In the “about” section of this blog, I quote Richard Rorty’s definition of the “ironist.” An ironist 1.) has radical doubts about the ontological, moral or political vocabulary in use in contemporary society, 2.) cannot find a defense expressed within that vocabulary which resolves these doubts, and 3.) correspondingly doesn’t believe that either the vocabulary he or she uses at present–or any he or she may pick up or innovate to express their troubles or insights or the World–grants access to supra-human authority or even objective truth. To an ironist, the terms in which we express our ethics and morals are like scientific theories in only one sense: They are necessary at a fundamental level and even rewarding at an advanced level, but it is still vanity to approach them as though they (and not their aims) have to be defended. We must be sensitive to incongruous events or developments; it is important not to assume that the old moral or political categories apply when somehow, by some dimension, World A has become World B.
Wikileaks represents a case where I feel our usual political values leave us ill-equipped to understand the problem–not merely the problem posed by Wikileaks, but the problem of Wikileaks in light of the arrogance of its front man, Julian Assange. Since the time of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal (and in part probably because of the maturation of a generation weaned on, or at least exposed to, rebellion against any authority), we’ve nearly been raised to reflexively look askance at an argument that tends to the defense of power.
On a side note, I’d say the political tragedy of the George W. Bush Presidency isn’t the squandering of that great outpouring of sympathy from abroad after September 11th (though this was a considerable loss), but the loss of the solemn sense of togetherness when our hubs of power were attacked by a weak but incredibly vicious and arrogant enemy. At a time when the vast majority of Americans set aside their cynicism and earnestly looked to the President to set an agenda to confront a threat most of us had been complacent to, George W. Bush became a convert to a philosophy that had some very naive ideas about a complex and dangerous World, and frittered away everything. But this is a digression.
In any case, today the Liberal Ironist speaks in favor of an actor with a great deal of power that has even been accused by a weak assailant of abusing its power–and abusing a great many people in the process. The steps it is now taking against that weak enemy notwithstanding, the United States government deserves a defense against his general charges. Wikileaks chief editor and front man Julian Assange has a long history of assuming propriety over information; he became a hacker in his mid-teens back in the 1980s. His blog reveals a radical who actually seems to believe that his current stunt is part of a campaign that will make international politics radically more-just. Consider this post from his blog from New Years’ Eve 2006:
“…The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive ‘secrecy tax’) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.
“Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.
“Only revealed injustice can be answered; for man to do anything intelligent he has to know what’s actually going on.”
While the full effects of Wikileaks’ mass leak of around 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables cannot be known at this time, we know a at least a few things about Julian Assange. 3 qualities or assumptions about Mr. Assange which I think we should keep in mind are on display in the blog excerpt above: He possesses (and enjoys demonstrating) considerable mental facility, he thinks injustice is to be rectified from a macro-perspective, and he apparently conceives of the whole international order of states as a single government.
He’s misguided on the first of those points and horribly, dangerously wrong on the second. Assange seems to think it’s good strategy to release diplomatic cables that are primarily embarrassing to the United States because he believes that all governments, to put it crudely, are “in on it” and colluding in an environment of informational symmetry; their ability to share information and negotiate with each other, so the underlying rationale goes, puts “all of them” on the inside, and we, the mass of meek private citizens on the victimized outside. In this thinking, those who don’t wield the power of a state have no horse in the race at any time.
In short, we are being “leaked to” by an Anarchist, and in our post-Vietnam, post-Watergate “naive cynicism” we might assume this man is another Daniel Ellsberg. This analogy is completely off-base for 2 reasons.
Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers (Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara’s extensive, secret history of the Vietnam War) to the New York Times in 1971, but he had first gone through normal, public channels to try to bring them to light, first asking the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to start a hearing calling for their release in September 1969. He didn’t turn to the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers until 1971. There is also a crucial difference between the Pentagon Papers themselves and the enormous store of classified documents being released by Wikileaks. The Pentagon Papers were a big story–in a way, they were the story of the Vietnam War. They documented the Johnson Administration’s deliberate pursuit of the war prior to commitment and even explicitly rejected rationales for the war like the “domino theory” or the intrinsic strategic value of South Vietnam as an ally as reasons for staying in the war; the point of the war was to demonstrate US commitment to fight a Communist insurgency. This was a damning revelation, but it involved a specific policy; it was not some kind of generalized attack against the system.
Assange portrays his purpose as being to increase access to information as though all he really cared about was the marketplace of ideas. But his own views on what he leaks colors what he finds. A good example of this was his release of 2007 footage showing US military helicopters firing on a group of armed Iraqis in an incident that killed 2 Reuters photographers. He cut the video down, removing context that indicated military ignorance of the presence of the reporters or the discovery, after the fact, of assault weapons and rocket-propelled grenades among the Iraqis killed in the strike. This editing, plus his own use of the title “Collateral Murder” to suggest the deliberate killing of the photographers to cover up a massacre, came up during Stephen Colbert’s excellent interview of Assange last April. Assange admitted during the interview that Wikileaks promises its sources it will release obtained information in a manner intended to “maximize political impact,” a promise that should be borne in mind before we assume that Assange is bringing fire to the people. He has preconceptions about our government and wants to undermine it by hyping the (mostly, not completely) lukewarm but voluminous Defense and State Department documents at his disposal; Colbert seemed to be repressing his disgust during the interview.
I know, I know–the Liberal Ironist hasn’t defended the powerful, he has attacked the weak. Later today there will be another entry, and I will disaggregate Assange’s naive conception of conspiracy among the states to make the case that Assange hasn’t just attacked the wrong government, but some of the best people in that government. In the meantime, if anyone thinks this sounds like unfair invective, they should read the terser, harsher, and more-eloquent words Joe Klein had to say about Julian Assange.