Totemism and Panopticon

Intelligence ≠ Journalism, Spies ≠ Journalists — an extremely important formula, one that I fear is increasingly being forgotten in our present era. Via, I have published my unfinished behemoth academic presentation-cum-paper, “Totemism and Panopticon: A Tentative Comparative Philosophical Ethnography of Journalism and Intelligence Using Wikileaks as a Case Study“. I have the ambition to sooner or later (preferably sooner) convert it into an article or book — with strength worthy of Poseidon, transform this sprawling octopus of 70 PowerPoint slides into a disciplined kraken of a monograph. To do that, I need critical feedback, both friendly and unfriendly, from fellow journalists and philosophers, professionals in intelligence work, and WikiLeaks supporters (not detractors, as I myself am now become a detractor and need continued exposure to the “opposing side”).

The truth is I have decided to publish this presentation now because I feel it is long overdue that I draw a strong line between my original support for WikiLeaks and my present extreme wariness, if not opposition, to Julian Assange et al. I considered coming out already back in 2016, but I found that I had nothing really cogent to say beyond simply that I felt what had been done was wrong. That changed by the summer of 2017, when I began working on this presentation. What finally prompted me to bring this presentation out from the Ivory Tower and more into the public domain were terrible experiences this past academic year at my employer, the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek (AUCA), Kyrgyzstan (a bit more about that below). I wanted to find words to describe my sense of our wretched zeitgeist, until I realized that I already had the words, more or less, in the form of this presentation.

I am not a “big deal” in the sense of being an intellectual influencer, trendsetter, what-have-you. Nonetheless, I expect at least some skepticism or scorn from those who were always against WikiLeaks, and some anger and feeling of betrayal from those who always and resolutely support it. To them: as recorded in my round-up post, “Working the WikiLeaks Beat“, from the beginning I tried to take an inquisitive and critical look at WikiLeaks. Even as far back as July 2010, I had concerns:

[W]hat I worry about is the extent to which WikiLeaks is willing to make soldiers, civilians […] collateral damage in its war against inaccuracy and falsity. That’s a question not only the journalist in me, but the philosopher too, would like to put to Assange et al one day…

Moreover, as an intellectual I reserve the right to change my mind, so I have exercised this right about WikiLeaks, especially in light of my maturation as a journalist and academic, coupled with my own encounters with intelligence professionals. And who knows? Perhaps one day I will change my mind again about WikiLeaks; certainly, as much as I have become convinced of the importance and, indeed, the inevitability of intelligence, I remain deeply worried about the extent to which it violates privacy, in my homeland and globally. In my religion, the Baha’i Faith, backbiting is seen as one of the greatest evils; when intelligence loses sight of its true purpose and morphs into a grossly industrialized form of backbiting, all of civilization suffers.

Indeed, there is a terrible paradox at the heart of our present era, a dialectic between privacy and publicity, secrecy and transparency; and at the heart of this dilemma are intelligence and journalism, which in a surprisingly enormous number of ways are kindred professions. In both my work and my philosophical and spiritual reflections, I have come to understand how secrecy and transparency are double-sided — they can be divine or diabolical. The Baha’i Faith actually champions both the need for discretion and secrecy and the need for exposure and publicity; in our Writings, we find God speaking in both languages, invoking the ethics of both principles, lionizing and condemning them depending upon the situation. There is a transcendental standard at play, according to which in one moment secrecy may be the right and transparency the wrong, and in the next the reverse.

These days, when I try to translate this standard into the professional terms of journalism, I think back to two of WikiLeaks’ biggest “mega-leaks” nine years ago, namely, their publication of the diplomatic cables from American embassies around the world and the military cables from American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Back then, I was more positive about these publications, but today I ask myself: what was really gained, journalistically? — and I have serious reasons to doubt the gains, especially considering what happened when the un-redacted versions of the diplomatic cables were released. I wrote an extensive critique at the time, in which the arc of my analysis still ultimately favored the “scientific journalism” that Assange then seemed to represent; today, I see nothing scientific, much less journalistic, in what WikiLeaks does. Of course, there is a real journalistic argument to be made about the unveiling of secrets, but they must be very a specific variety of crucial secrets, not simply crucial, nor simply secret — they must be the kind of crucial secret that critically illuminates the good or the evil, that advances the cause of the former and hurts the cause of the latter.

Moreover, to identify such secrets requires proper methodology (including understanding the secret’s origin and context, something that WikiLeaks lazily and dangerously outsources to others), not a mere leak published bluntly online; and it requires a proper mindset, not simply the pursuit of the scoop and fame, or some over-commitment to an ideology, creed, nation, etc. The journalist must strive to incarnate the divine as much as he or she is able, to act as the Impartial Spectator within history — and to accomplish objectivity, the journalist must, in a sense, be objective about his or her own self. Baha’u’llah has written about the relationship between secrecy, journalism and objectivity:

In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. […] This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing. –- Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 39.

Now, about this presentation. It was given at the World Communications Association Biennial International Conference in August 2017 at AUCA. Writing it represented for me the culmination of a process that really began in 2011/2012 during my “Media Ethics” course with Prof. Dr. Bart Pattyn (who in 2014 became my PhD supervisor) and resulted in the essay from which this presentation a few years later drew its title and fundamental concept, “Totemism as Panopticon“. Optimism in at least what I thought WikiLeaks represented, if only partially, lingered on into 2013, when I relocated to Kyrgyzstan and wrote a review of “Mediastan” at the request of — although this residual optimism was already mingled with growing grave concern. In the intervening years, whatever WikiLeaks may or may not have started out aspiring to be, Assange led it down an unacceptable path, then veritably leapt off a precipice in 2016.

To be sure, that WikiLeaks would have sought to interfere (and/or be a tool of interference) in a democratic election was not per se unprecedented given one of its earliest claims, namely, to have influenced the 2007 Kenyan election. And of course, from both a journalistic and intelligence perspective, arguably there is a case to be made that if one has evidence pertaining to a great evil of some kind at work in an election, one is duty-bound to somehow act on that information — which, presumably, means influencing an election. Yet, there is an equally good if not better case to be made for the policy of “election silence” that some countries follow. Simply put, there is such a thing as too much influence, akin to the notion — and intertwined with it — that there can be moments of too much information. From the beginning, WikiLeaks blurred the lines between intelligence and journalism, and, it must be said, between guarding democracy and undermining it.

Unfortunately, I only began to understand that in retrospect — although right in time for a crisis that beset my academic department in Bishkek. Due to contractual stipulations and a desire not to cause unintentional harm to certain people, I cannot publicly disclose what happened, but suffice it to say that since November 2017 my department has been something of a microcosm to the United States’ macrocosm, as though my homeland had been shrunken and teleported to the Tien Shan mountains. To sketch it for the reader, a colleague who should have appreciated the differences between intelligence and journalism not only failed to appreciate them, but seemed to relish in the blurring of the lines. This colleague nearly ruined our department, and really, all for the sake of sating ego. And I think, unfortunately, that this very same indictment probably extends to Assange. In my “Effective Storytelling” course, I teach Plato’s Crito as a form of creative non-fiction. Inevitably, conversations have turned to the travails of WikiLeaks’ founder, many of which have been self-inflicted. Once, one of my brightest students came to a poetically terrible, if terribly true, conclusion: had Socrates taken Crito’s offer, he would have been like Assange.

To close, beyond merely completing and retooling this presentation into a proper monograph of some sort, I have toyed with the idea of initiating a new sub-branch of philosophy. Call it “the philosophy of espionage”; I have found that, just as with journalism (the philosophy of which is my dissertation topic), there precisely is none — at least, not yet. WikiLeaks is a stupendously complex enough phenomenon that, even when detracting it, we must recognize some of the good it has done. One good has been this: in blurring, and indeed bursting lines that society had hitherto been only somewhat conscious of, Assange et al. have created an opportunity to clarify them, finally.

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