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Friday Nugget Blogging

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“OK, so how is this different than us finding out what our friends are saying about other people and then passing that information along to get them mad at each other? Don’t you adults always tell us not to do that?”

Ah, yes. There is indeed something truly middle-school-esque about CableGate. No wonder even the celebrity press is covering the various stories of unflinching insults and brazen back-biting: it’s what readers love. And no wonder my various press inquiries this week on Cablegate included op-ed requests from the Swedish tabloids.*

That said, to be fair, her question deserves a measured, parently answer, and there are a couple of differences here.

A) He Means Well. One is that Assange probably isn’t doing this for the express, sole purpose of stirring up animosities among governments. He appears, at least, to genuinely believe that what he is doing will empower ordinary people and encourage governments to govern better. (Banks are next.)

According to Assange, speaking on Democracy Now:

We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government. And that is our sort of modus operandi behind our whole organization, is to get out suppressed information into the public, where the press and the public and our nation’s politics can work on it to produce better outcomes.”

Now someone might argue he is hopelessly, naively wrong about this, but his goals at least are framed as well-intentioned. He’s not equivalent, in other words, to a middle-school mean-girl bully just out to one-up others by making sure they know what people are saying about them.

On the other hand, how much of a difference do good intentions make here in answering my daughter’s question? When she and her friends used to share denigrating gossip at school, they often believed their own interests were altruistic too: “She needs to know what people are saying about her so she can protect herself.” “Someone needs to say this to her face.” “Better that she hear this from her friends than someone else.” Here too, their assumption was that transparency and brutal honesty leads to better social outcomes. And they were almost always blindsided to realize how actually, human social relations don’t work that way.

Anyone who has (and most of us who haven’t) seen The Invention of Lying knows how false this is. That’s why our entire social fabric is based on something called “courtesy,” which is another way of saying, it’s ok and even good to be slightly dishonest when it helps someone and hurts no one. If something concerns you that cannot be usefully discussed in public, share it in private and leave it at that.

B) Holding the Powerful To Account.
But here’s a far more important difference, as I explained to my daughter: State Department officials are not private individuals (like school-children), they are public servants. They serve organizations meant in theory to be accountable to a constituency.

Radical transparency has a different meaning here. There is a difference in practical terms between what Assange is doing through Wikileaks and what Mark Zuckerberg does through Facebook: though they are both promulgating the same ‘radical transparency’ agenda, Assange is targeting governments and corporations, and Zuckerberg is targeting private citizens.

I think it’s reasonable to consider how blurry this distinction is politically, and how much the popularization of this strategy by Wikileaks sets us up for the same set of rules applied to these are in political terms, but ethically at least they are different because they are in power. Isn’t it both fair and productive to hold diplomats – as public officials – to account?

Why I’m Not Convinced. That raises the question of whether to buy Assange’s claim that transparency about what power-holders say or do as such is good for democracy. While I agree that sometimes this is true, I cannot agree with this position in unqualified terms. Here’s why:

It Depends on What Kind Of Information. Assange may be right that more evidence about what governments are actually doing may be better – for analysts, historians and the public. However I see no evidence that leaks of this type – about essentially what policymakers think other policymakers might be doing – make us smarter or better informed.

Instead, they confuse the press and the public by encouraging us to treat rumor and hearsay as actual news. “US Claims North Korea Shipped Missiles to Iran, Russia Doesn’t Believe Them” becomes “Iran Obtains North Korean Missiles Which Can Strike Europe” and “Western Powers Discuss Fears of Pakistan’s Arsenal” becomes “Wikileaks Cables Highlight Pakistan Nuclear Threat” and “South Korea tells US China told South Korea it’s annoyed at North Korea” becomes “China Ready to Abandon North Korea.”

In fact this tendency to reify rumors as evidence of fact reminds me, having just slogged through Marc Thiessen’s defense of torture, of the types of evidence he gives in favor of torture: “We can’t get actionable intelligence any other way, because these individuals who believe so have said so here, here and here.”

This – and much of the coverage of the “news” in the cables, (which is actually just information about what people think the news might be), is the opposite of fact-based, deliberative reasoning on which a well-functioning democracy depends. It does not help us understand or make policy, it muddies the waters – just like paying too much heed to the middle-school rumor mill distracts young adults from a healthy focus on actual relationships and on their schoolwork.

It Depends on What the Information Shows. Assange’s statements suggest he wants to reveal information to combat corruption and abuse. The key critique of diplomats based on these cables is that they are two-faced.

But for a diplomatic corps, that’s hardly a vice. That “courtesy” I was talking about, the willingness to not say every tactless opinion that comes into your brain, at least not publicly? That level of discretion and politeness we inculcate in our youngsters? Diplomats have perfected this art. That’s what diplomacy is.

[Interestingly, some diplomats appear to be secretly relieved by the leaks, both because they make the diplomatic corps look a lot cooler than people once thought (see also Kashmir Hill and Joshua Kucera), and because they are finally on the record (inadvertently) for things that they could never and would never and should never say publicly on purpose.]

It Depends on Whether The Discretion Destroyed Was Serving the Goal of Good Governance or the Goal of Abuse. It’s not just in the diplomatic corps. Good governance in general, as well as authoritarian governance, sometime benefits from discretion.

Consider another parable from family life, the staple piece of wisdom generally dished out to co-parents by family counselors: if you have to disagree about parenting strategies, don’t do it in front of the kids. There are many cases in which it’s important – in terms of achieving the collective good (say, a smooth-running household) – to say one thing (or not say it) publicly, but to reserve the ability to say what you’re really thinking through private channels. Both other alternatives are unhealthy – saying everything publicly or saying only what can be said publicly without offending.

I would suggest it is not only consistent with but critical for a functioning democracy for frank conversations among public officials to be possible, even when they cannot be shared immediately with the public. Surely this is necessary to counter-act the authoritarian tendencies of governments as well: by providing a space in which individuals on the inside can speak and think freely without undermining official policy.

Where Does This Leave Us? None of this means that there isn’t a role for whistle-blowing of the kinds of “state secrets” or “corporate secrets” that can be reasonably assumed to counteract, rather than serve, the public good. I have argued in favor of such whistle-blowing in such specific cases. But it means that the “radical transparency” agenda promulgated by Assange and others needs serious qualification if it is to makes the world better governed, rather than ungovernable.

What would/should that mean?

*If the Google English translation of the piece makes your eyes hurt from poor grammar or just from laughing (see especially the title), you can read the equivalent essay here.

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