The last few weeks have provided a lot of hand-wringing by people about the threat of the recent wikileaks scandal on the United States and its dealings with the rest of the world by having candid and unflattering statements about world leaders released. The surrender today by wikileaks founder Julian Assange to British police in Scotland Yard offers a bit of a chance to reflect upon some of the ironies about this particular case.
From what little I have read of the wikileaks papers myself, I admit that my confidence in America’s diplomatic corps actually increased from what I read. It looks like America is ably represented in embassies around the world by attachès who have a genuine interest in America’s position in the world, both moral and diplomatic, and who serve the country ably with wise counsel and honest reporting. I had expected America’s diplomatic corps to be, well, more diplomatic, and was pleasantly surprised to see their frankness and openness, qualities which I greatly admire in others and seek to model myself. In an age where it is easy to be cynical about the people who serve this nation and others in the public eye, it is refreshing to see such honesty and candor by those who serve this nation abroad. I am honored to be represented abroad by such men and women. You serve your nation proudly and well.
I would also like to comment a little bit on the ironic way in which it was a private in Iraq who apparently downloaded these diplomatic documents for wikileaks. Such actions are undoubtably considered high treason–and will probably be punished very harshly–but the irony is that a fairly lowly private was able to access such information in the first place. There appears to be a fundamental dilemma between the openness and transparency needed for communication to occur across institutional boundaries and the vulnerability of that information to being brought before the public eye in leaks such as this one. It appears that one cannot remove boundaries to communication without removing the safety of that information from the public eye. I do not know that this dilemma can be solved, and our current civilization’s hostility to privacy on the part of any public figure and demanding of “the facts” makes such leaks an increasing threat to all institutions who desire to withhold information from the outside world.
Finally, there is a very serious irony in having the spokesperson for an organization devoted to transparency being such an opaque figure himself. Perhaps a better word than irony would be hypocrisy. Julian Assange is certainly a man who has a lot to fear from others because of his actions, but his hiding and disguising his own identity, his somewhat questionable sexual activities (putting it as politely as possible), of which he does not appear to be very candid about, gives the lie to his claim to be desirous of greater candor. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that he believes himself above the transparency and candor he wishes to force on others. Like so many other people, he wishes to behave in an opaque and private manner himself but wishes to shine the harsh light of day upon others. He wishes to enforce a standard he does not hold to himself or his own dealings. This is unacceptable. Those who wish to preach accountability and transparency must also practice it, or else their own dark and secret dealings will be brought into daylight and their own reputations will suffer harm because of their inability to live up to the standards they tried to force on others through disreputable means.
It is a fitting opportunity to reflect upon this sort of situation, as the life and behavior of the wikileaks scandal, of which we have not heard the last, offers us the opportunity to reflect ourselves on the way in which we must all be accountable to the same standards we uphold for others. Simply because those we wish to hold accountable are powerful governments or businesses or other organizations does not mean that they have to be accountable and we do not. The solemn responsibility of promoting standards of behavior is our own duty to follow those standards ourselves. We cannot exempt ourselves from the harsh requirements to be candid and honest that we hold others to, lest we suffer the harsh consequences of thinking ourselves above the law.