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My Semi-apolitical Stance on Wikileaks

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Unlike previous posts, I’m not going to try and take this particular news item purely from the stance of a libertarian.  Obviously my political views will have some influence on every post I make, including this current Wikileaks leak-stravaganza, but this post is more opinion-driven than it is trying to illustrate a broader point that reflects on the political philosophy of libertarianism.

Ok, let’s move on.  If you’ve somehow missed it completely, there’s an outfit called Wikileaks that is famous for getting a hold of private information – from public and private institutions, typically in the realm of international politics in one way or another – and makes them public.  Remember the “Climategate” leak from East Anglia University’s Climate Research Unit that officially blew the entire global warming argument totally out of the water? Wikileaks.  Remember the video of a U.S. helicopter accidentally strafing civilians?  Wikileaks (see prior link).  So whatever your political stance is, Wikileaks has probably seriously pissed you off at some point.  I’d describe Wikileaks as militantly transparent, in that it will publish whatever the hell it wants to make the world aware of government dealings that governments would really rather Joe and Jane Citizen didn’t know about.

Concerning this latest Wiki-leaking, the knee-jerk libertarian/anti-authoritarian is probably beside themselves with joy, equating forcible government transparency as nothing short of heaven on Earth – irrespective of potential real-world consequences beyond merely taking government influence down a peg.  The knee-jerk statist/war hawk/entrenched political hack would probably think anything Wikileaks leaks that does not reflect or reinforce their personal world view is high treason with the intent of destabilizing the world as a whole.  Either of these extreme views is probably driven more by emotion than it is by logic.  As convenient as it would be, I don’t think it’s possible for Wikileaks to be categorically bad or categorically good.

But what the hell is Wikileaks actually trying to accomplish?  Whatever your or my initial reaction to them might be, what’s their game plan here?

Argument #1:  Wikileaks is anti-American and trying to do harm to American interests.

Well, that really depends on how you define “American interests.”

Is it in the interests of the American government to have itself exposed in an embarrassing light?  Obviously not.  Beyond being exposed as having a clearly useless method of protecting sensitive material (if some jackass from Australia can get a hold of serious “state secrets,” what does that say about the competence of the state?), the government is further horrified to have a huge array of information suddenly available to the public at large.  Diplomatic discourse, domestic and international back-room dealings, and for all we know the original John Edwards paternity tests are all out there for anyone and everyone to see.

This raises two huge problems: 1) How the hell does the government save face in response to an obviously angered domestic and international populace, and 2) What the hell does this mean for future government maneuvering?  If you’re “the government,” and you’re used to flying under the radar and getting away with any number of things, the realization that what can and probably will be made public in the future means you have to seriously consider being held accountable for your actions.  This is nothing short of a colossal paradigm shift; it’s the highest-stakes “hand in the cookie jar” scenario anyone could dream of, and government policy will have to adjust to reflect this new reality.

That aside, is it in the interests of the American people to know what their government is up to?  I’m inclined to say “yes,” for readily apparent reasons.  If your safety and mine is dependent on what a group of people decide to do behind our backs, is it really in our best interests not to know just what exactly they’re up to?  Consider that our government recently agreed to a $60 billion military hardware sales contract with Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago, now only to have it leaked that our government knows damn good and well that Saudi Arabia is the principle funding source for Sunni terrorism.  Are we better off not having Wikileaks inform us of things like this?  Are we too stupid and backward to appreciate the implications of our government getting its hands (and by extension, our hands) dirty?  Does “daddy” really know best?  At what point do we deserve to know what’s being done in our name?  I mean, it’s just our lives and livelihood that rides on the political ramifications of what we’re not being told.

So if you think our government’s interests trump the interests of an informed American people, I guess you have to conclude that awareness is anti-American.

Argument #2:  Wikileaks, as the paragon of virtue, is the best thing that could ever happen.

Thus the pendulum thus swings to the other extreme: everyone should know everything that’s going on, regardless of what’s going on, right now.

From this stance, it doesn’t really matter what the rest of the world finds out we’ve been up to because now we know what we’ve been up to.  Sort of.  I mean sure, at least half of the hysteria as well as the glee out there about what Wikileaks has done is due to the fact that nobody actually knows the full extent of what they can and will continue to leak, but why get caught up in the details?  Whatever comes out of all this must be good.  Huzzah!

The ultimate conclusion of this argument is that no matter what happens as a result of this mass leaking, at least “now we know.”  It doesn’t matter that our government has been caught with its pants down in a National Enquirer sort of way; national security secrets be damned, everyone has the right to know everything their country is doing – even if that means the rest of the world knows it, too.

I think somewhere in the mind of anyone who takes this hard-line pro-transparency stance is the belief that Wikileaks will (hopefully) expose this kind of material on all nations equally, causing some sort of great public awakening and popular revolution that demands an end to government secrecy – and everything that comes with it – around the globe.  I think this is a sensible supposition; I can’t imagine that there’s really a big drive among the American people for an S&M sort of national self-flagellation on the world stage, and to hell with the consequences.  And to be fair, it isn’t as if the American government is the only one humiliated by having light shone into previously dark corners; just imagine if you’re China right now.  All things considered, therefore, Wikileaks “just has to be” the beginning of a good thing.

Argument #3: Who cares what Wikileaks is trying to do?  We need to focus on what’s going to happen.

Assuming you make it past a catastrophic “We are so screwed” mindset of an impending international doomsday Debbie Downer, or the “Where’s the champagne?  I SAID WHERE’S THE GOD DAMNED CHAMPAGNE?!” attitude of the deliriously happy Damn-the-torpedoes aficionado, welcome to a more balanced middle ground.

Fact: The government – in every sense of the word, and politics aside – has tremendous influence on our lives and our security.  Having no idea what government is up to completely defeats the point of our constitutional republic.  If government is supposed to serve the people (also see: The Constitution), why the hell would The People need to be clueless as to what their government has going on?

Fact: What is published by Wikileaks will be directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of completely innocent people.  I know Julian Assange likes to insist that his organization systematically and objectively reviews everything they put out, but I’m calling bullshit on that tripe.  I defy you to demonstrate that a group of anyone can thoughtfully consider what the release of a quarter of a million sensitive documents will do to the world.

Fact: What is not published by Wikileaks would be directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of completely innocent people.  Assuming Wikileaks never existed, you can’t be blithe enough to figure that a deaf and dumb American people (or anyone else, for that matter) would result in a world free of international consequences.  I defy you to demonstrate that our being clueless – at our own risk and at the risk of others around the world – is an inherently good thing.

Guess what?  We’re at war around the world one way or another.  People are dying one way or another.  Pathological government scheming enabled by rampant secrecy hasn’t done anyone much good lately, has it?  Obsessive transparency with a disregard of short-term consequences isn’t too bright either, and a fixation on hopeful or wishful long-term results isn’t any better.

Can Wikileaks be a good or even great thing?  Absolutely.  God knows we need a change in how our government interacts with us as well as with other nations, and there’s no way that can happen without Truth being brought to light.   Can we be missing the boat on the ramifications of some shadowy third party – Wikileaks – hemorrhaging information under the guise of a supreme understanding and appreciation of the ultimate results?  Beyond a doubt.

I’m all for a change in international and domestic governmental finagling.  It hasn’t brought about an iota of good for the rest of us.  Long-term, I believe we’re no better off and no safer being ostracized from what’s supposed to be public policy.  But should we venerate Wikileaks as an assuredly perfect “5-minute abs” kind of solution for what amounts to a centuries-old problem?  Don’t be naive.

I find it impossible to believe anyone can grasp what Wikileaks really means.  You can be consumed by pointless, steadfastly pessimistic, and uninformed terror, or you can be blinded by a deliberate insistence that an unknown cost is worth the unknown outcome; either extreme has a home for you if you like.  Myself, I choose to enjoy the possibilities of Wikileaks and what it may represent, but with a suspicious eye toward not only toward their agenda (everyone’s got one), but with uncertainty as to what this titanic shake-up could mean to a fragile country and a tumultuous world beset by historic problems.