WikiLeaks

I have liked the New Yorker coverage of Wikileaks but my favorite bit was this comment:

The world is divided in many “twos” and I would add another one. Those who are for and those who are against Wikileaks. I will try to describe each group. AGAINST: If a part or the full of your daily life deals with corruption, war crimes, extortion, blackmailing, malfeasance, bribery cover-up, then Assange is definitely a nightmare for you. You surely would like to get rid of him so that you can carry on with your evil. FOR: If you are an honest person, with high principles and impeccable conduct, a person who believes in true justice for each and every single one of the citizens, a person who supports education of the masses so that they can take informed decisions instead of being daily brainwashed and lied to by the Mainstream Media, then you are not afraid of the truth, you love the truth and you want to protect the innocent.

This is the modern version of The Emperor Has No Clothes in which it took a child to point out the obvious. No serious journalist could say this. As far as I can tell, no serious journalist has. It is too simple. Too disrespectful. Too sentimental. But it is surely true.

20 Replies to “WikiLeaks”

  1. Or consider: “If you are an honest person, with high principles and impeccable conduct, a person who believes in true justice for each and every single one of the citizens,” etc., then you won’t mind if we search your house. You’ve got nothing to hide, right?

  2. Well, and if you such an honest person, you would not mind if your emails would be published… but not all of it! Not! Just a selection. And neither you nor you reader will ever know whether this partial and selected release is biased in any way.
    Come on! Partial truth is worse than lie.

  3. @Dennis: agreed, wholeheartedly. Or how about: “You won’t mind if all of your phone conversations are made available as podcasts.” Or: “You won’t mind IP video cameras in your bedroom.”

    Is it so mad to maintain that WikiLeaks, like everything else, offers some good things and some bad things? Outing corruption is good in most cases I can think of. Outing the news of the US’s discovery of Bin Laden’s secret lair before they get there to seize him is pretty clearly bad. Most everything else is somewhere in between.

    That this non-digital attitude seems to be the minority view, with most people rushing to line up against one wall and start hollering at the guys lining up against the other, is just another thing to be depressed about.

  4. I disagree with the first comment. I don’t think the metaphor fits at all. What you do in the privacy of your home is your business and yours alone. You are not accountable to disclose or report your private behavior to government. Government, however is accountable to the citizens, and the failure to live up to this basic duty is the gap that Wikileaks bridges.

  5. I think that the comment I quoted is stating something resembling a fact: An extremely tiny fraction of people in the world — who happen to be very powerful — have something to fear from the continued existence of WikiLeaks. An extremely large fraction of people in the world, such as 99.999% or even higher, have nothing to fear. I would argue the opposite of what Dennis says: the more powerful the government, the more likely that ordinary citizens (part of the 99.999%) will have their houses searched. WikiLeaks is a force against powerful government. It makes it more difficult for governments to become extremely powerful.

  6. “During peace talks.” That’s a curious example because governments benefit from wars. During a war, the citizens need their government more (for protection) than during peace. They pay for this protection — resources flow from all citizens to everyone in government. This creates incentive for governments to start wars.

  7. This whole affair has caused me to wonder about whether it is ever clearly good or bad to have backroom discussions in politics. Take your average politician who makes strong public pronouncements on an issue, but who cannot possibly believe all of the absurd crap that he or she says, but makes their most extreme statements in order to play to their base constituency. Indeed, they will (behind closed doors, to other politicians), admit that they are doing as much, and even show willingness to act against their more egregious stances in legislation (perhaps in trade for something more important to them). There is some merit to this — at least they can be convinced to govern by trading.

    Now, what happens if you take away the backroom in these cases? Does the politician moderate himself, or is he forced to become even more extreme or otherwise lose out to someone who plays to base in both word and deed? If the electorate sees that issue X is just a trading card, can effective governance actually take place in the environment we’ve created?

    Obviously, the analogy is — can effective diplomacy (in the world as-it-is, not as we’d like-it-to-be) take place without private interactions? Will the leaders of the Arab world ever admit that they are afraid of Iran if you don’t give them a private forum to do so in?

    Honestly I don’t know, I’m curious what you think. I don’t find the issue as clear cut as implied here, but I might be wrong.

  8. Hahaha, couldn’t agree more! Governments are just another class of powerful fools who think that good ends can come via evil means. The character of the means determine the character of the ends.

  9. “Will the leaders of the Arab world ever admit that they are afraid of Iran if you don’t give them a private forum to do so in?” Leaking documents, such as diplomatic cables, doesn’t mean people can’t talk privately. I don’t think the various branches of the State Department are going to stop sending emails or cables to each other. They are just going to be a lot more careful what they say in them. In particular, they will stop proposing this or that repulsive-to-the-public Action X (such as collecting the credit-card numbers of UN delegates). Which means it will become a lot harder to do Action X.

  10. “During peace talks.” That’s a curious example because governments benefit from wars.

    This is insane logic, based on the idea that governments are monolithic entities with a single interest and a single will determining their actions. In fact, governments are made up of individuals, the vast majority of whom do not benefit from wars – resources spent on defence are taken from the budgets of other departments, including money that would otherwise have been spent on diplomacy and international development. Furthermore, those individuals participating in peace talks pretty clearly do benefit if those talks are successful, because they can put this success on their resume.

    But even at a governmental level, in what sense, exactly, did the British or Irish governments benefit from the war in Northern Ireland continuing? And if that is the case, why did they expend so much political capital on getting it resolved, successfully? This automatic mistrust of governments is just ridiculous. Even if you think that freedom of information is in principle a good thing, there are clear cases where some information should remain secret. In general, I would rather the democratic process work out where those boundaries are than an organisation like Wikileaks (although the extra-judicial persecution of them since the revelations is a disgrace).

  11. “I don’t think the various branches of the State Department are going to stop sending emails or cables to each other. They are just going to be a lot more careful what they say in them. In particular, they will stop proposing this or that repulsive-to-the-public Action X (such as collecting the credit-card numbers of UN delegates). Which means it will become a lot harder to do Action X.”

    If they are forced to be careful what they say in internal communications, then this is the same as not being able to talk privately. There are many discussions that need to be had that might even involve options that are repulsive to public opinion. For example, bailing out banks, pardoning someone on death row, nationalising health care… particularly in a polarised political environment, any number of issues can become politically sensitive, even if they are not downright evil. Again, the question is which organisation do we want drawing the line? Wikileaks is not the answer, because they do not believe in a line at all. Discussing options freely and frankly should be possible, even if that sometimes means that officials say stuff in private that they would not in public. If you are constantly editing yourself, you become a less effective operator, to everyone’s detriment.

  12. Seth’s comment about governments profiting from wars reminded me of a wonderful book called, Travels with Lizbeth, by Lars Eighner (for an insightful review, see here). Eighner spent a few years being homeless, and then wrote a book about his experiences. Here’s an excerpt:

    “The purpose of welfare systems is not to help poor people. If the object were to help poor people, then that would be most surely done by giving money to poor people. But that is not the idea, as our tax code proves. If you give twenty dollars to someone on the street, there is not a way in the world you can deduct that donation from your taxes. To claim a deduction you must give the money to an organization that employs clerks and administrators and social workers and that, more than likely, puts nothing material into the hands of the poor… When the agency makes an accounting of the good it has done the poor, it will count the money it spent on paying social workers to hold the hands of the poor the same as money, if any, spent on bread. The purpose of welfare systems is to provide jobs for social workers and bureaucrats. I told Billy he should be grateful to have a job in the poverty industry, but to ask that such a job be meaningful is to ask too much.”

  13. I find the problem with this debate is that both sides are arguing philosophy rather than facts. It is like politics vs economics in that sense. One side argues intention, the other actually looks at matters empirically.

    Why don’t we put aside the philosophy and hypotheticals for one second and actually look at this empirically: how many people have been harmed or killed as a result of any information Wikileaks has released up to this point? Simple question. If these leaks are as dangerous and damaging as people claim, let’s see the evidence. Otherwise, this debate simply becomes clouded with empty rhetoric.

  14. I’m withholding judgment until I see if they really release every single cable for a 3-year period. Somehow I doubt that all of them deal with “corruption, war crimes, extortion, blackmailing, malfeasance, and bribery cover-up.” If they release everything, it does seem like rape (metaphorical rape, sort of like the kind Assange is accused of in Sweden).

  15. I don’t think the ‘pragmatism’ arguments stand up. The Cold War was conjured up by ‘pragmatism’ and was nearly the end of us. These politicians who believe themselves pragmatists have a reductive, simplified view of human nature (Game Theory), and the only people who really conform to it are economists and psychopaths.

    Idealism is not necessarily naive – it’s our only real weapon against self-destruction.

    [See: Rome]

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