THAT WORD, IT DOES NOT MEAN WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS

Posted in Rants on December 1st, 2010 by Ed

I started typing up a lengthy introduction full of anecdotes and metaphors but it makes more sense to cut directly to the chase on this one.

Wikileaks. Big controversy. Short version of my take: I fuckin' love it. Anonymous information dumps into cyberspace might be, I say with a hint of melodrama, our last, best chance to halt some fraction of the abuses of power that impact our lives.

My rationale is simple. First, the organization has barely scratched the surface of its capacity for taking down white-collar criminals. To this point nearly all of the attention has been focused on diplomatic and governmental documents. But just try to tell me you're not salivating at the thought of seeing a "megaleak" document dump on a "major U.S. bank" in the near future. Americans are so comfortable believing (and sacrificing to advance the interests of) their political, social, and economic elites that, with an assist from the corporate media, nearly any story can be swept under the rug unless the public is bashed over the head with evidence so voluminous and incontrovertible that our justice system is embarrassed into taking action.

Second, the Cold War, and particularly the American misadventure in Vietnam, irrevocably altered the paradigm for government secrecy. "Classified" documents are supposed to be, according to the government's own definition, information which would damage national security if released. Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret are merely ways of categorizing the extent to which the release of information would damage national security. Somewhere along the line, however, "national security" became synonymous with "stuff that embarrasses the government." What were the Pentagon Papers, after all, except evidence that the military and government were lying on a massive scale – to Congress, the public, and themselves – about American involvement and the conditions on the ground in Vietnam? Information proving that our elected and unelected leaders are lying to us is not, on that basis alone, a matter of national security. They are a matter of political security. Maintaining state secrets has become an expedient way of protecting the government, not the nation.

Nuclear codes are a matter of national security. This crap isn't. The "secrets" betrayed by this diplomatic cable dump range from the gossipy ("Prime Minister so-and-so has too much plastic surgery and a drinking problem!") to the "Are you kidding? Everyone already knows that!" variety. The Russian mafia is intertwined with the government? My word! That is simply shocking. The effect of the most recent information dump is not, as Obama and Hillary have so idiotically warned, that "lives will be lost." This isn't blowing the cover of any double agents in the Kremlin. This is just making the government look stupid. If you think "We don't want to be embarrassed" is a sufficient reason for the government to withhold information about its activities from the public, you have a very curious understanding of how this country is supposed to work.

Yes, the state will continue to punish people who leak classified material, and I understand why. The law is the law, after all. But I'm also glad that the information gets out, and if someone finds that information he or she has every right to disseminate it and make the public aware of what is done in its name. Again, these are not "state secrets." They are government secrets, and eliminating that distinction only serves the rhetorical purposes of Palinites who want to see Wikileaks personnel hunted down like terrorists.

Imagine if Wikileaks had been able to engineer a massive, coordinated information dump in 2002 laying bare all of the information revealing the lies used to prop up the case for war in Iraq. The system of classifying information exists for a valid purpose, but who among us is comfortable with the power to define what we can and cannot know about the activities of government belonging solely to the government itself?

"People will die if these secrets are revealed!" is not only a bald-faced lie in most instances but also the argument of last resort among people who believe that state power should be absolute and unaccountable. Even if the statement is true, it is a poor argument for blindly accepting the government or corporate judgment on what information we are allowed to see. Why are we so susceptible to the argument that revealing secrets costs lives yet blind to the fact that keeping secrets costs even more? Ask Iraq or Vietnam whether secrecy or an absence thereof carries the greater human cost.

And so in an era in which people get their real news from a comedian and their comedy from the real news, a non-state actor like Wikileaks represents our best hope for a more democratic state.