Logos, Pathos and Wikileaks
(Disorder, left, and order, right, as the Black Bloc flees police.)
Being peripherally attached to some of those professionally affected by WikiLeaks’ disclosure of the State Department’s diplomatic cables, I’ve been able to put forward a sort of thought experiment. Over lunch with former colleagues and acquaintances, I solicited what single question they would ask to Julian Assange, or the more physically accessible Jacob Appelbaum.
The answers profoundly failed to gratify, questioning rationality and loyalty (save the academic delightfully asking about selection bias). In this predictability, one notices an argument deeper than just the morality of releasing sensitive information. It only takes a few moments for the debate to break down into something resembling a futile attempt to reconcile Hegel’s antinomies of reason.
The forces at work become naked — not just a conflict between ideology and pragmatism, but the interplay of pervasive sense of masculinity that is both veracious and sociopathic.
The analysis reflected in the mainstream media has been that the cables released so far are rarely revelatory in a manner that materially affects foreign policy. Certainly, there will be fall out from American spying on the U.N. or Yemeni sanction of missile strikes. The majority of the stories, however, are sensationalist and propagandic prattling about nurses and nicknames.
The purview is best summarized by a friend in public diplomacy: instead of the dismantling of an illegitimate and abusive hegemony, the information is more likely to constrain international cooperation, reduce debate within government and limit the number of people that talk with embassy staff. In other words, whereas there was value in exposing the cost of war, the massive and unqualified release of documents is more likely to get foreign nationals and FSOs killed for what they assumed were private conversations.
There is clearly an effort by the establishment to reduce the impact of the leaks by diminishing the perceived significance of the disclosures. Looking across the responses that assert that WikiLeaks is ‘undercutting its own worldview,’ one see a predictable disclosure, authors whose resume includes ‘Assistant Secretary of State’ or ‘senior government official.’
It is possible, however, to abjure without being complicit in the plot.
One can reasonably concede that there is value in the documents as a tool to contextualize the decisions and processes of American foreign policy. It also does have the potential to change public opinion in a favorable manner on matters like Hizballah (with allegations of smuggling missiles with ambulances, etc) or corruption and power distribution in Russia. The central critique stands. We have yet to see evidence of banana republics or massive sanction of human rights abuses — and we are unlikely to in SECRET-level documents.
Stepping back further, there is a on-going debate in the fields of political science and public administration on the usefulness of transparency (Malesky, Schuler, Tran 2010) (Prat 2005). Malesky, et al summarize the contrarian viewpoint.
“transparency can have perverse effects in systems where agents (politicians) understand the relationship between behavior and outcome better than their principles (the voters)“
Again quoting the abstract, they find in Viet Nam that:
“…transparency has no direct effect on the quantity or quality of delegate behavior in the National Assembly. Moreover, delegates subjected to a high intensity of treatment actually demonstrate evidence of curtailed participation and conformist behavior.”
This presents a counterfactual argument that is neither an appeal to patriotism nor a question on specific policy. The point of contention is whether absolute transparency is productive to policy-making processes. The WikiLeaks angle on secrecy, which seems to be that it should only exist to prevent bodily harm, is an absolutist notion of transparency that even the likes of Lawrence Lessig seem to shy away from (Lessig 2009). Regardless, it’s not clear that adding to the deluge of information that already exists on how the world operates will shift the American public’s view of international affairs, be reflected in the policies of the government or create beneficial change.
The competing id, the pure pursuit of a righteous cause, the need to write history, dominates the heart at the cost of the mind.
Assange embodies a definition of masculinity that exists within a set principles founded on pure passion and a belief in humanity. He and WikiLeaks are modern-day cowboys, unrestrained by borders or establishmentarian tendencies. We can quickly abandon sappy expositions on the libertarianism of the ‘hacker mentality’ because the argument is much more easily reducible and is as such: the true value of any information may not necessarily be quantifiable, but in being accessible, at least has a fundamental good that can be inferred.
Afterall, Steward Brand’s mantra ‘information wants to be free’ is not an objective analysis of economic conditions, it’s a vivid imagery that appeals to the heart, something like a tide crashing against an oppressive shoreline. The common mistake has been to think that those who follow this are nihilists. Such premises cannot be further from the truth. Instead they tend to believe that, regardless of consequences (in terms of lives lost or dictatorships overthrown), that there is a public value for this information to exist openly because it increases the possibilities for people to make rational and properly-informed decisions. From this vantage point, arguments over politics and strategy are myopic, compared to the need for populist shifts in power. WikiLeaks is societally transformative.
It is also personally transformative. I once leaked private information to a local reporter — nothing particularly important, just matters of bureaucratic infighting. All I violated was the trust of family. At that point, the wont to fight immoral behavior combined with my inextinguishable fondness for journalists.
Such behavior is, in some way, a product of Nixonian politics. To be a part of a conspiracy is a fantasy of the educated, middle class — furnished by images Bob Woodward meeting Mark Felt in the basement of a parking garage. For my betrayal of another’s trust, I was rewarded with a sanctimonious thrill of having been a part of a cabal that existed to correct a wrong. The experience was profoundly liberating.
WikiLeaks becomes an opportunity for maturing infosec professionals to play spy games on their spare time, creating fake data trails for fear of monitoring and boasting of their centrality by feeding breadcrumbs of information to the golden smiles of adorable, young naifs. It isn’t necessary to reconcile the inherent ideological contradictions of a daytime working for government contracts, when the night is spent fighting the pol-mil establishment. We need not look further than Private First Class Bradley E. Manning’s chat logs with Adrian Lamo, to find credibility to this statement.
Such is the zenith of libertarian, where the difference between the governance of the United States compared to Saudi Arabia is minimal. The distrust of institutions a foundational truth of the movement. By increasing the likelihood and damage of information leakage, WikiLeaks believe it taxes the apparatus of authoritarian power and reduces the potential for anti-democratic behavior (Assange 2006). Contrary to the assumptions of many, the destruction of SIPRNET would not be merely collateral damage, but an accomplishment in pursuit of the goal of reducing the number of potential actors in an authoritarian system.
Wikileaks is dogmatic and lacks falsifiability, but it is not nihilistic. It’s an alternative vision of reality that requires the destruction of institutions that prevent meritocracy and a politicized public. To adhere to its principles means a fundamentalism on the level of Marxism or religion, because it asserts it holds redemptive power. To any believer, that is hard to disagree with.
WikiLeaks is not an intellectual argument, it’s a frame of mind that has been formed with time, exposure and crisis. Those who share the purview will understand, but there is a wide gulf between the organization and a public that is not predisposed to this mentality.
In the case of the diplomatic cables, although the themes apply broadly, international politics is incredibly dense field, so much so that careers are made on specializing on particular aspects of narrowly-defined geographies. Here, trust is pervasive in our system for utilitarian reasons. If a Harvard-trained Ph.D. can only handle so much, say civil society in China, then how can we expect an automechanic from Detroit to make well-informed decisions. More importantly, we should ask why the latter should really care. The more rational model for their livelihood is to trust the government and spend their energy on matters of greater immediate reward than American interference in sovereign countries.
Without changing this equation, there will remain a irreconcilable cultural disconnect between the agent and their principles.
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- 12.1.10 / 4pm