Real Thoughts on WikiLeaks; or, How Howard Roark Became a Hero of the Left

<rant name=”my real thoughts about wikileaks” sentiment=”please don’t hate me” causeofdelay=”trying not to get into flame war” >In recent interviews (e.g., with Time, Forbes, and The New Yorker), Julian Assange demonstrates repeatedly how little he knows about world politics, about the open-source information already available regarding the topics he claims to be “revealing,” or even that “climategate” was not thoroughly and repeatedly discredited. He advocates a philosophically bizarre “total governmental openness” so universal that it obviously entails that “we the people” (like Ronald Reagan, the Tea Party would like us to forget that this is a long-held description of the US governmental system) would be obliged to reveal every bit of data we have about ourselves. (Where does Assange mention that IRS personal data–however one might define that–is exempt? the CDC? NIMH? Social Security? All email of every government employee? The Facebook page of every government employee? And when all of this data is available to everyone, have we somehow made it not available to the “bad people” in government? etc.)

Assange’s position is: the government (that is, us, we the people) should have open access to every email, every phone call, every conversation, and be able physically surveil every activity of everyone. You think I’m crazy. Unless you work at a small company called Google, where every single thing I have just mentioned is official policy and ongoing practice and occasionally even mentioned on Google company blogs because the employees are hypmotized into thinking it’s great. well, there are probably not cameras in the bathrooms–though i would not rule out microphones.

So: how does Assange propose to draw a line between the data that “should” and “should not” be “open”? answer: he doesn’t even try. and who does he propose should draw that line? just him. in what sense is it part of “democracy” to have one lunatic do that whose own hacker/leaker friends disagree with him? add: are pseudo-utility web services like Google, Twitter, Amazon API (bells should be ringing) and Facebook part of the government whose data should be radically exposed? There will become stronger and stronger arguments that they are. how many champions of Assange also believe that their Facebook data should be private? these will soon become mutually exclusive propositions if Assange gets enough followers. or if they are not already.

Assange’s rhetoric is the closest parody of Howard Roark to be taken seriously by mainstream media for a long time, but he’s being championed by people who claim to have read 1984 closely (for close readers: I am referencing two different novels here). Did anyone notice how little real news was discussed in *any* US outlet for several weeks in favor of endless discussion of WikiLeaks–not that the world is crumbing around us or anything (which you could however easily hear about on the BBC, who paid only *some* attention to Assange). Btw, how much politics and history does Assange reveal he has read in interviews? (an open research question, but i think it’s fair to say “not very much at all.”) The other public figures who say things like Assange: Eric Schmidt; Clay Shirky; Cass Sunstein; Mark Zuckerberg; John Perry Barlow–Barlow actually does an ok Roark impersonation himself. personally, that is one of the teams i really don’t want to be on. even if “black-throated wind” (track 5, omg) haunts and has haunted me more than any other song for my whole life… (not that it’s the lyrics that make the song, either–although some aren’t bad.)

Perhaps the most notable and “censored” but not “project censored” fact about US media today: it is now acceptable for most news readers to be unable to easily or even at all pronounce names like Ahmadinejad and al-Zarqawi and the once-American Anwar al-Awlaki. It’s funny–I hear them so often on the BBC, Aussie radio, etc. that I would think anyone who cared about the news wouldn’t even flinch. Yet now even many of the hourly newsreaders on NPR can barely pronounce a “stan” country leader right–and while I have yet to hear a single mangling of Laurent Gbagbo on the BBC, almost no US reporter can pronounce it [it’s that d**** silent G, which you needn’t care about if you listen to the news. “bagbo.” no sounds not in English, even. I would not hold anglicized pronunciation of “Laurent” against monolingual US reporters, but “guh-buh-go”????] but we don’t need to listen because our new open information guru has got it all taken care of for us, and besides, it’s in sub-Sarahan Africa that is not South Africa, so events there are of very little interest to us. We’re not even sure whether this is happening in Ivory Coast or Cote d’Ivoire for god’s sake!</rant>

<question type=”extra-credit” stance=”rhetorical”>Pick a super-critical world situation (I know, there are only 2 dozen or so to pick from) that you follow closely in the news, about which some information was leaked by Assange. Demonstrate to yourself, and find a variety of knowledgeable people about that area who agree with you, that either the information Assange released, or even the principle of revealing that sort of information, will have any demonstrable positive effect on the future of that world situation</question>

<question type=”extra-credit-bonus” stance=”mournful”>Name any one of 2 dozen critical world situations in which the awful truth is clearly available in widely-read media, and yet we citizens are completely unable to affect it any more than we could before.</question>

<question type=”mean” stance=”painfully serious”>What is politically positive about several thousand geeky, mostly-boys, who have read even less about politics or economics than Julian Assange, but have the ability to shut down a significant percentage of the world’s money flow because they feel like it? Before championing that as “hactivism,” have you researched the question of how much money is already stolen from banks via electronic networks (I have been told by industry insiders that it is a staggering amount that is kept quiet for just that reason)? I really want to find a sane way to undo the violence of capital, but I don’t think that’s it–and I suspect that if and when they get into your account (which is then called “identity theft,” but it’s all the same set of processes and methods) you may not find them so heroic or revolutionary. nevertheless, you should worry more about Goldman Sachs getting into your bank account.</question>

Julian Assange

Julian Assange

<remark content=”final bitter irony”>A “wiki” is a piece of software renowned worldwide because it allows everyone to contribute and edit–in theory. We’ve learned in practice that this kind of radical openness is more easily said than done. But the irony of calling a site wikileaks when it closed down its wiki functionality in late 2009 and is today basically only a one-way broadcasting medium (i.e., “a blog with comments turned off”) for one guy with incredibly questionable philosophical and political views are is a little beyond the pale, even for a jaded rhetorician like myself.</remark>

<remark type=”condescending” intended-audience=”engineers who learned everything about politics in their computing science classes because the humanities are a waste of time”>”Open” is an incredibly flexible and ambiguous word. “Open information,” “open government,” “open society,” “open access”–these things are all very poorly defined when addressed directly, and sometimes mentioned as if they are all the same thing. they aren’t. In many ways they have nothing to do with one another. on some definitions and in many circumstances they actually contradict one another.</remark>

<remark type=”cautionary” tone=”callous and bitter sarcasm”>There will be another “WikiLeaks” and another “twitter revolution”–by which I mean there will be more mass media stories telling us that radically open information technology is so great and important that the actual political events needn’t even be reviewed. I hope we can learn to stop paying attention to them, or at least pay them the very little attention they deserve (like the BBC did; only about 2-4 hours of their 24 hour daily world service got swallowed up by it each day). Actually, I’ve just been told by his superhot girlfriend whom I’m secretly seeing on the side that Clay Shirky is now touring the country giving a 20th century history of Iran and its neighbors with special attention to the end of the ottoman empire, so I will stand corrected and shut up.</remark>

I feel really bad about this, but I’ve decided an academic career is less important than being able to tell the truth once in a while. the two are coming to seem less and less compatible. or is it my imagination that many people who will openly explain how loathsome Howard Roark is, will champion the exact same nihilistic, destructive, self-centered and self-aggrandizing “philosophy” that the Roark-like Assange embodies.

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One Comment

  1. David Golumbia
    Posted January 12, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

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