I recently saw the documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, which chronicles the history of the website Wikileaks; its creator, Julian Assange; and Pfc. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, who sent Wikileaks its most famous (infamous?) mother lode of classified national security documents (and digital video footage). In the end, I felt that in this age of massive information generation and ultra-secrecy, Wikileaks is a critical breath of fresh air. Any counterforce to the abuses engendered by secrecy is a light in a terrifying darkness. (Generally speaking.) I was also struck by how troubled were the main protagonists in this drama.
Manning was a small, effeminate man in an ultra-macho fighting force: mistreated, depressed, “isolated as fuck” as he described it to his cyber-correspondent Adrian Lamo (who eventually exposed him).
Assange, brilliance and boldness notwithstanding, apparently had a mild (at least) sociopathic side. He had fathered children by four different women in various places around the world, and was charged with sexual assault by two Swedish women. He eventually turned on his own Wikileaks colleagues and compromised the Wikileaks brand with his erratic personal behavior and wild statements.
I was reminded of an essay I’d read decades ago in a college psychology textbook, which included case studies of three historical figures who were widely considered “great.” Two of them were Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill; I’ve forgotten the third. The point was that all three of these heroes had appalling, even frightening personal character flaws, and that the people closest to them suffered mightily as a consequence. The essay posed the question: could these people have been equally great without their terrible shadow sides, or does the very quality of greatness entail some manifestation of its opposite?
In other words, can extreme talent or magnificence exist in a person without a corresponding set of obnoxious traits?
My Great Country
This kind of reminds me of America.
My perspective is distorted of course, having spent practically no time whatsoever outside of this country. Yet here’s how I see it.
It’s a great country. A flawed but real democracy. You can tell it’s a great country by the progress we’ve made over the centuries. Barely 200 years ago, the only citizens who truly had any rights were adult white males. Since then, slavery has been abolished, black people have gotten the right to vote, women have gotten the right to vote, unions demanded and got a 40-hour work week, Social Security and Medicare came into being, civil rights legislation was passed . . . and today we have a black president, as well as gay marriage and legal marijuana in some states, with more to come.
We have virtually unfettered access to information. (Yes, I said “virtually.” I don’t know exactly what or how much is kept from us; I’m sure it’s plenty, and I’ll return to that point later. But what we do have access to is absolutely amazing.)
Say what you will about America being essentially a plutocracy, run by the rich for the rich. I concede the large element of truth in this. But we are also undeniably a living, participatory society, where change occurs not just at the caprice of the powerful (much less as the result of revolution). Remember that rallying cry from just two or three years ago from gays and lesbians all over the country: “Evolve already, Mr. President!” And then the president finally gets on TV and says he’s thought it over and now he supports gay marriage, and shortly thereafter, the states are following suit.
Similarly with civil rights and women’s rights, powerful grassroots forces effected fundamental changes in our culture and in our laws. Similarly, pot laws are finally beginning to reflect the “reality on the ground” of marijuana usage in this country, though (perhaps because pot is an emblem of an entrenched culture war from the 1960s) it’s taken somewhat longer than some of us might have predicted in, say, 1970.
But does America too have a dark side?
The nature of the dark, of course, is that you can’t see it too well. But thanks to the wonderful quality of information availability I alluded to earlier, anyone who cares to pay attention knows that America enjoys its wealth largely at the expense of peoples in other countries who endure chronic poverty, brutal dictatorships, environmental decimation, and worse—all so that our American businesses and economy may grow and prosper, the ultra rich can remain that way, and the rest of us can live in relatively luxury compared to most places on the planet.
Is it possible to separate America the country from America the empire? To love one, yet be revolted by the other? Or is this a self-deception, an unnatural split, forced by a fundamental contradiction in our lives that’s impossible to resolve?
When We Care to Pay Attention
If we do see what “American interests” cost other peoples throughout the world, this prompts the painful question of how to live an appropriate and ethical life in the face of what we know.
There is a devil’s deal we make just by virtue of being American citizens. We implicitly instruct our government: Do what you have to do to preserve our way of life, and don’t tell us any more than we need to know about how you do that.
Wikileaks tells us (and in some cases—with video—actually shows us) more than we need to know, should we care to know it.
Our Obsolete Privacy
According to polls, most Americans think Edward Snowden did a good thing by revealing the sweep of the National Security Administration’s domestic data collection on American citizens. It was interesting how the PR flaks from the national security sector spun the story. It was only “meta data,” they said on TV. Nothing too personal. Just the where and who and when of all your communications, not the what.
To keep you safe, we will cast a net so wide that none of your activities will be sacred or secret from us. Of course, we are not going to look into your bedroom to see what you are doing there, but we will know you are home. We won’t be listening in on your phone calls; we’ll simply always be able to track whom you called and when and where from, and for how long you spoke. We are not interested in the ‘juice’ of your life—merely the container of your life, the context in which it all happens. We need to know all this to keep you safe. As a condition of your existence, due the fact that there are so many extraneous agents who would harm you and disrupt the life you depend on, we must do this. Therefore, your life unfolds under a constant, invisible bubble of security surveillance.
I believe many people are quite comfortable with this, never wondering, What are the costs?
And if we cannot imagine any costs . . . how scary is THAT?
Let me phrase it another way: What is lost by accepting this arrangement?
(Not even to speak of the inherent dangers.)
Living Under a Cloud
Meanwhile, in the so-called private (ha ha) sector, many of us now park our information—all the data we generate on our computers—in “the cloud,” which we deem more secure than our fallible physical hard drives.
Of course, “the cloud” is physical too, though the metaphor suggests otherwise and it doesn’t feel physical to us experientially, because we don’t actually see the storehouses of cold computers that actually hold all our trillions of bytes of data, the digital records of our lives, maintained inviolate for us and retrievable on demand.
I personally don’t store my data on the cloud. I feel like I’d be losing something if I did. Then again, the cloud probably tracks of all my keystrokes anyway.