The WikiLeaks story is really becoming a saga. It’s like a new chapter is added every week, with new characters and new ethical questions raised. The latest one helped me work out at least one big answer to move forward with.
The answer hinges on trust.
It used to be that knowledge was power: it was difficult to acquire, so relatively few people were able to control it. Which meant that people who had it were more likely to be trusted. Because if you’ve invested a lot (in infrastructure, political capital, etc.) gaining access to information, you’re damn well going to make sure what (and how) you eventually communicate is trustworthy.
And there was little risk in being more careful before sharing something, because so few people had access to information, and there was already a considerable process involved in getting it out. If the first print run or broadcast didn’t start for another few hours, you might as well check all the facts again and craft it to make sure you told the same story better than your two or three competitors.
Trust used to be more or less given (but could be lost through mistakes) — owing to the fact that people with information already distinguished themselves and appeared trustworthy simply by having it.
But now knowledge is everywhere (or at least information is everywhere): it’s easier to get and harder to control. It’s also easier to share once you have it. So simply having information isn’t an effective way to distinguish oneself. There isn’t much advantage to having it.
But we’re still working according to old assumptions. We’re still competing as if the best advantages go to whoever simply has information (I’m including blogs and a lot of us who essentially “compete” for attention and reputation through social media). That’s largely why there’s such a race to know something FIRST — for that brief moment of advantage, albeit fleeting — and why fairly minor developments are sensationalized on cable TV news into stories in themselves.
The latter amounts to thinking and saying you know something when there’s really nothing to know. When you can’t compete on access or speed, you can still compete by seeing stories that others don’t see — and embellishing the shit out of them.
Which brings me to Michael Moore.
I’ve just been catching up on the #MooreandMe chapter of WikiLeaks. To simplify a complex and ambiguous story, Moore put up $20,000 of the surety (like bail) on behalf of Julian Assange, who’s facing extradition to Sweden on suspicion of sex offences.* As one might expect, Moore’s using the opportunity to generate attention. The complaint against Moore, led by Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown, is that his rhetoric insinuates that accusations of rape are relatively unimportant, and that he’s enabling (or at the very least turning a blind eye to) some pretty vicious personal attacks against Assange’s accusers — who, as suspected sexual assault victims, i.e. people who’ve gone through a very personally invasive experience, could probably do without the added scrutiny and abuse.
One of the accusers has been called “the most hated woman online.” There are allegations that she has CIA ties. Bianca Jagger (who also put up part of Assange’s surety) tweeted a link to a post that identified the accuser and outlined the rationale for suspicions about her motives. The link was retweeted by former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann and at least 100 other people.
I looked it up and did a bit of extra Googling and everything I found eventually referred back to the same post by Israel Shamir (not an uncontroversial figure) and Paul Bennett at CounterPunch. The basis of the claims is that the most high profile of Assange’s accusers wrote a couple of “anti-Castro diatribes” that were published in a periodical that’s financed by a group that “is connected” to a Cuban anti-Castro group that’s led by a guy who was alleged to have CIA ties.
To put that into perspective, as a writer, apparently I need to be careful not just of the kind of periodicals I might submit to, and not just who’s financing those periodicals, and not just the “connections” of who’s financing them, and not just the individuals running those groups that are connected to the groups that finance the periodicals I might publish in, but also the alleged ties of those individuals running those groups connected to the groups that finance the periodicals I might publish in… lest I be accused of having those same ties myself.
The post also claims she was deported from Cuba for “subversive activities,” and while she was there she allegedly “interacted” with a group called Las damos de blanco (Ladies in White) that apparently receives funding from the US. They’re allegedly “supported by” a group that’s run by a guy who “has ties” to another guy who allegedly has CIA ties.
Or maybe, just maybe, her “interactions” with a Cuban group espousing principles of justice and freedom of speech are somehow “connected” to her “interactions” with WikiLeaks — which espouses the same sort of principles.
Why’s it implausible for someone to believe that while we’re demanding transparency from the US we should also demand it from dictatorships?
A stronger case for conspiracy is made by pointing to an apparently disproportionate amount of zeal with which Assange’s offenses are being treated. Naomi Wolf has been especially persuasive:
for all the tens of thousands of women who have been kidnapped and raped, raped at gunpoint, gang-raped, raped with sharp objects, beaten and raped, raped as children, raped by acquaintances — who are still awaiting the least whisper of justice — the highly unusual reaction of Sweden and Britain to this situation is a slap in the face. It seems to send the message to women in the UK and Sweden that if you ever want anyone to take sex crime against you seriously, you had better be sure the man you accuse of wrongdoing has also happened to embarrass the most powerful government on earth.
There’s a compelling argument that Assange’s case is an anomaly even within the Swedish justice system. Wolf made that argument too, pointing to a somewhat damning report by Amnesty International, and Moore added more. There are some scary stats — though I must say, much less scary when I went directly to Amnesty International’s report.
On one hand I find it hard to believe that such a progressive society as Sweden’s would “love” rapists, as Moore put it. There’s an equally compelling argument here that Sweden is very serious about rape, pointing out that positive government measures could be responsible for the statistics:
Sweden has had an active and vocal discussion (can’t really call it a debate) in the last 10-15 years, on getting rape charges higher priority from the police and prosecutors, to getting women to report the crimes more often, and so forth. This includes active campaigning by the government.
So, is it any wonder then that the number of reported rapes has increased?
I’m reminded of scenes in The Wire, in which statistics perversely disincent the police from taking new complaints — especially if they were unlikely to lead to an arrest (say, a crime like rape that often comes down to one person’s word against another’s). The optimist in me hopes that Sweden is fighting against that attitude and working to make it socially acceptable for women to complain about sexual abuse — despite the challenges that creates for authorities and despite how bad those statistics for non-convicted crimes may look.
I can’t really say. There are stats and statements in the Amnesty report and quoted in the above arguments that make me too skeptical to guess either way. And I’ll never say that any country is doing a “good enough” job fighting sexual abuse and rape.
Regardless, I’m not sure why Moore is complaining that Sweden needs to get tougher on sex offenses by way of affiliating himself with a suspected sex offender. If he really wants Sweden to get tough on sex crimes he’s doing it the wrong way. And if Sweden is as bad as he says it is (and even if it’s not), I’m inclined to think the disproportionate attention given to Assange would be the best thing a critic could ask for: that’s a very high profile precedent to use as leverage. Future accusers and activists can say, “but you went after Assange, now you have to do it for the rest.”
As for the likelihood of Sweden cooperating with the US, consider that Sweden may have hidden motives here that are entirely self-serving — nothing to do with pressure they’re imagined to have received from the US.
Sometimes countries make a show of strength just because that’s just what countries do. It helps maximize their bargaining power and autonomy. (Remember Saddam Hussein’s refusal to fully cooperate with weapons inspectors — making it look like he was hiding something even though he wasn’t?) Maybe Sweden is fighting for Assange for the same reason Canada is fighting for a deserted and completely symbolic island: because it’s within a country’s rights to make that claim; rolling over tends to weaken a country’s bargaining power in future negotiations. And they know the world’s watching this one.
(And for all we know it could simply come down to one prosecutor’s careerism: hoping to build a reputation and get promoted by reeling-in a big fish.)
I know “it’s a coincidence” and I know it’s easy to wonder if there’s “American politicial manipulation of a foreign legal system” involved, but the simple fact is that Swedish authorities are following the letter of their law in seeing this through.
Besides, to not see this through would also look like they were bending to foreign pressure — not by American authorities but by celebrity opportunists. There are pros and cons to both sets of optics. Ultimately I’d say they cancel each other out.
The fact that (as far as I know) Swedish prosecutors are doing exactly what their job description dictates they should do seems sufficient to explain why they’re doing it.
And until we see something more substantial to support suspicions that Assange is the victim of a “honeytrap” (his lawyer’s word), a coincidence is nothing more than a coincidence.
Of course it would be nice if we had more access to information that could help us establish the truth one way or the other, and it’s ironic that that’s what Assange and WikiLeaks promote.
So do we need Assange to keep working towards more transparency? I doubt it. If Assange can’t build an organization able to persist without him then I’d rather see it taken apart and rebuilt sooner than later. And the broader movement towards open government is more than robust enough to move forward without either Assange or WikiLeaks. It can and will continue to move forward in the same distributed, incremental, somewhat accidental way that the internet has always developed.
To put it bluntly, open government — which may or may not be Assange’s genuine motive — is precisely the wrong movement for iconoclasts.
Don’t let sensationalizers and ‘isn’t it all a funny coincidence’ status-seeking opportunists like Michael Moore distract us from more important aim: seeing through all artifice and theatricality to find verifiable and useful truth.
The paranoid left and paranoid right enable each other; government institutions and corporations are enablers too. They’re still mainly still competing with knowledge as if it’s scarce, attention as if it’s precious, and control as if it’s still as easy as it once was — while taking trust for granted.
The change won’t happen overnight, but this trend of Tea Parties and DDoS attacks and anti-institutional sentiment keeps going, eventually trust will become so depleted that institutions and people will recognize that trust is more precious than mere information or attention. At some point trust — through the judicious use of knowledge — will be the main source of influence and power, not just knowledge.
That’s what we need to be building. Governments and organizations need to think of how to continually re-earn people’s trust. Playing whack-a-mole with WikiLeaks is counterproductive: it feeds the narrative that governments and organizations are untrustworthy. Likewise for the likes of Michael Moore (who is behaving a lot like his own targets: evasively) and Keith Olbermann (who evaded for a while and came back clumsily). They’ve been focused on criticizing (or merely raising doubts) and getting people riled up against others, but now it’s easy for anyone to do that — which means anyone can do it to them, which is what’s happening with #MooreandMe.
The diminishing returns on attention produced by that cycle can’t go on forever. At some point people will look a little deeper for more sustainable value.
The tougher and ultimately more rewarding thing to do is not to attack but to build — to motivate people for something — and to continually re-earn trust not by smearing other people’s faults but by demonstrating one’s own integrity.