12/9/2010

Thinking about WikiLeaks and Amazon.com

    I was trying to decide what to make of WikiLeaks when I received an email from my friend Daniel Ellsberg urging me  to remove Amazon from my website as a protest over their decision to cut off WikiLeaks’s website from their service. 
    First of all I have to say that I don’t like the way the sides are shaping up. I have a tremendous respect for Dan Ellsberg who I know to be an extremely honorable, principled and courageous individual.  Opposing him are a lineup of people for whom I have no respect including Senator Joe Lieberman, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin (turns out the Tea Party likes government intervention).  These  are people who have consistently opposed fairness and free thinking (or , in Palin’s case, any thinking.) The fact that the largest bookseller in America cut off a customer after having been asked to do so by the U.S. Government in the form of Senator Lieberman who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee,  should be deeply troubling to any book author, or any reader.
    On the other hand, I have to say, Julian Assange , the man behind WikiLeaks, appears to be—sorry, Dan--no Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg had a very high level of security clearance within the US Government and the Rand Corporation, which gave him access to papers that showed that the government had been lying to the public and Congress about the Vietnam War. Once an intimate part of the war strategy , Ellsberg had come to realize that the war was completely immoral  and he had an obligation to try to stop it. He released the papers to the New York Times in 1971 under a promise of anonymity, which they broke. He did go into hiding for two weeks.  But it was clear that Ellsberg was prepared to face any consequence,  in order to do what he felt was right.
    It is not clear to me that Assange,  is of the same moral fiber. Of course I remember very well the concerted effort of government to demonize Ellsberg. Nixon even broke into his psychiatrist’s office in the hopes of getting something on him.  So all of the negative reports  that we are now hearing about Assange, may not be credible. 
    Certainly, like Ellsberg, WikiLeaks in a different technological era, has performed some great services to the American public. If Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has violated international law and the terms of diplomatic privilege by instructing American diplomats to commit acts of espionage—dirty, creepy little acts like getting foreign officials’ frequent flyer numbers so the State Department can monitor their travel—the American people should know this. And when the Obama administration is sending Americans to kill and die in Afghanistan, it is important to know that they regard the government we are defending as a band of hopelessly corrupt war lords—the exact argument used by some Afghanis to oppose U.S. intervention—the American public ought to know this.  So we should feel grateful to Assange and WikiLeak and certainly we should admire Bradley Manning the soldier who blew the whistle on the Afghanistan War. .
    However, this is a hacker and I am not comfortable with hacking. I wouldn’t like Wikileaks to publish all my emails. But, of course I am not laying waste to Afghan villages either.  Typical of the age, Wikileaks indiscriminantly grabs huge mountains of material without a stated agenda other than exposing them. Ellsberg revealed a specific document for a specific reason and his motivation was clear. I am not clear on what motivates Assange. I don’t really understand hackers. The response of WikiLeak allies, hackers around the world attempting to create mayhem  on the websites of Amazon.com and others who they deem anti-wikiLeaks, deepens my doubts about wikileaks. Isn’t there a childish arrogance to these hackers who stay hidden, create mischief and claim through tortured logic that they are fighting for freedom of speech? There is something disturbing about people who say: either you conform to our idea of liberty or we will destroy your property, and we will do it safely hidden from view. Their notion of freedom at times seems faulty as well.  Freedom of the internet often comes down to claiming the right to get the hard work of others for free.  Be a grown-up and pay for the things you take.
Why is it that people on the left, apparently including Dan Ellsberg, see Wikileaks as a latter Pentagon Papers.  Why do they assume such hacking is uniquely a tool against government misconduct. couldn't it also be a tool for government misconduct. Today Richard Nixon would not need to break into Democratic Party headquarters or Daniel Ellsbergs's psychiatrist.  Isn't such hacking the way the Chinese government monitors dissidents? Isn't this the reason various repressive regimes dislike the impenetrable encryptian of Blackberries.  Isn't hacking a good tool for corporations, for anyone wishing to invade another's privacy?
    But I am also troubled by the spectacle of the largest bookseller in America, and therefore, I suspect, the largest seller of my books,  penalizing WikiLeaks because the government asked them to. It turns out Homeland Security is not defending us against those who wish to do violence against us, but against those who expose the misdeeds of government.  That is a traditional concept of security, but one more associated with dictatorships. Suppose Homeland Security starts telling Amazon whose books they can carry?
Amazon claims they had a contractual dispute with WikiLeaks that had nothing to do with the telephone call the day before from Lieberman.  Hard to believe,  but possible.
    Obviously, there are questions here for which I have no answer. I have a book coming out in the Spring titled What? It is a book about questioning and it asks how it is in a world of so much uncertainty that we can make so many statements and ask so few questions? So I am asking readers to ask questions about this Wikileaks business. I am also asking Amazon to question what their proper role should be?   I am leaving a wide number of options for book purchasing on my website including Amazon. Of course there is also the option of just going to your local book store, enjoying some time browsing and buying your books there.  Unlike Senator Lieberman, I am in favor of having all kinds of choices. 

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