Monday, December 13, 2010

My Two Cents on the WikiLeaks Controversy

As you can see from - the - past - few - posts, I’ve been trying to quote and link to other people whose opinion reflects my own rather than write a huge long manifesto. (I’ve got a thesis I’m dreadfully behind on. But I won’t bore you with my problems.)

However, as the issue doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, I’ve decided maybe it would be better for me to just write my piece and get it off my chest. (Not that I’m under the illusion that this blog attracts enough readers to influence the public debate, but it will help me sleep better at night knowing I’ve said what I wanted to say.)

There are of course a lot of terrible things happening in the world everyday (famine, poverty, wars, etc), but this issue in particular seems to stand at a crossroads in history. From here we either go forward into a world where governments are more accountable and information is more accessible. Or we turn the corner into where it becomes illegal to publish any information that your government doesn’t like. And any student of history can tell you that once society gives up a right, it is very very difficult to get it back again.
(Anyone who has read “1984”, a novel in which information is meticulous controlled and manipulated by the government, can have little doubt where George Orwell’s opinions would be on this subject were he still alive.)

The attempts to shut down WikiLeaks by governments ought to alarm everyone. It is also scary the way the corporations (Amazon, PayPal, Visa, Mastercard) have fallen into line to deny WikiLeaks service.

All of this of course has coincidentally happened at the same time Julian Assange has been arrested on a rape charge, which admittedly muddies the water a bit. Although I’m still waiting to see how these rape charges play out in court, if Julian Assange is guilty of rape, he should go to prison for it. That in no way however means the United States government is justified in attempting to shut down his website.

On a personal level, Julian Assange may be less than likeable. He comes off as arrogant and eccentric in many of his interviews. The authoritarian style with which he runs WikiLeaks has reportedly alienated much of WiliLeaks volunteer staff. And then there’s the rape charges again. But this should not be about Assange’s cult of personality. This is about the structures and laws that govern who controls information.

It’s also about freedom and the republic.

Although I’m not a lawyer, it is more than possible that Julian Assange may have broken some laws. However one can only talk so far about the laws as they are currently written. Rather one must argue for the laws as they should be written, as when William Pitt argued against Slavery in the British Parliament, or Thomas Paine argued for freedom of speech in British courts, or Martin Luther King argued on the steps of Washington for an end to discrimination.

Because governments make the laws, it is not surprising that governments would make laws to protect itself against its people. Thus we have walking around in Washington, in perfect freedom, respected statesmen who organized illegal wars, bombed rice farming villages back into the stone age, planned coups, and assassinations in Latin America, mined harbors, dropped cluster bombs on civilian populations, massacred villages, used depleted uranium missiles and funded money to terrorists in Nicaragua. None of this is thought by our government to be worthy of punishment. But publishing information about this government, or exposing the government, is a crime. Therefore we see the absurdity of what happens when governments create laws. (In fact, some members of the government even have the audacity to call WikiLeaks a terrorist organization.)

If our republic were functioning the way it should, the idea of government secrecy should be an oxymoron. A republic means res publica—literally a public thing. A republican government is not some sort of private club for the elites, a republican government is our institution. We own it, we pay for it, we should control it and operate it, we should vote for our representatives based on informed decisions about what these leaders are actually doing, and we should be informed about how well they are representing our interests.

We have the right to keep secrets from the government. The government does not have the right to keep secrets from us.

The degree of freedom in a society can be measured to the extent that government is held responsible to the people, not to which people are held responsible to their government.

The higher up in government you are, the less right to privacy you should have. (At least as far as your government job goes. Your sex life you should be able to keep to yourself.) The lower your power, the more right to privacy you should have.

At least that’s the way it should be if this was actually a functioning republic.

Instead, over the past few years especially we’ve seen this principle put on its head. With all the counter-terrorism and surveillance legislation passed in the last 10 years, we now have a government which has lots of information on us, but we actually have very little information about our own government.

We are also in danger of creating a system in which the average citizen is forbidden from participating in democracy in any meaningful way other than to tick a box once every 4 years. And furthermore they are supposed to tick that box based only on the information that the government thinks it is appropriate for them to have. All other important decisions are then left to the government elites, based on information the rest of us just can not handle.

Politicians talk occasionally about creating government transparency, but left to themselves politicians will only be transparent as far as it is convenient for them to be transparent. And it is precisely at the times when it is inconvenient for them to be transparent that transparency is actually needed.
Obama was elected on a platform of creating more government transparency, but we’re still waiting to see this campaign promise actually fulfilled. WikiLeaks (and the whistle blowers who have contributed to it) have created much more transparency in the past few months than Obama has in his entire presidency to date.

Addendum 1:
Part of what Wikileaks revealed was that the Australian member of the Labour Party, Arbib, has been passing on information about the inner workings of the Labour Party to the US embassy.
I don’t know if this made the papers back home, but it was definitely big news here.
Someone in the local paper made an excellent point the other day about the hypocrisy of this. The US government collects leaks from all sorts of informants around the world. This they consider perfectly okay. Arbib leaking to the US about the Labour Party is considered perfectly legal. But when someone else leaks information about the US government to the public, this is supposed to be illegal?

Addendum #2
Governments are of course constantly telling us that they need secrecy to operate in, and that all of our lives would immediately be in danger if that cloak of government secrecy were to drop for one moment.
It should not of course surprise us that governments would tell us this. To create a culture in which everyone believes this means it’s very easy for government to operate the way they want to.
The fact that we’ve all been so easily brainwashed into believing it is however a bit surprising.

Personally I’m skeptical. If our government operated in complete transparency--if all the cabinet meetings, Oval Office chats, and members of the energy task force--were completely out in the open, I don't think the sky would collapse and we would all die.

Of course politicians would drastically have to change the way they do things. They wouldn't able to do back room deals, or plan coups in South America, but that's not the end of world.

I also think counter-terrorism could operate just as well out in the open as it could behind closed doors.
Recall for instance that September 11th happened not because there wasn’t enough government secrecy, but because there was too much. The CIA was watching the suspicious Saudi Arabian men who were taking flight lesson, but didn’t share this information with anyone else. So much information was labeled secret that the various law enforcement agencies were unable to work together.
Now imagine what would have happened if all of this information had been open and freely available to everyone.


Addendum #3
Every high school sophomore knows the old adage that you don’t have the freedom of speech to yell fire in a crowded theater. Very few people know where the quote actually came from.

During World War I a group of Quaker Pacifists were trying to encourage young men not to join the army. The Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that this was illegal, and that this action wasn’t covered under their first amendment rights because, “you don’t have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater.” And thus a cliché was born.

The irony is of course that the Quakers were trying to save the men, and it was their own government which was hurling young men into the fire which was the European front in the biggest, bloodiest, and most pointless wars ever fought.
It’s worth remembering this little bit of historical context whenever someone tells you “you don’t have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater.”

It also established a pattern that holds true for just about any war ever fought. Governments send their young men and women into danger, and then when their citizens speak out against the war, governments accuse these citizens of putting the soldiers in danger.
When the government accuses WikiLeaks of putting US soldiers in danger, they are using the oldest trick in the censorship handbook. They’re also being incredibly hypocritical. If they really cared about the safety of the troops, they wouldn’t have sent them into the war.

I am very much concerned about the lives of the brave men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which is why I want them placed out of harms way and brought home immediately.

One last note:

In private conversation the past few weeks, I had actually been trying to defend the Tea Party Movement to some of my friends.
Sure, I had said, the Tea Partiers allow themselves to be manipulated by wealthy tax cut advocates business and health insurance companies. But even though they’re a bit paranoid, Tea Partiers are aware that human society has only recently emerged from tyranny and feudalism, and that this freedom was the result of years of struggle, and they have a healthy desire to try and protect the gains we’ve made.

Sigh. You know every time I try and give the right-wing the benefit of the doubt, I just end up regretting it.

Maybe there are Conservative voices I’m not hearing over here. But based on the news coverage I’ve been getting, it seems like Sarah Palin, Mike Hukabee, and the right wing radio nuts have all been calling for Assange’s head.

These from the people who’ve been telling us for months you can’t trust the government to manage your health care or your tax dollars.

Look, guys, if you’re going to play the populist card at least be consistent. There’s no right more basic than the freedom of information. If you can’t trust the government to manage our health care, you can’t trust it to control what information we can and can’t receive.

And while I’m complaining about conservatives: guys, how come the people have a right to know under the intimate details of how President Clinton pleasures young interns [in case you forgot, go look up the congressional records from the 90s. The graphic details about the cigar are all in there] but we don’t have a right to know about what our government is actually doing?

Okay, one last, final thought.

As should be obvious from reading all of the above, I'm not so much interested in debating the technicalities of the law as it is currently written so much as talking about the ideal of open and transparent government.

BUT...if one were inclined to sparse legalities here, an important distinction needs to be made between the people who actually leak the documents, and the media organizations that publish them.
Wikileaks didn't actually leak any of the material. It simply published it. As such, it needs to be considered as any other media organization.

Even assuming you grant a secret government, where all sorts of files are marked "top secret" and hidden in vaults behind security clearances and firewalls-- once something is leaked, it's leaked.

As a federal judge reportedly told the Nixon administration regarding the Pentagon Papers, once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't get it back inside again.

Once a secret document leaves the government's firewall and goes out into the public arena, the government can not silence the media from reporting on it. To grant the government this power is to go down a road we do not want to go down.

The media is under no obligation to suppress news stories that inconvenience or embarrass the government once it gets its hands on leaked documents.

Government secrecy is the government's priority. It is not, and should not be, the media's priority.

Link of the Day
Hopes and Prospects for Activism: "We Can Achieve a Lot"

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Quotes, Quotes, Quotes

[I've been enjoying reading the letters' page of the newspaper here (The Age, in Melbourne). Many of the comments on this WikiLeaks saga I thought really hit the nail on the head, and deserved a larger audience. So over the past week or so
I've been copying down all the best ones. Enjoy

It’s a shame they don’t go after sites hosting child pornography with the same vigour they’ve been going after wikileaks.
Bush and Cheney start a war based on lies, and Wikileaks is supposed to be illegal for telling the truth?
Only a politician would call the truth irresponsible
The Swiss have no scruples hiding the blood money of the worst criminals in the world, yet they froze the account of Julian Assange. Who put the frighteners on them?
Mike Huckabee says “anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.” There is a word for those who advocate the execution of people who have committed no crime. Terrorist.
Julian Assange is living proof that the nation that touts free speech so much, the USA, only allows it when it does not tell inconvenient and embarrassing truths about it.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau said in his book “On the Social Contract,” that “The people of England thinks itself free; but it is free only during the parliamentary elections.” Afterwards, they lived under an elected dictatorship.
The Julian Assange affair shows that this remains the case today. Politicians have poured bile over the whistleblower. In the US, elements of the Republican Party have demanded that he be put to death. Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric verges on the hysterical. Our Prime Minister and Attorney-General have mouthed the same hypocritical cliches as their US masters.
As in Rousseau’s day, politicians’ promises of transparency and accountability are soon forgotten; hidden behind thickets of “cabinet secrecy”, “commercial-in-confidence” and raison d’etat. They have mutated from servants of the people to masters over them.
Yet, there is an antidote to their machinations, which is why they are so furious over Wikileaks. As Oliver Wendell Holmes snr said in 1852: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty—power is ever stealing from the many to the few. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only by uninterrupted agitation can a people be kept sufficiently aware to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.


It’s easy to dismiss the extremist mullah s in Pakistan baying for the blood of a “blasphemer” as products of a cruel, primitive and bigoted fundamentalism. Apart from the absurdity of the “crime”—one that belongs in the Middle Ages—it highlights the problematic nature of an Islamic society, and we should all take note.
But where does this place the senior Republicans and radio hosts in the United States baying for the blood of Julian Assange? They are clearly on the same moral level as their pronounced enemies. In any civilized society, these individuals would be charged with incitement to violence. So where is that civilized society now?

The most revealing aspect of the Wikileaks drama has been that no one has come out and denied the veracity of the leaked diplomatic cables. Kevin Rudd has tried to laugh them off as inconsequential. But no one has said these revelations are a pack of lies. So when has speaking the truth become a crime? And if it is, how do we explain it to our kids?
I for one find it refreshing to hear the truth about the lies and misrepresentations peddled by politicians of all persuasions.


There are times when an event occurs that provides an opportunity to test the bona fides of those who participate in the political debates that are part of a thriving democracy. The WikiLeaks affair is one such event.
Political populism in the US is keen to paint government and its instruments as essentially working against the best interests and rights of its citizens.
The healthcare reform debate used the dearly held right to free speech as a means to attack the proposed reforms in ways that left many in Australia finding new respect for our own less than perfect political (and for that matter, healthcare) system.
Yet when WikiLeaks exposed some of the inner workings of the US and other governments, the same political populists suddenly lose their interest in the rights of individuals and start defending governments.
It is worth noting that the strident calls for violence and suppression against those who published the documents are the stuff of totalitarian regimes.


If Wikileaks had been operation 10 years ago, the illegal and immoral wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were based on the lies and greed of the US and its allies, would not have started. The lives of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilians would have been saved. It would certainly have saved the US economy from inching towards the present chaos as a result of the burden of financing these wars.
Assange has given true democracy a new lease of life when it has been dying around the world in the hands of unscrupulous politicians, corporations, and political donors. He deserves the support of all Australians.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on American Foreign Policy and US Politics

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Another Quote of the Day

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
--Thomas Jefferson

(Taken from this article here. Actually the whole article is well worth reading.)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Quote of the Day

(I'm Stealing this from the Daily Kos)

It's alarming to watch the reaction from some in the USA to Assange and Wikileaks. It's similar to how China responds to Tibet activists, or Nobel prize winners.

In case you think I'm being "rhetorical"... read on.

He has come under growing pressure after WikiLeaks started publishing excerpts from a cache of 250,000 secret messages. In the US, the level of political vituperation has become more vengeful. The former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has described Assange as "an anti-American operative with blood on his hands". The senior Republican Mike Huckabee said that "anything less than execution is too kind a penalty".

If this is the land of the free and home of the brave and freedom of the press yada yada yada, then wikileaks is holding up a mirror to our supposed values and beliefs, and what it's showing ain't pretty. It's crazed. I hear everyday people condemn Assange without even knowing the good that was intended AND accomplished.

Also this article is quite good too:
WikiLeaks: power's legitimacy directly proportionate to its transparency

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Google Search Game

A friend and I were messing around with Google the other night, and we ended up creating what I think is a really fun game. In fact we had so much fun doing it, I thought it would be selfish just to keep this game to ourselves, and that I had a duty to share it with the world.

So here it is:
Write an unfinished sentence. (We were using “Jamie is a(an)—“, but you can write anything you like.) People then take turns completing the sentence with different endings, and then googling it, in quotation marks, to see if that exact phrase is somewhere on the web. (You could also complete the beginning of sentences, like “— is a dangerous activity” or something.)

The goal is to get as few results as possible without actually getting zero. If you get zero results, the game is over and you lose. Otherwise, you write down the number of the results as your score for that round. (You’ll probably need pen and paper to keep score.)
You play for a pre-determined number of rounds. (We found 5 rounds worked nice with just two people.) If no-one actually goes bust (gets zero results) before the end of the game, then the person with the lowest score wins.

The game actually finishes pretty quickly, especially if someone gets zero results early on. So just to keep playing we started doing things like best 3 games out of 5, or best 5 games out of 7.
Initially we had the loser of one game go first for the next game, but if someone is having particularly bad luck this could cause them to have a run of several zero results right in a row. So the winner of each game goes first on the next game.

You could maybe also fool around with having the winner pick a new phrase for each game to keep things fresh. (Obviously it has to be something you can potentially put different endings on.) Although we were having pretty good results for our phrase, so we just stuck with the same phrase all the way through.

Also we were just playing with two people, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t expand this game to a bigger group. You may want to adjust the number of rounds depending on the size of the group.
With more than two people, if someone goes bust you can have a loser, but no clear winners. But that’s okay, there are other games that work like that (Jenga, for example). You could make it more interesting by having some sort of punishment for the loser.
Or you could just total up all the scores at the time someone goes bust, and have the lowest score at the time be the winner.

Probably a lot of other details and variations you can work out by yourself. Feel free to use this, run with it, and just change it up as you like. If you stumble upon any great improvements, let me know in the comments sections. But probably to a large extent the simplicity of this game is its beauty.


To the best of my knowledge, this is a completely original idea. But it does almost seem a little bit too obvious. Odds are probably somebody out there thought of this before me. Has anyone else ever done something like this, or heard of something like this before?

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Forgotten History