Thursday, July 29, 2010

Beating my head against the Wall (Street Journal)

"'As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth's final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality...but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.'
-commissioner Pravin Lal, Human Declaration of Rights"
-Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
It's a punchy piece of prose that makes my hair stand on end even now hearing it for what must be the hundredth time. It's a truth which we neglect at our gravest peril. So when I see something like this:
"If American voters come to believe that newspapers or websites are cavalier about putting U.S. soldiers or allies at risk against our enemies, politicians will follow the public mood. The press will put its own freedom in jeopardy."
-Wall Street Journal (take the first link provided, as it will get you past the WSJ's paywall)
I tend to get a little riled up. "No", I want to shout, "that is NOT how it works". Reading the rest of the article will put the quote in context, but it won't do much to excuse the WSJ. For one, the piece reads less as though they are actually in opposition to the release of the Afghan documents...and more incensed that they were not approached as media partners, witness:
"We don't believe in prior restraint, but it is worth asking whether the Times, the Guardian or Der Spiegel are really serving the public, much less allied security interests, in validating Mr. Assange's methods by flying in publishing formation with him."
This is an opinion which seems to rest on the assertion that the leaked documents aren't telling the public anything they don't already know, an opinion which I've seen floating around several articles and comment threads on the issue. The clever response has been: "why, then, were they classified?". I think this "nothing new" logic is a flimsy argument perched on top of a flimsier one: that we should implicitly trust our governments to provide us with accurate, unbiased information. I highly doubt that the people who have come out against this leak would be in favour of state-run media, so why would they imply that we ought to trust the official story? The US government especially has a lot of face to lose in this war - after 9 years prosecuting it that's inevitable. Are they likely to publicise their failings openly and transparently? We wish. Fortunately, we have wikileaks and some semblance of a free press.
If there's a valid claim in the WSJ article, it's that wikileaks should probably have done a better job editing or erasing the names of Afghan informants. After all, those names aren't all that important to our understanding of the war. Keeping their identities secret benefits them and us, because we want people to keep becoming informants if we're going to "win", whatever that means anymore.
Beyond this one particular leak, though, I think it's so crucially important to support wikileaks (would that I had any money to spare!). The public SHOULD KNOW what's in treaties like ACTA because the public is precisely who they're going to affect. The public SHOULD HAVE access to better information about the progress of the Afghan war because not only are we as taxpayers funding these wars, we as citizens bear in part the responsibility for them. The Afghan war is certainly the kind of issue that could sway an election, but which way? If we don't have good information, we can't be sure! It's not a question of priviliged access here: it's whether we do or do not live in a democracy. Yes, we vote; no one is taking that away from us (yet). But voting without adequate, accurate information is a ritual, a rote action taken more out of habit than conscience. It is not the informed decision that we should have every right to make. Living as we still are in the paranoid fantasies of post-9/11 government, Wikileaks is an invaluable resource. An election whose result is the censorship of wikileaks and/or the press -as the WSJ suggests may be the result of radical anti-secrecy - would represent nothing less than the cascade failure of democratic society.

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