Wikileaks on The Wire
I suppose I’ve been noticeable by my general absence on the Wikileaks brouhaha over the last week. Much of that has had to do with real life priorities, but some of it has simply been that I’ve been struggling to make sense of where I stand on it. To that end, both Mike Farmer’s comment quoted by Jason below, and Daniel Larison’s post this morning have been particularly helpful to me. Nonetheless, my thoughts are still completely muddled and scattershot, and about the only thing I seem to know for sure is that the various aspects of this contain the seeds for a paradigm shift in the public’s view of and relationship with the State (though that may or may not be in the manner that Barrett expects and indeed presumably desires). So to give my thoughts at least some semblance of coherence, I figured I’d turn to quotes from the single-most paradigm shifting television series of my lifetime for some help. So, here goes:
– “All in the game yo, all in the game.” – Omar. What Wikileaks is doing is, and should be, legal, regardless of whether what its sources are doing is, or should be, legal (in some cases, it should; in others, not so much). I do not trust the State to decide what does and does not qualify as protected journalism or speech under the First Amendment in ordinary circumstances; I trust it much less when the relevant disclosures are embarassing or intend to be embarassing to the State.
– “Ain’t enough y’all done violated the Sunday morning truce. No, I’m standing here holding a torn-up church crown of a bona fide colored lady. Do you know what a colored lady is? Not your moms, for sure. ‘Cause if they was that, y’all would’ve known better than that bullshit. Y’all trifling with Avon Barksdale reputation, you know that?” – Slim Charles. What Wikileaks has done with Cablegate is profoundly unethical under any system of ethics other than anarchist ethics. If one is not an anarchist, one should be condemning Wikileaks’ actions here rather than praising them. Perhaps because of its scattershot approach, Cablegate appears to have successfully “exposed” (as noted below, there are meaningful things it has unsuccessfully exposed) relatively little other than that the American diplomatic corps is highly professional and quite honest and well-intentioned on the whole. If one is not an anarchist, and thus accepts the need for diplomacy, exposing so many communications of that sort undermines the ability of diplomats to do their jobs with any kind of candor. Government officials will likely become more, rather than less, secretive, even as no wrongdoing has been exposed from a non-anarchist perspective. From a non-anarchist perspective, this should make Cablegate distinct from previous Wikileaks releases showing the public vital information about the failures involved in two wars of highly debatable legitimacy or utility.
-“Man must have a code.” – Bunk. If one is an anarchist, then of course what Wikileaks is doing in Cablegate should be celebrated, and it’s thus no coincidence that Assange is himself an anarchist. I am not an anarchist, though I accept it as a legitimate ethos.
– “Baker, Let me let you in on a little secret, The patrolling officer on his beat is the one true dictatorship in America, we can lock a guy up on the humble, lock him up for real, or say fuck it and drink ourselves to death under the expressway and our side partners will cover us, No one – I mean no one – tells us how to waste our shift!“- Det. Jimmy McNulty. I am appalled by calls for Assange to be prosecuted on espionage charges or assassinated. Even if one is not an anarchist (and I am not), I would hope that one could recognize that anarchism is an entirely legitimate political worldview. I would also hope that one could recognize the terrifying consequences of a government entity possessing the power to pursue private individuals with no duty of loyalty to that entity for the act of publishing information embarassing to the government. That prosecutorial discretion exists as a restriction on future prosecutions under the same theory as would be used for Assange is of little comfort; quite the opposite, in fact. The exercise of prosecutorial discretion, after all, has a bad tendency to be just a cute phrase for “discretion to prosecute those who anger the prosecutor.”
– You know, Avon, you gotta think about what we got in this game for, man. Huh? Was it the rep? Was it so our names could ring out on some fucking ghetto streetcorner, man? Naw, man. There’s games beyond the fucking game. Stringer Bell. The attacks on Visa, et al, seem misguided under any ethos. Certainly, the discriminatory treatment towards Wikileaks by these private entities is confusing. The comparison Jason mentioned this morning with the KKK is instructive. Why permit payments to a universally-despised and unquestionably abhorrent subversive entity while prohibiting them to another (admittedly subversive) entity which possesses fairly widespread support (albeit with widespread opposition as well)? I assume it’s safe to say that this isn’t an ideological statement by these corporations so much as it is a response to pressure from the State. Going after the corporations themselves thus can do little to change the corporations’ position, even as it inconveniences and harms the innumerable customers of these corporations.
– “Whiting, Klebanow, Templeton… They snatch a Pulitzer or two, and they are up and gone from this place. For them, that’s what this is all about. Me? I’m too fuckin’ simple-minded for that. ” Baltimore Sun City Editor Gus Haynes Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the Wikileaks model is that it admits of shockingly little editorial discretion. The result is that its utility is drastically reduced for any purpose other than making it more difficult for the State to conduct its core functions. It is not terribly useful for putting an end to specific injustices committed by the State, particularly because it relies heavily on traditional media to analyze, disseminate and sort the information in the leaks. This is fine, I suppose, if making life more difficult for the State is your entire goal. Otherwise, the dumps seem to provide so much information that the media can choose to focus on relative trivialities, such as whether Hamid Karzai was called a bad name, and readily ignore items that actually show wrongdoing. This I think, is a primary reason why Assange has become a target in a way that no one would ever think of doing to a quality investigative journalist obtaining leaked documents. For the average person, there isn’t even arguably a public benefit flowing from the document dump. By contrast, if the document dumps demonstrated an exercise of editorial discretion in and of themselves wherein only purported actual malfeasance was exposed, it is only those stories that could receive coverage, and anger could be directed at that malfeasance.
-I’ll do what I can to help y’all. But, the game’s out there, and it’s play or get played. That simple. –Omar. To turn to Mike Farmer’s argument as cited by Jason, I agree that ultimately the only proper response to institutions like Wikileaks is the development of an informal public code of ethics. Attempts to shut down or prevent, through use of the State’s tools, future copy cats of Wikileaks or even Wikileaks itself will ultimately either fail or result in an unprecedented clampdown on internet freedom, to say nothing of the loss of the benefits of a Wikileaks copy cat exercising actual editorial discretion. An informal code of ethics would allow people like Assange to operate according to their own independent code of ethics (unpalatable as that code may be to most people), while minimizing the impact of violators of the informal public code by providing little attention to information gleaned from those violative acts and placing public pressure (especially economic pressure) on the media to focus only on those releases that are consistent with the public code of ethics. The existing blowup over Wikileaks is precisely the opposite of this: the media, by focusing largely on the more trivial aspects of the dumps, is furthering Assange’s violations of this hypothetical ethics code, even as it serves to shelter the State from exposure of its true misdeeds. The public debate is primarily over Assange himself, who is alternately viewed as either a monumental hero or an incomparable villain, but in any event is thus provided every incentive to continue his operation without change. Rather than ignoring him for his transgressions of this hypothetical ethical code in which one should not have to worry about one’s communications being exposed unless there is something many would view as actually sinister about those communications, and in which actually sinister acts should not be given less exposure than private expressions of candor, we have rewarded him by making him into a Bond Villain/Comic Book Hero chimera.