November 30, 2010

I Hate Authority -- Well, Except for My Authority!

I continue to be mesmerized by the number of liberals, progressives and libertarians (or perhaps "libertarians," who the hell knows any longer) who express extraordinarily negative views of WikiLeaks. My post yesterday revisited this general territory, examining one of the critics' oft-repeated complaints: that certain of WikiLeaks' revelations will lead to more war, not less. See yesterday's entry for my reasons for concluding that this argument is entirely without merit and completely irrelevant to an evaluation of WikiLeaks and its work.

Let's try a thought experiment. Imagine that WikiLeaks releases a cache of documents which conclusively establish that any attack on Iran by any country, but especially by the United States, would lead to the following results: the consolidation of power by the current Iranian regime, which power is now supported by almost all Iranians since they correctly perceive they are under attack by a common external enemy; the related dissolution of all those groups which had been opposed to Iran's government; Iran's absolute determination to have a nuclear arsenal as quickly as possible, which determination had not existed before; the explosion of Iraq into a nightmare of bloody destruction, as Iran sends troops into that country (I should properly say, more of a nightmare of bloody destruction); attacks on Israel which come close to destroying that nation utterly (some of the attacks come from Iran, others are of undetermined origin as more countries are drawn into the war); the complete collapse of Pakistan's government, with most of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of a terrorist group that had previously been unknown ... and on and on.

Some of these results are close to certain; all of them are possible, perhaps even probable. (That's true right now, and you don't need an imagined WikiLeaks release to understand it. Most people refuse to acknowledge it.) The WikiLeaks release includes internal (and top secret!) U.S. government reports which offer extensive evidence for all these conclusions and identify all these results -- and it's not just one U.S. government analysis saying this, but dozens of them from a variety of agencies.

The news is dominated by the Iran story for days and weeks. As one, every major media outlet declares that any attack on Iran must be viewed as unthinkable. The results would be catastrophic, on a scale that defies comprehension. Finally, every "responsible" voice states without reservation that an attack on Iran must irrevocably be taken off the table. Everyone waits for Obama to give a speech in which he will say that, under present and foreseeable circumstances, the U.S. will not attack Iran, for the consequences could not be countenanced. Everyone begins to consider such a speech all but inevitable.

Do you have any doubt -- any doubt at all -- that many or even most of the same people who criticize WikiLeaks for its "irresponsibility" in allegedly providing support for those who seek still more war would herald WikiLeaks for its heroism and history-changing courage? That the same people would ceaselessly praise WikiLeaks as a unique and uniquely far-seeing and groundbreaking force for peace? I certainly don't.

I intentionally cast my hypothetical in an extreme version in the opposite direction to highlight one particular issue. For all the reasons identified in my previous article, the position of the WikiLeaks' critics (those critics I've identified; I'm not referring here to conservative critics, who obviously have very different reasons) reduces to this: leaks that may lead to results I view negatively are irresponsible and organizations like WikiLeaks are merely "useful idiots" for Empire, while leaks that may lead to results I view positively are heroic and admirable, and those who make such material available to the world have done humanity an enduring and indispensable service. (You'll find some thoughts about "irresponsibility," including observations from Hannah Arendt on that topic, here.)

More briefly: leaks I like, good; leaks I don't like, bad. I've analyzed another instance of this same approach, in the area of "intelligence" and its uses. I preliminarily note that to argue in terms of intelligence at all is a grave mistake. I won't offer my arguments again; I've gone through them countless times and almost everyone continues to argue about intelligence constantly. So be it. If you're interested, you'll find the case set out in "Fools for Empire," -- in both Part I and Part II. (Very briefly: intelligence, which is almost always wrong, is irrelevant to major policy decisions. Even when it's correct, it will be disregarded when it runs counter to policy decisions that have already been made. The primary and usually the sole purpose of intelligence is as propaganda, and it is used after the fact to justify a course of action already decided upon.)

After discussing the erroneous treatment of "intelligence" by two writers in particular (which I did with some reluctance, since the writers in question are valuable antiwar voices), I identified the problem this way -- and it is the same problem that now afflicts many of the WikiLeaks critics:
In other words: when the intelligence community happens to agree with the policy Raimondo himself prefers (as I do, too), it is telling the truth and nothing but the truth. But when the intelligence community offers judgments that support the case for military confrontation, its assessment is determined by political pressure.

This is exactly the argument offered by Larry Johnson (as discussed in Part I), and by Ron Rosenbaum (as Raimondo discusses), with the polarities reversed: Johnson, Rosenbaum and many other advocates of aggressive interventionism contend that when the intelligence agencies state that Iran represents no threat whatsoever, they do so as the result of improper political pressure, but when the intelligence agencies judge that Iran constitutes a genuine threat, and perhaps a very dire one, they're telling the truth and nothing but.

Arguments in the form, "When you agree with me, you're telling the truth, and when you don't, you're lying," are singularly unconvincing. Moreover, this approach with regard to the intelligence community ignores the much more fundamental problems I've already identified.
Another significant similarity between the "intelligence" and WikiLeaks examples deserves to be highlighted. The continued insistence by virtually everyone on arguing about "intelligence" arises in large part from the reliance on authority that is drummed into all of us, usually beginning in early childhood. In Part II of "Fools for Empire," I set out several notable examples of what is wrong with relying on intelligence in the manner most people do. One of those examples is from Barbara Tuchman, and here's part of what she said (writing about Vietnam):
The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, "We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against." This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. "Foreign policy decisions," concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, "are in general much more influenced by irrational motives" than are domestic ones.
And in making the connection between that passage and how we are all taught to rely on authority and to obey, I wrote:
To connect Tuchman's argument to my ongoing discussion of the crucial significance of Alice Miller's work, I will rephrase Tuchman's statement, "This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand...," as follows:
Mommy and Daddy [and usually, especially Daddy] have special, secret knowledge that I can't possibly have or understand, since I'm just a kid. So when it comes to most things, and particularly when really big questions are involved, I have to do what they say. Mommy and Daddy know best. I have to obey them.
With regard to WikiLeaks, you see the same issue, as I observed yesterday:
WikiLeaks' primary purpose is to make information available to everyone. Each one of us can make our own judgments as to what should be done with that information, if anything, and what course of action might be indicated or not. But the kind of complaint conveyed by this Corrente post is precisely the issue I previously addressed: the complaint is that providing vast amounts of information freely to everyone isn't a good idea and might even be a very bad idea -- unless a particular outcome can be assured.

Despite the poster's kind comments about me personally, I will state the conclusion plainly: this completely misses what is most fundamental about WikiLeaks and why its work challenges established authority so profoundly. This particular Corrente poster may want authority to prevent rather than enable further war -- but he still wants some authority to guarantee the result he prefers.
I realize that this is a complex issue, and that it can require a good deal of time to untangle it. I remarked in my series of articles on WikiLeaks last summer that I myself found many of these connections far from obvious.

In a conversation with a very dear friend yesterday, I phrased the underlying problem in a different way. I remarked that, for most people, the idea of living a fully autonomous life with no external authority whatsoever (either real, as in the case of the State, various designated "experts" and so on, or imagined, as in the case of God) is profoundly upsetting. In many cases, we should use a stronger word: the prospect is scary, even terrifying. The reliance on authority is instilled so deeply in most of us that it becomes central to our sense of personal identity. As I often remark, the struggle to identify the complex, intricate ways in which reliance on authority is embedded in our modes of thought and behavior is the most demanding struggle many of us will undertake. And please note: set aside here all practical problems, and standard contentions about the "necessity" for the State (as just one example). I'm not concerned with any of that at the moment. I'm talking about the psychological issue and how we experience it. To have no external authority to which to appeal or from which we seek guidance within the sacred space of our minds and souls -- that is the prospect that causes deep distress for most people.

Let me offer a few brief comments about some of the documents that the critics contend might support further war. With regard to the desire of Saudi Arabia's leaders that the U.S. should attack Iran, for example, it is altogether typical of our largely ignorant, slothful chattering classes that this is even considered "news." Imagine, one country (which happens to be overwhelmingly Sunni) wanting to see another country (which happens to be overwhelmingly Shia) reduced in power and influence, when both countries are located in the same region of the world and correctly view each other as rivals for regional power and influence. What a shocker, and how astonishingly unexpected.

Do people study history at all? Perhaps more to the point: do they think? Take the religious element out of the equation, and the brute fact remains: throughout all of history, countries have vied for power. The contest for power is often significantly heightened when countries are in close proximity to one another and vie for power in the same region. This isn't news: it's the way the world works and has always worked. So the Saudis would be delighted to see Iran attacked, especially if they can simply cheer from the sidelines. Win-win! Well, except for perhaps millions of dead Iranians (and perhaps Saudis as well, if the conflict spreads as it very well might).

With regard to this bit of "news" -- and with regard to every single document released by WikiLeaks -- we must evaluate it. Does this have anything to do with what the United States ought to do? Should it? Is it even true? I note that no U.S. official has offered anything approaching a serious case that these documents aren't what they purport to be: that is, that person A wrote to person B about subject C, and said X, Y and Z. But the more serious questions remain to be addressed.

What is the document's significance, if any? Is the content accurate, i.e., does it correspond to the facts as we can best ascertain them? (This is a different question from whether the document is what it seems to be.) In many cases, we'll never know whether the content is accurate. In any event, do we care? And so on.

Through its work, WikiLeaks seeks to place responsibility for answering all such questions not on "experts," or the media, or the State -- but on the only person who properly should be entrusted with these matters, you:
[T]he very purpose of Wikileaks is to challenge any and every authority of this kind. For Wikileaks, the only authority that matters -- the only person who is ultimately entitled to all available information and who properly should judge it -- is you. In this sense, which I submit is the highest and best sense of the term, Wikileaks is a genuine "leveller." It seeks to make each and every individual the ultimate judge of the truth, just as it seeks to empower all people to make the determination as to what course of action is indicated, if any. This, dear reader, is what a real revolution looks like.
And, to tie some of these elements together:
Given the unrelieved fraud that is "intelligence," and in light of the conclusively and repeatedly proven inability to trust any part of the Establishment to "filter" any of this or any other material whatsoever, including "raw data," I view it as a complete and shining triumph for Wikileaks and other organizations to release as much information, and as much "raw data," as they can get their hands on. Wikileaks thus increases what is in the public record, and thereby provides more information on the basis of which you can make your own judgment. We -- by which I mean you, me and everyone else -- certainly can't do any worse than the politicians and "experts" in trying to make sense of it. Moreover, I consider it much more likely that we will do a significantly better job. And even if we don't, we aren't the ones who will be ordering bombing runs, assassinations, or invasions.
Time moves on, and events press in upon us. Soon we will be able to travel beyond my hypothetical, for WikiLeaks has a different target in mind for early next year: a major American bank. From a just published interview with Julian Assange in Forbes:
You’ve been focused on the U.S. military mostly in the last year. Does that mean you have private sector-focused leaks in the works?

Yes. If you think about it, we have a publishing pipeline that’s increasing linearly, and an exponential number of leaks, so we’re in a position where we have to prioritize our resources so that the biggest impact stuff gets released first.

So do you have very high impact corporate stuff to release then?

Yes, but maybe not as high impact…I mean, it could take down a bank or two.

That sounds like high impact.

But not as big an impact as the history of a whole war. But it depends on how you measure these things.


When will it happen?

Early next year. I won’t say more.

What do you want to be the result of this release?

[Pauses] I’m not sure.

It will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume.

Usually when you get leaks at this level, it’s about one particular case or one particular violation. For this, there’s only one similar example. It’s like the Enron emails. Why were these so valuable? When Enron collapsed, through court processes, thousands and thousands of emails came out that were internal, and it provided a window into how the whole company was managed. It was all the little decisions that supported the flagrant violations.

This will be like that. Yes, there will be some flagrant violations, unethical practices that will be revealed, but it will also be all the supporting decision-making structures and the internal executive ethos that cames out, and that’s tremendously valuable. Like the Iraq War Logs, yes there were mass casualty incidents that were very newsworthy, but the great value is seeing the full spectrum of the war.

You could call it the ecosystem of corruption. But it’s also all the regular decision making that turns a blind eye to and supports unethical practices: the oversight that’s not done, the priorities of executives, how they think they’re fulfilling their own self-interest. The way they talk about it.
When this release occurs, I will eagerly devour the denunciations of WikiLeaks and of Assange, especially from liberals, progressives and assorted "libertarians."

I am so deeply shocked by Assange's "irresponsibility" that I find myself unable to write another word. I therefore conclude here.