The only sure way to stop Wikileaks is to close down the entire World Wide Web. Which means, as a practical matter, given the nature of the internet’s decentralized structure, that it is virtually impossible to shut down this outlaw conduit and its public internet releases of secret government and corporate information.
The truth will always make people very nervous when their power and their fortunes depend on deceit, duplicity, secrecy, and profiting by doing great harm to others.
A woman at the breakfast spot I frequent was standing near the counter yesterday while I was eating a bacon biscuit, listening to the news commentator on the TV in front of me as he described some of the diplomatic communications from the Wikileaks latest information dump.
She rolled her eyes. “My nineteen year old son is obsessed with this thing. It’s all he talks about. He’s even got me reading stuff on the internet about it. He watches True TV and hates the government. I think all this stuff has got him screwed up. I just don’t get into all that stuff.”
I put my biscuit down, and tried to explain why this was such a big deal, but she kept staring at me. So I took a different tack. “Imagine if someone taped your personal telephone conversations for the last five years, and then put the tapes on the internet.”
Her eyes widened.
“You probably couldn’t work here anymore if that happened.”
She slowly swiveled her head from side to side, her eyes still wide.
We have been standing around for decades, worried to death about nuclear annihilation, while a shadowy, retro evil dictator archetype from the Cold war era has stepped out of a James Bond movie to hold the world hostage with servers full of secret government and corporate data. Even more amazing than that is the Web 2.0 way he has acquired it all.
Strangers on the internet have given it all to him for free.
My initial reaction to the latest Wikileaks saga could be characterized by the phrase “the truth shall set you free”, followed by the ubiquitous “information wants to be free”…
…except this particular Wikileaks information dump is the kind of thing that can tie a person in philosophical knots for days. There is a certain delicious satisfaction you get as an ordinary citizen from seeing the high and mighty being hoisted on the petards of their own words. But that feeling is tempered by the seeming lack of purpose behind this release of several hundred thousand secret U.S. government documents, especially when the effectiveness of the last information dump by Wikileaks in changing in our government’s stance towards Afghanistan is considered.
In a lot of ways, Mr. Assage is playing the role many j-school graduates dreamed about back when they used to read about Woodward and Bernstein’s exploits, or the Pentagon Papers. But those dreams are still just dreams, because modern journalism is invested heavily in promoting and maintaining the status quo. This is where I get twisted up in knots again, knowing full well that today’s status quo serves the interests of too few at the expense of too many. Too much inside baseball has reduced American citizens to the equivalent of human widgets, nothing more than fodder for half assed political policies and incessant corporate downsizing efforts.
The most disappointing thing about the Wikileaks information dumps of U.S. government secrets is the lack of a definitive storyline for such a voluminous number of documents, as if the act alone of liberating a large amount of heretofore undisclosed information was supposed to magically endow the masses with the kind of moral suasion that allowed the civil rights movement to effect systemic change. But the civil rights movement didn’t circumvent the law, because its participants were not flitting about the globe between interviews like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – its spokesmen had to abide by the existing laws of the land while they protested inequality. It’s while turning this comparison over in my mind that Mr. Assange’s outlaw persona loses a little bit more of its appeal to me for a minute.
In case a lot of folks don’t remember, the Afghanistan documents Wikileaks disclosed earlier this summer – you know, the ones you’ve already forgotten about - were a huge deal too when they hit the web. But most of the secrets that release revealed were mundane, and the secrets that mattered, while embarrassing, did not create their own narrative. They did not tell a story compelling enough to light a fire under public opinion the way the Pentagon Papers did during the Vietnam war. In the end, the few truly important secrets Wikileaks released about Afghanistan have been mostly ignored by the public and endured by the government, while the U.S. continues to send thousands of troops and billions of dollars to Afghanistan.
That our government’s party line has no relationship to the absolute truth is no surprise to most people. As much as we say we’d like our politicians to act like Boy Scouts, I am convinced that we are much more interested in them getting things accomplished. There is something that every sales manager I’ve ever had has said. “Do what you have to do” is a phrase that perfectly encapsulates the mindset of every industrialized culture around the globe. Frankly, most of us are probably relieved that our diplomats are not Boy Scouts, and are willing to “do what they have to do” to get the job done.
I think the deeper issue that comes out of an episode like this, the one that touches too close to home for many of us, is the way this story brings us all face to face with the double, triple, and even quadruple lives that we all have to lead in order to maintain a civilized global society. We hate the way it makes us come face to face with a fact we all deal with everyday - that the artful lie is a much more useful tool than the flat out truth.
Why isn’t any of this going to be a big deal in the end? Because it never is. Because political journalists are the laziest scribes of the whole news reporter tribe. And because I can safely guarantee you most of the commentary will center around twenty or thirty tidbits of information that will be rehashed, regurgitated, and recycled for the next three weeks between various hard news articles and op-ed columns.