I’m concerned that Snowden’s intention wasn’t so much to spur public debate about the surveillance program as to kill it because he personally doesn’t believe in it. As he stated toward the end of his interview with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, “The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They’ll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.” To me, that sounds like Snowden feels the only response to PRISM—that is, the correct response—is his response.
While I share with Snowden concern about the program’s infringement on our civil liberties, I am a bit chilled by his self-righteousness because it is from such a position that horrible acts arise, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Sometimes directly, sometimes not. It is, in fact, the pain of self-righteousness that Manhog suffers in Weathercraft. As his name suggests, Manhog is part man, part pig. But unlike the unassuming cuteness of
Porky Pig, Manhog’s appearance is a bit unsettling: in some ways he looks like a hog, walking on all fours, hands and feet where his hooves should be, his face as much human as pig. In other ways, he looks like a man ignobly crawling around on all fours with a pig snout, floppy ears, and a curly tail. Simply put, he is a thing. Despite, or perhaps more accurately because of, his abject nature, Woodring tells us in a 2011 Comics Journal interview that Manhog “could be absolutely demonic or absolutely angelic—that range of potential that people have.” Manhog is us: what is great and what is miserable about being human.
In Weathercraft, Manhog begins as a cravenly thief wallowing in his own filth. After a series of punishing events, though, Manhog achieves enlightenment. But just as he’s about to step through a portal into what surely is a higher realm, leaving behind the world in which he and Frank live, he is called upon to battle Whim, a demonic creature who has held Manhog’s world under ruinous rule. With the help of a clearly inebriated Frank, Manhog defeats Whim, but it’s what he does in his moment of victory that is so illuminating. He
knows that at Whim’s heart lies a worm that must be destroyed in order to kill Whim. However, Manhog doesn’t just kill it. Holding the wounded, helpless worm in his hand, an expression crosses Manhog’s face revealing his intention to mete out a punishment that he feels fits Whim’s crimes. It is here, I would argue, that Manhog falls from grace by acting from a position of self-righteousness. He is in the right, and Whim is in the wrong and must be punished accordingly.
Apt punishment in mind, Manhog bites off the worm’s head and eats it, an act of sweet vengeance, which the next panel, depicting Manhog licking his lips with delight, suggests. Manhog then immediately takes Whim’s place, quite literally, occupying Whim’s plush house, which looks out on the world Whim has ruined, Manhog admittedly promising to be a more enlightened leader. Unfortunately, just as he turns his paternalistic gaze on
Frank, Manhog doubles over and Whim emerges from his mouth, birthed through the very orifice that seemingly killed him. Manhog reverts to the abject position he occupied at the beginning of the comic as Whim chases him out of his house. It is from that act of self-righteousness that Whim is delivered and Manhog once again made base; they are, in fact, the same consequence.
This is the lesson Manhog imparts for Snowden: It is one thing to expose PRISM for public debate, but Snowden has sacrificed his life to destroy what he knows is wrong. It is the logic that not only led to the American Revolution, but also to 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Weatherman going underground after bringing the Viet Nam War to America when peaceful protest didn’t seem to end the war. Whenever one acts from a position of being right, especially when no one else seems to be, one must tread carefully. And I’m not convinced that Snowden, who revealed his identity in Hong Kong, which he portrayed as a bastion of free speech, has tread very carefully.
I don’t mean to tar Snowden. Instead, if we must be careful when acting out of what we think is right, we should be more compassionate for those who act out of what we think is wrong. We should recognize ourselves in the Nazis or the Boston Marathon bombers, who, as with many educated youth drawn toward “radicalized Islam,” were likely radicalized through political convictions. We need to realize what Manhog cannot, what Woodring relates in a teaching he ascribes to Sri Ramakrishna: “The mind of a worldly man is like a fly, because it’ll land on a festering sore one minute and a flower the next.” To not see that is to be Whim, to be hog Manhog.