30 November 2010

Candor Requires Secrecy: Orwellian rules and the end of a 'candid world'

Objections can be raised objectively and honestly to the unauthorized release of confidential government communications by a U.S. soldier to Wikileaks and to their publication by the notorious whistleblowing site. But objections can also be raised to some of the rationalizations offered in justification of official secrecy. David Brooks, for instance, considers the leaks a threat to a "World Order" that depends on diplomats' ability to speak frankly with one another, that being possible only when their discussions remain off the record. This argument is all too reminiscent of Dick Cheney's refusal to disclose details of his consultations with oil-company executives while he was Vice President. Publicity, he claimed, would compromise the frank exchange of views and facts necessary for the crafting of sound policy. There's something implicitly contemptuous about such reasoning, which assumes a population largely incapable of appreciating frank exchanges and honest assessments. Deliberations of the powerful must remain secret, it's assumed, because too many people won't understand what's said or will take unjustified offense after drawing the wrong conclusions. Lost in this assumption is the idea of a "candid" world, the global audience to which Jefferson's committee addressed the Declaration of Independence. For Jefferson, "candid" meant not only frankness in communication but what dictionaries still describe as an impartial capacity on the part of an audience to receive information without prejudice. It might be argued that Jefferson had nothing to hide, compared to the Bush and Obama administrations, only recall that the Declaration was a revolutionary document when revolutions were still rare in the world and suspicious in many eyes, and was still considered too provocative for some audiences decades later. The documents released by Wikileaks aren't nearly as lofty, but if they represent a just cause they should stand full scrutiny. If we assume that the world can't absorb this information with proper impartiality, with whatever justification, we should probably also concede a limit to the prospects for global democracy.

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