How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in't!
-- William Shakespeare, "The Tempest," V/i --
Julian Assange wrote an article laying out his core philosophy for the dawning, digital age.
He seeks "to radically shift regime behavior." To accomplish that goal requires three things:
"Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must [sic] use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action."
Quite an agenda for us goodly creatures. It is unreasonable to ask Julian to complete it in a four-page article. It is reasonable, on the other hand, to ask: Is he off on the right foot?
1. The title of the essay, "State and Terrorist Conspiracies," shows we're already in trouble. Julian is lumping together two very different types of organizations. For starters, an al-Qaeda terrorist cannot pick up the phone and call his accomplices without risking their lives; State Department employees, on the other hand, can and do telephone each other all the time. They are doing it right now in fact, thousands of them. There are other fundamental differences; nowhere does Julian make them. Which leads one to believe that, for him, there aren't any. Not really …
2. Julian: "We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not."
To boldly go where no man has gone before: I like it. I think the Internet makes possible a type of polity heretofore not only impossible but unimaginable. I foresee a time when certain types of legislation, say abortion, can be blocked by registered voters voting on the Internet. Among other things, the percentage required to effect the block must be determined with great care: 50% plus 1? 66%?
How about voting on the war in Afghanistan? Sound farfetched? In 1961, Charles de Gaulle held a referendum: do you want "autodetermination" for Algeria, yes or no? 75% voted yes, which ended the war; France pulled its troops out. What's wrong with that? Sure wish I could have voted on the war in Viet Nam.
If vast numbers of voters are upset about an issue, it may be best to let them decide it. However, the conditions in which they would be allowed to do so must be drawn up with skill and ingenuity. This "Yes But" position is a third one made possible by technology; the first two were mentioned by Tocqueville:
"When the War of Independence ended, America found itself divided between two opinions. These opinions are as old as the world itself, and one finds them assuming different forms and called by diverse names in all free societies. One opinion wants to restrain the power of the people, the other wants to extend it indefinitely." (De La Démocratie en Amérique I, in Œuvres, Gallimard, p. 196. (II, II))
3. Julian gives us a good dictionary definition: "Conspiracy, Conspire: make secret plans jointly to commit a harmful act …" Conspiracy definitely has a negative connotation; you don't "conspire" to improve public education in America, for example. However, not all issues are so clear-cut, and differences of opinion exist. To mention only one, the State and Defense Departments argue that Julian and WikiLeaks are harmful -- that they are conspirators. Who is right? The answer depends on what is meant by harmful. Who gets to define it? Shakespeare, again: "There's the rub." ("Hamlet," 3/i)
4. Julian: "Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial."
Julian gave us a definition of conspiracy. He now charges off into authoritarian without defining it. Can it be that in his mind conspiratorial = authoritarian, so having defined the former, he has also defined the latter? Furthermore, does he think all regimes are conspiratorial and therefore authoritarian? Are we not, in the end, talking about all governments everywhere? To size this one up, if the mainstream media were doing its job, instead of asking Julian about his sex life they would start by asking him to give an example of a nonauthoritarian government. Is there a single government anywhere that has nothing to "leak"?
Pursuing that line of questioning, major issues emerge. It seems that for Julian, authoritarian = concealment = conspiracy. But is it possible for governments to conceal things and not be authoritarian? For that matter, can they conceal things and not be conspiratorial?
I answer "yes" to both questions. That is to say: all authoritarian governments conceal things; however, that does not mean that any government that conceals something is authoritarian. Likewise, all conspiracies are concealed; that does not mean, however, that everything that is concealed is a conspiracy. I suspect that Julian, at bottom, would respond otherwise. Again, I challenge the media to ask him. Go ahead, NBC, CBS and The New York Times -- show your stuff, if you've got any. Your colleagues at ABC and CNN tried the other route and got royally, appropriately gonged.
Julian speaks of the "individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization." Vague at best, untrue at worse:
Vague, because he makes no effort to operationize his words, viz., what does he mean by "freedom" in concrete, observable terms, e.g., does a government allow the writ of habeas corpus?
There's an old game out there. It's amazing the huge number of people who are fooled by it. Question: what do you mean by "freedom"? Answer: Freedom is justice plus equality. Question: But what do you mean by "justice"? Answer: Justice is 1/3 equity, 2/3 order. You can go on for years like that: nebulous, floating around in the clouds, never touching the earth once. Basically, the game sends us from Pontius to Pilate. Julian has a good term for it: the mire of politically distorted language. As his own nebulous language demonstrates, that mire is difficult to escape.
Untrue, because history, e.g., Germany under Hitler, shows that time and again people have chosen security over any of the things Julian mentions. Freedom, truth, self-realization: no doubt he and his WikiLeaks staff have those values; that does not mean everybody does. By the way, beauteous mankind, I share those three values. That's the easy part ...
Julian says that plans which aid and abet authoritarian rule, "once discovered, induce resistance." This is different from the first statement -- that authoritarian rule by its very nature induces resistance; you don't need to know its "plans" to hate it, oppose it. I was in Panama under Noriega, in Chile under Pinochet. I didn't know what their plans were. That didn't stop certain ideas and feelings from entering my head as I walked down the street, I can assure you.
Here we get into plans and their nature. Apparently, Julian sees the WikiLeaks cables as authoritarian plans by the State Department: are they? Thanks to WikiLeaks, we learned that a U.S. diplomat called the Russian leaders Batman and Robin: fun, colorful, catchy, but where is the authoritarian plan in that? How does that cable assist the U.S. Government, presumably authoritarian, to maintain its authoritarian rule? I don't get it.
It is clear that Julian has never worked in a government; otherwise, he would know that employees love to cook up kewpie pie insults about people in power: "Mickey Mouth," "The Eighth Dwarf: Greedy," "An amateur hour in search of a Ted Mack," ad infinitum. That doesn't mean those employees are conspiring against Russia or anybody else. Most likely, they're letting off steam, trying to get a laugh from their colleagues.
In other words, the fact that governments conceal negative comments such as Batman and Robin does not mean those governments are conspiring; it means they don't want to needlessly create international tensions. I'll bet Julian has made nasty comments in private; he certainly has in pubic. Example: he recently called an ABC reporter a "tabloid schmuck."
Nasty comments and their concealment, then, on both governmental and nongovernmental levels do not prove a conspiracy exists, i.e, make secret plans to commit a harmful act. Maybe in fact, by not concealing certain comments, you could commit a harmful act, i.e., start a war or pointlessly hurt someone's feelings. I wonder, Julian: could that someone, in the end, be you?
Julian says the plans of an authoritarian regime are "concealed" because if known, resistance would form. Concealment: "This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial." There you have it: concealment = conspiratorial. Sorry, that statement is untrue. As noted, we have all concealed things, told little white lies, but that doesn't mean we are conspiring or that we are authoritarian. To repeat, maybe it only means we don't want to insult somebody and break off a relationship or get into a violent fight. Where's the harmful act in that?
While we're at it: WikiLeaks cut deals with five newspapers: The New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel. O.K., Julian: I want to know how much they are paying WikiLeaks. Will you release that information? If not, then that information is being concealed. And if it is being concealed, then you and those newspapers, by your logic (not mine), are conspiring. If you are conspiring, you are planning a harmful act. Do you see where your reasoning can lead?
Sidebar to readers: please do not hold your breath waiting for a reply from WikiLeaks.
5. Julian tosses in a quote from Machiavelli to the effect that a stitch in time saves nine. The quote is unrelated to Julian's discussion, but while we're into Machiavelli let's look at what he says about conspiracies.
In The Discourses, Book III, Chapter 6, Machiavelli noted that conspiracies generally "are made either against the country or against the prince." In either case, "When the number of accomplices in a conspiracy exceeds three or four, it is almost impossible for it not to be discovered, either through treason, imprudence or carelessness."
Machiavelli's type of conspiracy, then, is very different from the one Julian has in mind, in which anything that is concealed is ipso facto part of a conspiracy. I submit that Machiavelli firmly anchors his conspiracy theory in the fact of a harmful act; Julian does not. As a result, he drifts with the current, tide, whatever.
6. I'm sure terrorists sitting in prisons around the world agree wholeheartedly with Machiavelli that a conspiracy is, by definition, limited in participants. Once it exceeds a certain number, it is discovered. Presto: the conspiracy ends.
But if a conspiracy cannot expand beyond a limited number of people, Julian's thesis about an entire government conspiring is not plausible. The government may be behaving in an unethical or stupid fashion; WikiLeaks leaks make both cases convincingly. However, that government as an entity consisting of thousands of people is not, by those behaviors alone, conspiring.
7. A limited number of participants is only part of the problem with Julian's view of a conspiracy:
"We will use connected graphs as way to harness the spatial reasoning ability of the brain to think in a new way about political relationships. These graphs are easy to visualize. First take some nails ('conspirators') and hammer them into a board at random. Then take twine ('communication') and loop it from nail to nail without breaking."
Here it is clear that Julian has never heard of sociometry. If you want a classic example, go to a classic work, Rural Cuba by Lowry Nelson. The work was written in 1950, so Julian's article doesn't enable us "to think in a new way." The lack of preparation by Julian in this field is manifest, his steps clumsy and naïve. I don't see how anybody can draw one of thousands of sociometry studies out of a hat and conclude otherwise. Hammer them into a board at random ... Let's move on. Please.
8. In Julian's scheme of things, some links between/among conspirators are more equal than others:
"Imagine a thick heavy cord between some nails and fine light thread between others. Call the importance, thickness or heaviness of a link its weight. Between conspirators that never communicate the weight is zero. The 'importance' of communication passing through a link difficult [sic] to evaluate apriori, since it its [sic] true value depends on the outcome of the conspiracy. We simply say that the 'importance' of communication contributes to the weight of a link in the most obvious way; the weight of a link is proportional to the amount of important communication flowing across it."
The weight of a link is proportional to the amount of important communication flowing across it. Don't look now but the mire of politically distorted language just spread another yard or two. To make Julian's statement meaningful we must know what the word important means. Relating it to the outcome of the conspiracy doesn't help us:
Let us assume that Julian is correct, that the State Department is engaging in a conspiracy against the country. Now, let's return to the Batman and Robin leaked cable. Tell me, is that cable important or not? You laugh and say: unimportant. But if it provokes World War III, it is important indeed even if that wasn't the original purpose of the cable in the overall State Department conspiracy.
9. We come to Julian's real goal. "We can marginalise a conspiracy’s ability to act by decreasing total conspiratorial power until it is no longer able to understand, and hence respond effectively to, its environment. We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links."
Wait a second. The links are between/among conspirators. Obviously, if you cut those links, you break the back of the conspiracy. However, those links, in and of themselves, are unrelated to understanding the environment. Those are two, very different domains. A terrorist in Afghanistan, for example, may have had his link cut with bin Laden. However, he can still read books, go to a university, discuss current affairs, etc. Having his link cut with one man doesn't stop him from understanding the world; in fact, the cut link could have exactly the opposite effect.
One could also, for that matter, take a look at the sorry state of the planet and argue that the United States Government already doesn't understand the world. No help from WikiLeaks is needed in that regard. The Batman and Robin comment, among other leaks, befits such a characterization.
We come back to the original problem posed in the title of Julian's article. Bin Laden and associates conspiring to attack the World Trade Center is a totally different matter from State Department employees sending cutesy, nasty messages back and forth. WikiLeaks leaks will in no way stop those messages, which will merely be altered in form, if they haven't been already. Julian inasmuch says so: "Sometimes there are no alternative paths for conspiratorial information to flow between conspirators, other times there are many. This is a useful and interesting characteristic of a conspiracy." Many alternative paths -- interesting ...
In truth, the Internet -- in Julian's words one of those marvelous "technological changes that embolden us" -- allows conspirators to create alternative paths to an unprecedented degree. Example: a recent CNN report on al-Qaeda terrorists noted, "According to the officials, Sidiqi said that Mauretani had instructed Meziche, Dashti and himself in how to communicate securely on the Internet. He showed them how to use an encrypted e-mail communication site called 'Mujahedeen Secrets.'" If al-Qaeda can do it, why can't the State Department?
I suspect that WikiLeaks has caused diplomats to write less and talk more; that's about it. Whatever it is, it is a long way from Julian's end goal, "to radically shift regime behavior." Comparing the State Department and Hillary Clinton to al-Qaeda and bin Laden is a bit much to swallow, although Julian apparently sees them as equal and not so opposite. Such are the perils and pitfalls of home schooling coupled with a nomadic childhood created by divorced, middle class rebel parents. His is a classic story of a transitional/intermediate/marginal existence -- of survival, too. I found this subject to be so intriguing and important, I wrote a book about it. See also the Dec. 23 post to this blog.
There's something involved in all this that extends far beyond Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. What are we to make of the scraps of function and gobs of structure forming the pseudo social sciences growing like ragweed in the world digital garden?
A college roommate of mine once observed that the only difference between the New Left of the 1960s and the Old Left was that the New Left hadn't read anything.
That's clarity for you -- from an analog guy.
No brave new world, then; just more of the cowardly old one.