A bit of 1771, an alternative Babbage quote, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan.

Note: This is my personal view.

Andrew McAfee has come out quite strongly against  wikileaks and Assange’s principles and motives  in particular.  We disagree.

However, like Andrew, I’m a fan of computer and political history and I often use ancient quotes to make an argument. This post will be no different, and I may ramble a bit.

Andrew  quotes Babbage,

I’ll outsource my answer to the legendary Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage: “On two occasions I have been asked, ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”

I suggest that in the case of wikileaks, the issue is not that the wrong figures are put into the machine, but the opposite.  The right figures are in the machine.  For the last few decades we have been slowly swimming in the ever warmer pond of  a censored and spin filled press and controlled information. 

Wikileaks exposes a whole lot of truths. Many banal, even trivial, but many not.  Look at the collateral murder video.  Any democratically minded person reading of  US pressure on the Spanish government  to disrupt the investigation in the death of the journalist should surely see the merits in exposing this sort of  behaviour? what about the spying on the UN? The list goes on.

I’ll also quote Babbage in response.

Those from whose pocket the salary is drawn, and by whose appointment the officer was made, have always a right to discuss the merits of their officers, and their modes of exercising the duties they are paid to perform.

Governments work for the people, not the other way around.

As I said last week I see little wrong with Assange’s goals for wikileaks,  I saw little in his paper or his various  interviews that I fundamentally disagree with.  I saw nothing that called for a violent overthrow of governments.  Andrew’s  “name calling without name calling” is wide of the mark.

I don’t want to join in the name-calling that’s flourished in the wake of Cablegate. It is fair, though, to point out that labels exist for people who want to bring about non-democratic regime change to duly elected governments. And it seems fair and fitting to apply those labels to Assange, based on his own words.

I  found Assange’s position in TIME magazine and other interviews  echoing Kennedy’s  the very word secrecy is repugnant in a free and open society rather closely. He states in the TIME article:

We don’t have targets, other than organizations that use secrecy to conceal unjust behavior .

He goes on say.

one is to reform in such a way that they can be proud of their endeavors, and proud to display them to the public. Or the other is to lock down internally and to balkanize, and as a result, of course, cease to be as efficient as they were. To me, that is a very good outcome, because organizations can either be efficient, open and honest, or they can be closed, conspiratorial and inefficient.

What is so treasonable in that statement?

When discussing companies in a Forbes interview Assange  said

Would you call yourself a free market proponent?

Absolutely. I have mixed attitudes towards capitalism, but I love markets. Having lived and worked in many countries, I can see the tremendous vibrancy in, say, the Malaysian telecom sector compared to U.S. sector. In the U.S. everything is vertically integrated and sewn up, so you don’t have a free market. In Malaysia, you have a broad spectrum of players, and you can see the benefits for all as a result.

….

It’s not correct to put me in any one philosophical or economic camp, because I’ve learned from many. But one is American libertarianism, market libertarianism. So as far as markets are concerned I’m a libertarian, but I have enough expertise in politics and history to understand that a free market ends up as monopoly unless you force them to be free.

WikiLeaks is designed to make capitalism more free and ethical.

 

Of the American politicians, Ron Paul is closest to Kennedy’s fine words thus far. 

State secrecy is anathema to a free society. Why exactly should Americans be prevented from knowing what their government is doing in their name? In a free society we are supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, however, we are in big trouble. The truth is that our foreign spying, meddling and outright military intervention in the post-World War 2 era has made us less secure, not more, and we have lost countless lives and spent trillions of dollars for our trouble. Too often it’s the official government lies that have given us endless and illegal wars resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and casualties.

Despite what is claimed, the information that has been so far released, though classified, has caused no known harm to any individual, but it has caused plenty of embarrassment to our government. Losing our grip on our empire is not welcomed by the neoconservatives in charge.

Thomas Jefferson had it right when he advised ‘Let the eyes of vigilance never be closed.’

Watch his speech in the house here.

Ellsberg, of the Pentagon Papers,  thinks so too.

The US government has used the power of transparency and openness in the past. Reagan, when talking about the cold war, said:

"Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders."   He also said,“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.”  I’m not labelling America totalitarian, but let me now rely on Roosevelt to make my point.

Zunguzungu links Assange to Roosevelt’s arguments of 100 years ago.  I think he is right.

Roosevelt realized a hundred years ago that “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people,” and it was true, then too, that “To destroy this invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of statesmanship.” Assange is trying to shit all over this unholy alliance in ways that the later and more radical Roosevelt would likely have commended.

 Henry Porter in the Guardian takes us back to 1771, and brings up the fascinating parallel of John Wilkes. It is relevant here.

Nothing is new. In 1771, that great lover of liberty, John Wilkes, and a number of printers challenged the law that prohibited the reporting of Parliamentary debates and speeches, kept secret because those in power argued that the information was too sensitive and would disrupt the life of the country if made public. Using the arcane laws of the City of London, Alderman Wilkes arranged for the interception of the Parliamentary messengers sent to arrest the printers who had published debates, and in doing so successfully blocked Parliament. By 1774, a contemporary was able to write: "The debates in both houses have been constantly printed in the London papers." From that moment, the freedom of the press was born.

It took a libertine to prove that information enriched the functioning of British society, a brave maverick who was constantly moving house – and sometimes country – to avoid arrest; whose epic sexual adventures had been used by the authorities as a means of entrapping and imprisoning him. The London mob came out in his favour and, supplemented by shopkeepers and members of the gentry on horseback, finally persuaded the establishment of the time to accept that publication was inevitable. And the kingdom did not fall.

Porter also notes

I limit myself to saying that we have been here before with John Wilkes; and the reason for this is that authorities the world over and through history react the same way when there is a challenge to a monopoly of information.

Porter’s whole article is worth reading. But here are some other gems.

I have lost count of the politicians and opinion formers of an authoritarian bent warning of the dreadful damage done by the WikiLeaks dump of diplomatic cables, and in the very next breath dismissing the content as frivolous tittle-tattle. To seek simultaneous advantage from opposing arguments is not a new gambit, but to be wrong in both is quite an achievement.

Never mind the self-serving politicians who waffle on about the need for diplomatic confidentiality when they themselves order the bugging of diplomats and hacking of diplomatic communications. What is astonishing is the number of journalists out there who argue that it is better not to know these things, that the world is safer if the public is kept in ignorance. In their swooning infatuation with practically any power elite that comes to hand, some writers for the Murdoch press and Telegraph titles argue in essence for the Chinese or Russian models of deceit and obscurantism. They advocate the continued infantilising of the public.

 

Is Wikileaks perfect?, no, but it breaks the monopoly of information that governments and large corporations have over us all.  This is no bad thing.  We can read stuff as adults and make up our own minds.  Whether it is Assange’s wikilinks, or future  alternatives, we now have  mechanisms for inspecting the sausage factory of statecraft. 

The Swedish documentary is well worth watching, it gives a better insight into the goals and foibles of Assange and his colleagues than anything else I have seen or read.

Clay Shirky picks up on the publishers in Amsterdam in the 16th Century

We celebrate the printers of 16th century Amsterdam for making it impossible for the Catholic Church to constrain the output of the printing press to Church-approved books*, a challenge that helped usher in, among other things, the decentralization of scientific inquiry and the spread of politically seditious writings advocating democracy.

This intellectual and political victory didn’t, however, mean that the printing press was then free of all constraints. Over time, a set of legal limitations around printing rose up, including restrictions on libel, the publication of trade secrets, and sedition. I don’t agree with all of these laws, but they were at least produced by some legal process.

He is spot on.

Shirky makes a strong argument that any attempt to control wikileaks must be done within the law. To go beyond it would give ammunition to more overtly un-democratic countries. 

The key, though, is that democracies have a process for creating such restrictions, and as a citizen it sickens me to see the US trying to take shortcuts. The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”

Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change. If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.

In 4 years, there hasn’t been any evidence of wikileaks leading to the death of innocent parties.  Long may that continue.

This story is bigger than wikileaks though, and as one of the web’s great sages says.

So now the internet exists, does it mean no one can keep a secret any more? No. It’s just like in the good old days before the internet: if you want to keep something secret, try not telling anyone.

The internet is designed to share.

6 thoughts on “A bit of 1771, an alternative Babbage quote, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan.

  1. Unfortunately, American diplomats have been living in another world – a world in which their words will only be read by their chosen recipient – for the wise there has never been such a world… such naivety is is an unfortunate trait in ones diplomat corps.
    Equally unfortunate is an old Republican’s view that killing the messenger is an effective solution.
    The American people deserve better on both fronts and it’s only the bravery of people like Assange that old worlds/guards change.
    Ultimately only a fool prefers the darkness of secrecy to the light of truth.

  2. Thomas,

    A very good post!

    On a lighter note, I fear that the next five years will be filled with Hollywood films about how the Military-Industrial complex controls the world …. and they will sadly seem less fantastic than previously,

    Joyeux Noel

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