Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wikileaks is Necessary

Sorry I haven't been posting very frequently; I have a number of different topics floating around that I've wanted to write about (atheism as a social movement, the racial effects of capitalism, a thought-piece about conceptualizations of American identity and problematizations therein via literary criticism and analysis, etc the list goes on) but I haven't been able to get around to them because of schoolwork. Anyways, the following is the text of a speech I gave on the floor of the Yale Political Union on Tuesday on the topic "Resolved: Wikileaks Should Not Have Published Classified Documents". I was the second speaker in the Negative, on the docket along with fantastic blogger, amazing speaker, and great friend Leah Libresco of Unequally Yoked. All names referenced herein are redacted unless the people in question would like their names reinserted. Enjoy! (For those interested: the resolution failed by a vote of about 28-35-2, if I remember correctly).


I never thought I’d be on this floor following Mr. [redacted] after hearing him praise the value, power, and foresight of government – this is really new. Anyways, this is why Mr. [redacted] is wrong: in so saying that we can inherently trust people to filter and disseminate information that we “can handle”, he ignores the fact that everything has a political bias. This is no different for his lone editor or disseminator or government than it is for any of us in this room. So then, what we’re doing is handing the ability to determine truth to people that are already powerful; in a way, we’re practicing a bizarre kind of epistemological relativism wherein the people with the most money and the most guns get to decide what’s true.

This situation – where the powerful in society give an incomplete picture of events as they unfold to the people necessary for that power’s continued support – is exactly the type of thing Wikileaks is attempting to stop. Only by hearing the stories from those on the margins of our discourse, from those decentralized places that have neither interest nor duty in upholding the existing status quo, can we as the moral supporters of our government actually figure out whether we can and should support the things our government and our corporations do at home and abroad. Using Mr. [redacted]'s language, this comes down to transparency, and why it’s good for all of our sakes – because it means we can see all of the consequences that the moral and political choices that we as a people make.

Let me explain. The material on Wikileaks is targeted to a very specific audience. It’s not the terrorists; they don’t have much less of a habit for killing civilians than we do, and regardless of what a bunch of people posting classified documents do, they’re not going to be more or less likely to kill American soldiers, because in joining a terrorist group, they’ve already made the choice to do that. It’s not the Afghanis; most of Afghanistan (because of continued military occupation and rampant poverty) doesn’t have internet access and rates of computer ownership in Afghanistan is among the lowest in the world, besides that, they don’t need to read internal documents to know that US soldiers shot an innocent deaf and blind man down the street three years ago. Those documents on Wikileaks are intended for us, the privileged people sitting at home in America who make arguments that “we don’t kill civilians”, or “Pakistan is our ally in the region”, or that counterinsurgency is “working”, or that the war is “difficult but necessary”. The documents paint a cultural picture – one where what we’ve heard from the administration and military leadership about the progress of this war seems at best misrepresented and at worst an outright lie. Insofar as the release of these documents can change how we think about the war and our compulsion to support it, their release is a good thing.

But even further, the fact that Wikileaks is disseminating information that those with the greatest interest in maintaining and perpetuating the war saw fit to keep secret gives us the opportunity to see that perhaps the dominant narrative in our political discourse is not a given, and maybe even that the emperor in fact has no clothes. When we lose the opportunity to see information for ourselves, as Mr. [redacted] wants to see happen, and instead what we see are the same repeated analyses and moral judgements made over and over again, we tend to lose sight of how big this war really is, or that perhaps we don’t have any solid footing on which to stand in supporting it. What Julian Assange and Wikileaks did was actually raise the war as an issue to be discussed, even if only for a very brief time, instead of something lost in the background and dismissed as a necessary technical detail of our foreign policy. When we see video of soldiers in planes cracking jokes while shooting groups of people with precision bombs, or when we hear about the extent to which we have unmanned drones blanketing the skies above Afghanistan and Pakistan, it becomes very hard to just look away and dismiss all of that. Mr. [redacted] bemoaned the lack of sanitization of the scenes of war from coverage earlier. But, if images of piles of skulls filling ditches or corpses strewn across field are the consequences of war – and they are – shouldn’t we know about and see those things when we make the choice to continue waging wars? To some extent, we can change and modify our first principles and the things we support by being confronted frankly and honestly with the consequences of what we believe: this sort of discourse happens every day between members of this body. If we’re really comfortable as a people with letting loose the dogs of war and continuing to feed them for eight years on, then we should be able to look through our computer screens into the dead eyes of a young Afghani child killed in battle crossfire and say “I accept this cost.” If we do anything less, we’re not being honest with ourselves or paying fair tribute to the horrors we cause, and Wikileaks will continue to have a role to fill. I think that’s enough to vote in the Negative tonight.