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Leak Literacy

By December 3, 2010 News No Comments

File:Wikileaks logo.svg The first thing that strikes me when I open up any one of the many Wikileaks state department cables recently released to much ado is how overwhelmingly impatient I feel going through it. I keep waiting for these diplomats to drop some heavy pejoratives on the leaders of other nations, or to say something along the lines of “This was horribly wrong, but we did it anyway. Mwa-ha-ha!” In other words, I hanker for some scandal and cringe at the task of decrypting nuanced correspondences. It’s true, some of the cables are blissfully blunt. It is equally true that my expression of boredom is a shameful trait no person involved in media studies should ever own up to. But I think there is a point to be made by my admission of restlessness.

I am a big reader and I consider myself a critical person. Even so, with so much commotion in the world, I find myself skimming news items until I hit something simple. There are times, a lot of times in fact, when that just isn’t okay. If some of the media responses to this latest batch of Wikileaks are any indication, now is one of those times.

For example, Bill O’Reilly on his show, The O’Reilly Factor, calls the Wikileaks treason and espionage. He throws around a lot of threatening phrases like “military prison” and “execution.” He never says which leaks will endanger the American people, how, or why. If the assumption, then, is that the sanctity of information is a cause onto itself, without any foresight into possible consequences, then we may need to know more about why that is. The Wikileaks released in the summer regarding military practices in Afghanistan outlined failings and/or abuses by the US military which resulted in hundreds of unreported civilian deaths. Those things happened whether we know about them or not. O’Reilly, and the pundits and politicians of similar persuasion, have yet to make a convincing argument that knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance.

At the same time, it is easy to over glorify the Wikileaks project. I don’t really get why I need to know who is calling who “feckless and vain.” Nor do I understand why there are a whopping 250,000 of these correspondences being released. Are there things better kept secret, either because they are too sensitive or too inane? I would venture to say there are. At the same time, it isn’t hard to look back at the recent years in our government and governments around the world and come to the conclusion that we are not suffering from an overabundance of transparency.

I really would like to take a harder line on this issue. But I can’t. Implying that Julian Assange is a terrorist or that the State department is some sort of Orwellian sphere of dark, dark secrets misses the sort of beautiful thing that is underscoring this whole debate. As much as we proclaim (and sometimes complain) that we live in the age of information, we tend to take that title for granted. Here, we have a real opportunity to have a serious conversation about what having information really means and, more importantly, matters.

–Sarah Brown