Wikileaks and the long haul

Clay Shirky writes:

Like a lot of people, I am conflicted about Wikileaks.

Citizens of a functioning democracy must be able to know what the state is saying and doing in our name, to engage in what Pierre Rosanvallon calls “counter-democracy”*, the democracy of citizens distrusting rather than legitimizing the actions of the state. Wikileaks plainly improves those abilities.

On the other hand, human systems can’t stand pure transparency. For negotiation to work, people’s stated positions have to change, but change is seen, almost universally, as weakness. People trying to come to consensus must be able to privately voice opinions they would publicly abjure, and may later abandon. Wikileaks plainly damages those abilities. (If Aaron Bady’s analysis is correct, it is the damage and not the oversight that Wikileaks is designed to create.*)

And so we have a tension between two requirements for democratic statecraft, one that can’t be resolved, but can be brought to an acceptable equilibrium. Indeed, like the virtues of equality vs. liberty, or popular will vs. fundamental rights, it has to be brought into such an equilibrium for democratic statecraft not to be wrecked either by too much secrecy or too much transparency.

As Tom Slee puts it, “Your answer to ‘what data should the government make public?’ depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government.”* My personal view is that there is too much secrecy in the current system, and that a corrective towards transparency is a good idea. I don’t, however, believe in total transparency, and even more importantly, I don’t think that independent actors who are subject to no checks or balances is a good idea in the long haul.

If the long haul were all there was, Wikileaks would be an obviously bad thing. The practical history of politics, however, suggests that the periodic appearance of such unconstrained actors in the short haul is essential to increased democratization, not just of politics but of thought.

We celebrate the printers of 16th century Amsterdam for making it impossible for the Catholic Church to constrain the output of the printing press to Church-approved books*, a challenge that helped usher in, among other things, the decentralization of scientific inquiry and the spread of politically seditious writings advocating democracy.

This intellectual and political victory didn’t, however, mean that the printing press was then free of all constraints. Over time, a set of legal limitations around printing rose up, including restrictions on libel, the publication of trade secrets, and sedition. I don’t agree with all of these laws, but they were at least produced by some legal process.

Unlike the United States’ current pursuit of Wikileaks.

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3 thoughts on “Wikileaks and the long haul

  1. Christopher Hoare

    Who has trained the judgementally challenged public to regard changing ones position or opinion to be a sign of weakness? “For negotiation to work, people’s stated positions have to change, but change is seen, almost universally, as weakness.” Clearly the intention has been to deny the masses the key to understanding the essentials of debate and compromise — which would otherwise be accessible to all — to the benefit of all. How can a society so liberally endowed with houses of higher learning have allowed such a travesty? Why have these guardians of ‘wisdom’ remained silent while this has been done — been too busy safeguarding their pensions?
    The dreams of liberal education have long been trampled in the dust. The founding of libraries and public colleges was expected to lead all of society to greater knowledge and wisdom — but it seems that maintaining tuition fees has been a greater imperative.

  2. Bob Jackson

    This assumes the United States is a polity. It is not. The government and the people are almost polar opposites. It is a crime society, a brutal society in which all money flows to the top, and citizens are reduced to milch cows. Organised crime has infiltrated the system so completely that it can no longer function politically. And crime societies, which rely on secrecy, are doomed to fail. Lieberman, with his, ahem, unconventional funding, is a prime example. He can only destroy, not reform; silence his critics, not learn from them – short-term victory, long-term defeat.

    I think it’s a mistake to focus on the dramatic side of Wikileaks. Big issues are not debated at that level. But you can easily find conscientious officers struggling to cope with the results, who desperately need an informed public. A true democracy would never have hidden this. And it makes the Liebermans vulnerable.

    I can’t get past one sentence in the Cunningham cable, “Israel, A Promised Land for Organized Crime?” (15 May 2009), which Justin Raimondo discussed last Friday: “the above visa cases demonstrate the challenges that have arisen since the termination of the Visas Shark in September 2008”.

    Think about it. In September 2008, at the height of the economic meltdown, when hundreds of billions of crime dollars were successfully laundered, and a process began which would force many Americans into penury, someone in the State Department quietly switched off the very program which kept Israeli crime lords at bay (the Likud Party being the confluence of the Russian Mafiya and its American equivalent), and nobody has ever switched it back on. Is it any wonder that nobody was prosecuted for destroying the American economy?

    Track down the people who enabled the mafia then, and you go a long way to winning your country back. The secrecy is not designed to protect the integrity of the process; it is there to actively subvert it. Assange is the true patriot (not American, but all men are brothers), and Lieberman the traitor. Americans are so alienated from their government. Until they peep behind the veil, they’re doomed to their death spiral.

    Oh yeah, the memo. That reported the heads of Israeli crime and the police are teaming up with Indian IT to produce software for law enforcement. If Americans don’t do something quickly, every police force in the world will be working for the mob without even realising it. One little algorithm in a computer’s back door, monitored far away from detection, will be constantly trying to pick you out of the herd. And while states go after stroppy types like Assange, crime picks on the unobtrusively pliant. Either way, you can’t duck this fight.

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