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WikiLeaks and American Grief, Stage One: Denial

December 8, 2010

Don’t shoot the messenger, but America is fallible. With that realization dies the Noble Lie of American hegemony: that we are always the good guys. Let the mourning process begin.

Fitting within the typical human grieving cycle, we are only now emerging from Stage One: Denial.

I’ve stated as much before, but WikiLeaks is as historically significant as the news makes it out to be, even if they don’t understand why. As I said in the last post, the actual cables leaked in Cablegate were not such threats to national security as the talking heads are making it out to be. WikiLeaks is truly significant because it marks the beginning of a new form of journalism. Assange calls this “scientific journalism,” whereby each fact is documented by its source material and not filtered through a questionably trustworthy or biased journalist. Such a methodology is open source in that it gives any reader or armchair journalist (like myself) the ability to collect and process the relevant raw information and draw whatever conclusions are there to draw. Assange made the case convincingly for TED:

Part of the openness is reflected in the fact that WikiLeaks always works with other media outlets behind the scenes before it publish its leaks. The Guardian, The New York Times, El Pais in Spain, and Der Spiegel in Germany have all published or linked to the same redacted cables that form the basis for the current controversy, and published or linked to the other controversial content in previous leaks. That it is because the leaks are newsworthy. Yet it is WikiLeaks, as the coordinator of these other outlets, that has copped the most vicious attacks and accusations from both governments and talking heads. Julian Assange has been accused of treason, even though he is an Australian, not a US citizen. Assange asserts that this is because those old venerated publications are old and venerated, whereas WikiLeaks is young and revolutionary. This double-standard is part of our current state of denial.

The denial is twofold: journalists are in denial over the permanence of the radical transparency symbolized by WikiLeaks, and politicians are in denial over what they can do about it.

First, the media are generally on the wrong side of this issue. Maybe it’s a result of their own commercial interests (i.e., WikiLeaks is essentially a competitor), or maybe it’s because journalists act to protect the integrity of the politicians whom they professionally present to the public (i.e., journalists and politicians are friends and the latter will clam up if threatened). Either way, the media has echoed politicians’ treatment of WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization and published calls for Assange to be tried as a criminal on the premise that the cables are somehow life-threatening. Much of the media has gleaned the leaks for juicy gossip to report, all the while denying the legitimacy of the leaks. There has not been much, if any, mainstream coverage of the state of journalism and its relationship with the state. But just look at how journalistic associations that are at least a degree removed from corporate overlords and political sources to appease have reacted: pure denunciation of attempts to repress speech. That is the real significance of what is happening.

Political responses have been shameful and short-sighted attempts at repression because any attempt by governments to shut down a crowd moves is going to approach a form of Fascism. After Amazon was bullied by Joe Lieberman to stop hosting WikiLeaks in their cloud and EveryDNS revoked their account, sure, you can’t access http://www.wikileaks.org anymore. But you can still get to the site by going to http://www.wikileaks.ch/. And there are literally hundreds of mirrors backing up the Cablegate documents. The genie is simply not going back in the bottle. As The Economist puts it,

If Mr Assange is murdered tomorrow, if WikiLeaks’ servers are cut off for a few hours, or a few days, or forever, nothing fundamental is really changed. With or without WikiLeaks, the technology exists to allow whistleblowers to leak data and documents while maintaining anonymity. With or without WikiLeaks, the personel [sic], technical know-how, and ideological will exists to enable anonymous leaking and to make this information available to the public. Jailing Thomas Edison in 1890 would not have darkened the night.

Yet the debate over WikiLeaks has proceeded as if the matter might conclude with the eradication of these kinds of data dumps—as if this is a temporary glitch in the system that can be fixed; as if this is a nuisance that can be made to go away with the application of sufficient government gusto.

Even though one can easily disagree with what WikiLeaks has chosen to publish (after all, Assange has a vindictive penchant for “crushing bastards” which affects his own editorial choices), you cannot disagree with the fact that we are in times of lowest common denominators and paths of least resistance as a result of technology. The truth can always find its way out. WikiLeaks will always have editors other than Assange, and even has an insurance plan in the form of a poison pill of disclosures. What we can still control is the amount of damage that is done to freedom of expression. Despite the factual inability of the government to suppress the leaks, and the de facto irrelevance of Julian Assange in the leaking process, governments are still trying. Columbia students are being told they probably shouldn’t comment on the leaks if they want a government job. And in some startlingly ironic denial, the United States is in line to host World Press Freedom Day in 2011.

Clay Shirky, as usual, has an opinion I cannot help but agreeing with, as it expresses concern for how a technology is being used or abused by human actors in the short run, while acknowledging that the technological and social shift is the more relevant factor that all parties will have to wake up to very soon:

I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.

The Unites States is — or should be — subject to the rule of law, which makes the extra-judicial pursuit of Wikileaks especially nauseating. (Calls for Julian’s assassination are even more nauseating.) It may be that what Julian has done is a crime. (I know him casually, but not well enough to vouch for his motivations, nor am I a lawyer.) In that case, the right answer is to bring the case to a trial.

Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change. If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.

Since Assange turned himself in to UK authorities to get the charge resolved once and for all, I suspect he is still trying to force the contradiction by demonstrating that he is historically irrelevant when compared to the technological and social shifts for which he has served as the spokesperson, poster-child, and scapegoat. Assange is trying to lay bare the fact that governments are essentially in the business of suppression. One commenter wryly observed, “If anyone has examples of a time when government secrecy was used for something other than exerting force in support of self-interest, I’d like to hear them.” So would I. What we have here is Denial.

As Ross Douthat points out in a very effective critique/shrug, Assange is trying to move democracy closer to a (hopefully unlikely) historical contradiction:

The hyperbole of certain Republicans notwithstanding, Assange is not a terrorist. But he has this much in common with al Qaeda: In response to what they perceive as the inherent injustice of the American empire, both the jihadis and the Australian anarchist are willing to take steps that they know will make the United States more imperial in the short term — in Al Qaeda’s case, acts of terrorism that inspire American military interventions in the Muslim world; in Assange’s case, information dumps that inspire ever-greater secrecy and centralization in the federal bureaucracy — in the hopes that the system will eventually collapse under its own weight and “more open forms of governance” (or, I suppose, a global caliphate) can take its place.

The problem, though, is that the American national security state is almost certainly more resilient than either Assange or Osama bin Laden seems to think. Which means that their efforts at sabotage have little chance (by design) of prompting any actual reforms in the system they despise, a vanishingly small chance of actually bringing the whole thing to its knees — and a substantial chance of just making life worse for everybody, inside and outside the United States government alike.

The contradictions are becoming pretty apparent (e.g., the KKK can accept PayPal but WikiLeaks cannot), but that’s part and parcel of Denial. So, it’s pretty clear that being stuck in National Denial is going to be painful over the short-to-medium term, even as we transition from Denial to Anger. What we should be focused on is gaining some self-awareness with which we can grow responsibly, in contrast to our infantile reaction thus far.

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