It’s another “What is this world coming to?” moment — something we should be getting used to with Barack Obama and the Democrats in charge of the government. Alas, the human imagination has its limits and contemplating the possibility that all our dirty diplomatic laundry would be hung out to dry so that friend and foe alike could take note of the holes in our bloomers just never occurred to us.
The unscrubbed, untreated thoughts and daydreams of many of our embassies around the world are now a matter of public record — cataloged, indexed, sorted by nation, and available with the click of a mouse. Ain’t the internet grand? This kind of stuff usually doesn’t become available until 100 years or so after the fact. By that time, everyone who made an idiot of themselves by dissing a head of state with mental problems or was proved spectacularly wrong in some wayward analysis would be long gone and turned to dust.
Welcome to the Instant History Channel brought to you by Julian Assange. Why wait on the passage of time or fading memories when you can immediately and spectacularly zing evil America by revealing all the backroom wheeling and dealing, lobbying, pleading, begging, stabs in the back, and political gossip that, taken together, make up our foreign policy?
Mr. Assange is evidently some kind of anarchist with the emotional maturity of a teenage hacker stuck in the body of a monstrously arrogant man. Imagine someone like Assange getting his hands on a nuclear weapon some day. With his kind of fanatical devotion to an ideal — openness and transparency — there is no telling how he would use the device, only surety that he would. Anyone with that kind of burning desire to expose “the truth” as he sees it could justify anything — including the incineration of millions.
Then again, in the case of Mr. Assange, one wonders how truly devoted he is to that “truth” in the first place. Perhaps when we see the nuclear secrets of Iran and North Korea on the WikiLeaks site, then we can at least be assured of his sincerity, if not his sanity. Until then, he can be pegged as another anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-authority juvenile delinquent — except he has a website and a knack for playing on the emotions of vulnerable people in positions to help him “expose” his targets.
James Dean or Sal Mineo he is not. His actions are reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell’s horrifically violent Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange. The mayhem caused by Alex had no purpose save nihilistic pleasure, an orgiastic descent into the depths of bloody depravity — a desire to watch the world burn. One gets the same sense about Mr. Assange when he calls on our secretary of State to resign. He has no interest in the wider world around him or how it works. He wants to smash things, and the idea that he cares whether Hillary Clinton remains secretary of state is ridiculous. No doubt, the man-child got a secret laugh when contemplating that people took his views seriously about Hillary’s future.
Mr. Assange, however, is just the symptom of a much broader and deeper problem: a kind of internet Armageddon to which we are headed unless we can figure out how we can be free without immolating ourselves at the same time.
I would imagine most of those reading this article treasure the idea that the internet is one of the last bastions of almost total freedom on earth — a place where anything and everything goes, where the sublimely beautiful rubs elbows with the most profoundly depraved, and where radiance and raunch can occupy the same space, at the same time, thus defying the physical laws of the universe.
It is the the last outpost in the Wild West complete with gunslingers, banditos, highwaymen, and the occasional offended aboriginal. All of this freedom and openness comes at a huge cost, however: we, the meek and mild-mannered townsfolk, have yet to get around to appointing a sheriff in a white hat to protect us from the likes of Mr. Assange and his merry band of nihilistic knaves .
At the moment, the bad guys seem mostly interested in knocking off the rich ranchers and cattle barons who can afford to hire armies to protect them. Tweaking the tail of the lion by dumping diplomatic cables on to the internet or publishing the cell phone numbers of politicians and bureaucrats is serious mischief-making but doesn’t threaten our privacy or well being directly.
What about 10 years from now? Can the concept of “openness” and “transparency” be taken too far? Suppose an Assange-like messiah arises who declares that personal assets, bank accounts, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, tax returns and other very personal information have no business being hidden from view; that privacy itself is an authoritarian construct; and that everybody should know everything about everyone else. Only then can we all be truly “equal.”
A far-fetched scenario to be sure, but a logical, if not reasonable, extrapolation from the current state of affairs. How could you prosecute the violator? Revealing some of that information is against the law, but we would run into basically the same problem we have with prosecuting Mr. Assange. It all depends on how the law is interpreted, and given the fact that applicable statutes were written in a pre-internet age, there are probably holes through which a clever attorney can maneuver his client to freedom.
We all know how the internet has revolutionized communication. But flowing underneath the surface of history over the last 15 years or so has been an even more startling and worrisome trend: these new means of communicating have created an impetus to openness that might be unhealthy. Transparency as an ideal is a good thing. But can too much of a good thing lead to untoward consequences?
The WikiLeaks dump will probably damage the global conversation. Nations will be less likely to share with the United States. Agencies will be tempted to return to the pre-9/11 silos. World leaders will get their back up when they read what is said about them. Cooperation against Iran may be harder to maintain because Arab leaders feel exposed and boxed in. This fragile international conversation is under threat. It’s under threat from WikiLeaks. It’s under threat from a Gresham’s Law effect, in which the level of public exposure is determined by the biggest leaker and the biggest traitor.
Assange has his defenders who remind one of the way that some British Conservatives used to talk about Hitler back in the 1930s: To paraphrase, “Well, he’s a little extreme, isn’t he? But his heart is in the right place when it comes to the Soviets.”
Averring that what Assange has accomplished is mostly good, or that his efforts and methods may be extreme but he has the right idea about transparency, just doesn’t wash. He has given us a glimpse into a possible future where transparency is an end in and of itself by which any violation of our personal space can be, and probably will be, justified under the rubric of everyone’s “right to know.”
The government agencies and corporations who hold our most personal and private information will have to become fanatics about protecting it in order to counter the fanatics who are seeking it. This was not done in the WikiLeaks matter, as the irresponsibility of those who made it ridiculously easy for someone to waltz in and download 250,000 cables shows. The pre-internet mindset of those in charge must change and change now before information that might start a war, or teach a terrorist how to circumvent security, or instruct some monstrously arrogant man-child how to build a nuclear bomb makes us sorry the internet was ever invented.