Friday, December 21, 2012

"WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency:" Julien Assange, Robin Hood or boogeyman?

(Bellemeade Books is publishing some gift suggestions from this year's posts.)

Some books you hate, some books you love. Do you know why?

Beyond the simplicity of "I know what I like" there is the active principle of thought and consideration. And that's what makes Amazon's book reviews so utterly fascinating. Moby Dick? Snow Crash? Eat Pray Love? C'mon, reading reviews at Amazon is a guilty pleasure for many readers with lit'ry inclinations. Or for fanboys. Or for moms looking for love with gilded foil covers. Takes all kinds to make the publishing business survive, same as it ever was.

Add a gloss of contemporary topic with strong opinions, publish a book, and stand back while partisan readers have at it. One star or five? Some books preach at the choir, other books screech at them. Personally, I find Sean Hannity's books (for one) funny, entertaining -- and a slab of unfried bacon thrown in a hungry pen of pit bulls: his fans gobble up the morsels of incorrect and grossly-distorted facts and spin them back out on social media sites. And 2012 promises to bring the heat.

But politics is such an easy target for choosing sides. How about the more complex topic of national security? WikiLeaks .... now there's a topic. Judging by America's national media Julien Assange is the best security boogeyman to come along since Osama bin Laden. And yet ...

What, exactly, has WikiLeaks put in jeopardy?

Julien would make an excellent CNN host, a counterweight to Anderson Cooper. Give him the 8 pm Monday-through-Friday slot and people would .... tune out after a day. His (admirable) dead-on earnestness would be a ratings killer and the entire security-threat of his WikiLeaks activity would be neutralized within a month. Even if WikiLeaks documents disclosed that Barack Obama was a cross-dressing paramour of Sarah Palin, who would care? Except Sean Hannity, of course.

Julien Assange, dashing scary foreigner

But still, as a dashing Robin Hood figure of the information age, Assange makes good copy in a way that poor Bradley Manning, who provided the State Department documents to WikiLeaks, does not. That's the difference between swashbuckling on your own and being on the U.S. Army payroll.

Even reviews of books about WikiLeaks can only bring half-hearted condemnation from most quarters. National security as threatened by a man in a bespoke suit seems less dangerous, apparently, than Michael Moore with a CAT hat and a bullhorn. Here's a three-star Amazon review that, in total, sums up the general attitude toward that slim fellow being hounded around the globe for disclosing the facts: Berlisconi likes to party. Sarkozy, ditto.

Nothing by WikiLeaks about Rupert Murdoch yet, darn it. (We're waiting, WikiLeaks.) Here's the Amazon three-star, by mirasreview, of WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, by Micah Sifry. The reviewer lives in McLaean, Virgina -- the home base of the CIA, no less.

"Wikileaks and the Age of Transparency" is an introduction to the transparency or information activist movement by Micah Sifry, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) and the Sunlight Foundation, with a forward by PdF's co-founder Andrew Rasiej. It is not a treatise on Wikileaks but an overview of the political successes, failures, and the author's hopes for the new transparency and connectivity afforded by the internet.

There is a teaser regarding Sifry's first encounter with Julian Assange in Chapter 1, but Wikileaks is not discussed again until Chapter 7. Then Chapter 8 is dedicated entirely to Sifry's opinion of the organization.

Sifry is a transparency activist in the cause of "open source politics" or "collaborative government" specifically. Democracy-with-a-small-d. He views the emerging role of the citizen as an "active player" rather than a "passive consumer" of political information, enabled by the internet, and he cites some impressive examples of crowd-sourced projects that have had political impact. He goes on to criticize the Obama administration in the US and the Cameron administration in the UK for spewing empty rhetoric about transparency, though there are individual politicians in both countries who have embraced two-way communication with their constituents.

It's important to understand that Micah Sifry views transparency, whistleblowing, and the like as a means to collaborative government, not to anything else. This explains the narrow scope of this book, his comments about Wikileaks, and a certain naïveté. ...

I knew before I read "WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency" that Micah Sifry was a supporter of WikiLeaks but a critic of Julian Assange. Now I understand why. Sifry offers the usual criticisms of Assange's "autocratic" management style. Ironically, Sifry's own comments make a strong case against a more democratic structure for Wikileaks. Julian Assange has been very successful at uniting an ideologically diverse group of people to work toward a common goal --without agreeing on what that goal is -- a feat for which he does not get enough credit. It only occasionally backfires, as in Daniel Domscheit-Berg's acrimonious split from the organization.

Micah Sifry

Sifry says that "it's far from clear that Assange is just interested in exposing oppressive and unethical behavior." I should hope not. Exposing corruption is well and good, but it doesn't scale, and it's hardly revolutionary. I'm bewildered by people like Sifry who think WikiLeaks should adopt their values rather than Assange's. It makes me grateful for Assange's iron grip on strategy. But that isn't why I give this book a mediocre rating. It is, at times, little more than a list of transparency's successes and failures, without analysis. It's superficial and simplistic. It might serve adequately as an introduction to one version of information activism, but I suspect the book is preaching to the choir.

Woah, that is indeed scary stuff for national security: a condemnation of, basically, a typically uptight corporate manager. If Assange would make WikiLeaks public, give the organization an initial public offering, and let that mysterious free hand of capitalism work its wonder, there would go its threat to national security. It's time to move on and investigate real threats to American safety -- like Sean Hannity's publishing contract.

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