A couple of things about me and my viewpoint: first and foremost, I am a near-absolutist on questions of free speech. I believe that, barring extraordinary circumstances, people have the right to say what they please, believe what they please, publish what they please. And I mean really extraordinary, like immediate questions of life-or-death. The literal shouting of "Fire" in a crowded theater, for example. Or like the WikiLeaks issue from earlier this year, in which names of US informants in Afghanistan were not redacted from documents about the war, therefore putting their lives in danger. It's a pretty high standard, and very few things meet it. Governments have the right to keep some secrets, but it's a power that's been abused so badly for so long -- by presidents and Congresses of all political persuasion -- that my immediate reaction to any government's claim that all these documents must remain secret tends to be skepticism.
However, I firmly believe that free speech is a responsibility as well as a right. If you say something, believe something, publish something, that comes with consequences. Libel charges, for example, if you publish something that's false. Or charges of espionage, if you publish secret information, obtained illegally, that causes real and immediate damage. Sometimes, it's worth the risk. I would say that some of the abuses and secrets that WikiLeaks has revealed were significant, and probably worth that risk, like the "collateral murder" video or the Afghan war documents. But this thing with the diplomatic cables really seems to be the wrong place for them to take their stand. The Economist calls it "frivolous gossip", and a lot of it really seems to be.
So therein lies the conflict. This piece by Clay Shirky does, I think, an excellent job of laying out the reasons to be conflicted about WikiLeaks, and about the US government's reaction to it.
We celebrate the printers of 16th century Amsterdam for making it impossible for the Catholic Church to constrain the output of the printing press to Church-approved books, a challenge that helped usher in, among other things, the decentralization of scientific inquiry and the spread of politically seditious writings advocating democracy.
This intellectual and political victory didn’t, however, mean that the printing press was then free of all constraints. Over time, a set of legal limitations around printing rose up, including restrictions on libel, the publication of trade secrets, and sedition. I don’t agree with all of these laws, but they were at least produced by some legal process.
Unlike the United States’ current pursuit of Wikileaks.
I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.
Go read the whole thing; it's worthwhile. As far as the free speech and government secrecy issues around WikiLeaks go, it sums up my position pretty much exactly. There are already laws that cover the kinds of materials released by WikiLeaks and we should either work within them, or go through due process to "fix" them. Better that than getting the hackers of the world riled up and united against the US government.
But that's not the only issue on the table, here, thanks to the rape allegations against site founder Julian Assange.
Maybe he did it; maybe he didn't. I concede that it's possible that it's a trumped up charge, an excuse to arrest Assange for something and thereby shut him up. But the part that really disturbs me is just how quickly so many so-called progressives have leaped to this conclusion as the only possible explanation. I was watching this debate between transparency advocates Glenn Greenwald and Steven Aftergood on Democracy Now; it was interesting until I was stopped dead by a comment from moderator Amy Goodman, talking about Assange being in hiding from "character assassination". No acknowledgement that the charges might be true, that he might have sexually assaulted two women. No, Assange is a hero, an anti-secrecy crusader, so he cannot possibly be a rapist.
To repeat, at this point, he's only wanted for questioning. I'm not trying to make any statement about his guilt or innocence, because we can't yet know either way. Here's an excellent article from Feministe explaining why that's not really the point; some good, and sobering, info on what exactly constitutes a rape charge in the US versus in Sweden (Sweden has much more progressive laws regarding withdrawal of consent than we do), and thoughts on the media narrative around the case. I like Shakesville's take, too. If a woman says she has been raped, my first instinct is to take her at face value. Is there any other crime where the first reaction is to assume that the victim is lying? I don't think so.
Now, I have no trouble believing that the Swedish government is going after Assange more vigorously because of his involvement with WikiLeaks. But the answer to that isn't to assume he's innocent and defend him at all costs. It's to pressure the Swedish government, and every government, to follow up all rape cases with equal zeal. In this respect, I'm reminded of the Roman Polanski case. Did the various world governments and the media pay more attention to Polanski because of his fame? Probably. Does that mean that we should never throw the book at rapists and purse them when they attempt to flee justice? Not at all. Quite the contrary, in my opinion.
Either way, I hope we see justice done, and that we don't see Assange become a "cause celeb" in the same way Polanski has. But sadly, I'm not very positive about the chances of that reality coming to pass.
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