In order to get to know Central Asia, my soon-to-be home, I decided to do what I never did in college: read a book. Or, in this case, multiple books. First came The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, a quick-pulse tale of Tsarist Russia’s and Victorian England’s arm-wrestle for control of the area, followed closely by The Dust of Empire, Karl Meyer’s brief skein of the histories of each nation. I’m currently waiting to jump into Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s coming-of-age tale of British India, before moving back into the realm of hard history.
But as good as these books have been, they’ve got nothing on the world of WikiLeaks. Through WikiLeaks, I’ve learned not just that Vladimir Putin has his fingers in almost every nearby nation’s pie—and that his “Robin,” Dmitri Medvedev, is just hanging onto his coattails—but that Putin is also impressively uninvolved, preferring to work from home and yuk it up with Silvio rather than actually lord the halls of the Kremlin. I’ve also learned that the Kazakh Prime Minister Masimov has no problem grooving by himself and that Defense Minister Akhmentov “appears to enjoy loosening up in the tried and true ‘homo sovieticus’ style — i.e., drinking oneself into a stupor.”
I learned that China offered Kyrgyzstan $3 billion to close the US’s Air Force Manas Air Base, and that Azerbaijan is run in a manner more befitting feudal Europe—and that first lady Mehriban Aliyeva “has problems showing a ‘full range of expression’ following ‘substantial cosmetic surgery.’”
Through the work of WikiLeaks—and what appears to be the highly illegal derring-do of Pvt. Bradley Manning—I’ve learned far more about the current lives of both the ruling and the ruled, to say nothing of my own government’s occupation, than I could have otherwise. If for no other reason than that, I’d be thankful, and pushing the website’s message, methods, and merit. After all, and in opposition to the site’s detractors, WikiLeaks is not a demonic (and pasty) man’s tool for anarchy; rather, it is the exact funnel that media purports and strives to be. It serves as a check against the powers-that-be, as a subversive way of highlighting, through otherwise illicit means, the actions and attempts of the powerful or entrenched.
The battle that has arisen over the WikiLeaks controversy appears to be one of theory. On the one hand, you have Julian Assange’s cabal of “hacktivists,” striving for global transparency through the limitless sharing of information. (He shares the same bent of Mark Zuckerberg, whose belief of “intimacy through transparency” created the Facebook privacy flare-up a few months ago.) Assange and his followers carry a simple message: Secrecy cannot beget prosperity, and so long as information and motives are always shared and never concealed, only the best outcomes can result.
On the other hand lie the nationalists, those who would seek to place utmost faith in elected officials. They believe in the ultimate form of republicanism—the great masses have elected these officials; shouldn’t the means justify our desired ends? People like Assange debilitate these efforts, exposing our methods and allowing the baddies a peek into our machinations. Both sides of the aisle have condemned his actions—as such, Assange and his ilk can only be cyber-terrorists, allied with al-Qaeda and/or completely unaware of the results of their actions.
As with any two-sided debate, the truth, if there is one, lies somewhere in the middle. Assange’s belief is admirable—after all, in order to completely function as a democracy, should we not be aware of our officials’ governmental dealings, a necessity in making the most-informed decision come election time? Yet this conviction in utmost transparency overlooks our mere humanity. While utopianism is not inherently “wrong,” it is but a distant dream. Instead of strengthening bonds between states, WikiLeaks will only lead to strained relationships and further impositions of secrecy. Likewise, the organization pushes up against a line of collusion: should a single informant come to harm, WikiLeaks would shoulder responsibility and hear something of a moral death knell.
But the site’s detractors, or at least the claims of the site’s detractors, are so fantastical that you can’t help but side with WikiLeaks at almost every turn. Their is little question of the site’s legality, but with at least one (Canadian!) official calling for Assange’s assassination and the AG tossing out the possibility (probability?) of prosecution, governments’ responses have been petulant, overbearing, and unsettling. While terse words have been exchanged, not a single case of harm has befallen a US informant—or, as far as I can find, anyone else. As Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald points out, the site has been anything but “indiscriminate,” vetting the cables with multiple newspapers before releasing them on their site—but only once the newspaper runs them first. And if nothing else, the cables’ releases have displayed the diplomatic (and literary) faculty of the US’s diplomats, with coverage of a Dagestani wedding being touted as a diplomatic tour-de-force.
There doesn’t seem to be much possibility that this story will end with Assange free to live in this new world he’s helped create—nor does there seem to be any possibility that the US will be able to regain the confidence necessary to deal as it once dealt. As Andrew Sullivan wrote, this debacle illustrated that the Internet continues to grow into the role many have always claimed for it: a leveler, an equalizer, offering a voice for every side. But while we were previously mired in chat rooms and YouTube embarrassments, we’ve now entered a realm in which not even governmental secrets can be held behind the curtain of law. All that’s left are the top-secrets. Once those fall, there will be nothing left but scraps.
Indeed, it may be that WikiLeaks, or at least the trend which it began, will turn out to be the catalyst for an American glasnost. Or it may simply result in greater information in fewer hands. Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’ll be continuing to read the cables, remarking on the worth—and, to some, newfound inspiration—of our diplomats, and continuing to hope that I run into the Kazakh PM at a late-night club, dancing by himself to the newest David Guetta.