This is probably some of the most interesting newspaper reading you’ll do all year. Basically wikileaks got a hold of a bunch of diplomatic cables and they are all inflammatory. There’s stuff making fun of various leaders and alluded-to plans for future realpolitik, and the NYT collected the “best of” for its readers.

Usually, stuff like this comes out years after its relevant, but some of these cables are from the current administration. Uh oh. The real interesting thing about this though is that I think it’s kind of short sighted. What value do these leaks have? Wikileaks wants to promote citizen understanding or something like that. Please, spare me. Average citizens don’t read DIPLOMATIC CABLES. But you know who does, other world leaders and governments. The president is supposed to have some executive privilege to consult with his advisors without having all the conversations subpoenaed and brought out into the open. Why is that? Because the government is secretly plotting against us? No, because the president needs to be able to hear honest assessments from people about dangerous and important situations without the fear that their candid assessments will be all over the NYT the next day.

Am I against “open government.” Hardly, but we need to think more carefully about what counts as an open government and a closed or secretive government. Diplomatic cables seem to be something that is straightforwardly not that important to disclose. Are Americans being abused in secret or are public officials taking kickbacks? No, diplomats all over the world, some living in hostile countries are trying to provide information to the executive who makes almost all the foreign policy decisions for this country anyway. In fact, the founders made things this way because they saw that a country will soon fall into ruin if it tries, as wikileaks is doing, to turn foreign policy into a democratic enterprise.

Changing international situations require quick and decisive action. One simple example, its very hard to bargain credibly with other powers (N. Korea anyone?) if the other powers think that everything you do and say can be grounds for a second-guessing media storm when it comes out on wikileaks six months later.

Will a more respectful approach to state secrets results in an a loss of democratic accountability? Not really because the president gets to see and hear all these decisions and if he responds to them poorly, then he and his branch will be accountable. Citizens are in control of foreign policy INDIRECTLY, just as they are for normal pieces of legislation. I didn’t vote on healthcare reform but my REPRESENTATIVE did. Same with Obama, we don’t get to vote on every foreign policy decision, but we do get to vote the president in and out after seeing the results of his handiwork. Trying to maintain democratic control WHILE he’s trying to do his job would just be a sloppy way to run government. Better to wait when international affairs are not so sensitive and then rearrange the executive branch with commissions, laws, reporting requirements, or whatever. Just blasting leaks though doesn’t help anything.

Not only do I find the whole thing pretty irresponsible, but I find it completely EMBLEMATIC of our facebook culture. Wikileaks is just an adult, high stakes version of sharing a link or updating a status. The metaphor seems so appropriate to me. Just as we feel the need to share our every move with other people, as society we feel the need to share our government’s every move with the citizens. The metaphor goes further though. Just as we share the most trivial and insipid details of our own lives, we now want to share the most trite and scandalous snippets from the workings of government. We are quite literally turning our own government into a celebrity from PEOPLE magazine.

Sociologists and psychologists have often remarked on how solitude is important for personal growth. People must be alone with their own thoughts to digest and reflect on the social world they go out into each day. In the same way, the government must have alone time too. No one thinks that citizens should know the codes to nuclear weapons or the locations of our CIA agents all over the world, but we are eroding the barrier between government business to a dangerously thin level, just as we are eroding the barrier between self and society through the daily promulgation of our lives.


3 Responses to “Wikileaks”

  1. November 29, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    What’s struck me about the media coverage, and reaction to, Wikileaks is how deferential it’s been. At least as far back as the build-up to the Iraq war, if not longer, it seems like the pundits who shape the American media consensus are willing to cut the government far too much slack. That’s not really what their job is supposed to be about, the whole point of a free press is to be the opposite of deferential to entrenched interests.

    Every time there is a leak, it’s always the same pattern: 1) OMG! Wikileaks is endangering national security! How come no on hasn’t killed these freedom-hating terrorists? (Jonah Goldberg seriously proposed this) … 2) Oh this is all old news, nothing to see here … move along, move along.

    Not sure how you square that circle.

    The government has done a great job of attacking the messenger. Really who cares if Assange is accused of sexual assault? In the scheme of things, that’s pretty inconsequential when compared to the conduct of wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people.

    • 2 questionbeggar
      November 29, 2010 at 5:28 pm

      I really agree with you about the need for aggressiveness from the press. And it may seem like my stance is kind of relaxed or favoring authoritarianism. As you’re pointing out, better to release too much information then too little.

      My main point really is this: there is a difference between reporting and releasing information. I’m all for the press trying to GET leaks out of people and then writing stories about what they find. This is how a watchful press regulates government action.

      However, is releasing a bunch of random tidbits an action of the press? I don’t think so because it does not frame the issue or clarify its significance or advance a conclusion. This is kind of my intellectual snobbery coming out I guess, but I think a democratic sphere cannot function simply by INFORMATION. There must be a structure and a point and a purpose. It is a symptom of a broken press and a broken media culture that what counts as regulating is merely releasing a lot of embarrassing information.

      Here’s the test: could serious (key word) have written a story about every leaked item in this batch of documents. No.

      Could serious journalists have written a story about some of this stuff? No doubt, and I wish our press would have delivered that and not just dumped a bunch of paper on us; it helps nothing.

      PS: i read your stuff (like your recent article about CP), and would comment, except your sports knowledge is above my pay grade. Interesting though.

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