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At 08:30 a.m. Mr. Tamaz wakes up and rushes out of the house without brushing his teeth.
- Hold on, why should we care about Mr. Tamaz’s teeth and whether he has a gleaming smile? Essential for us are his political ideals, moral principles, life credo.
- OK, it’s clear, absolutely clear. Wind it forward. However, not brushing his teeth also speaks to something: How could a man who does not take care of his teeth be able to take care of the country? Wind it forward…
An hour later:
At 00:30 a.m. the candidate for deputy, Tamaz Doborjginidze returns home drunk, abuses his children verbally and his wife physically.
- That’s it!
- That is important indeed. A headline, in fact. Definitely, a matter of public interest!:) As for teeth, let PrimeTime chew over that …
* * *
Whether or not we like WikiLeaks, we have to admit one thing: It has certainly heralded the arrival of a new epoch in politics. That ground was not prepared by Julian Assange or by any other media wizard, but WikiLeaks was the first to take advantage of technological progress and bring us the “inside” story on a wider scale – and without any false modesty either.
We already now know that it no longer takes a several-month-long journalistic investigation or a broad network of spies to uncover insignificant state secrets. We also know already that a website of doubtful origin has, within a year of its commencement, managed easily to gather more than one million confidential government documents.
At first, everything seemed straightforward – the more knowledgeable the society of its politicians, the more informed its choice and the higher the level of democracy. That was the principle to which proponents of WikiLeaks adhered. For them, Assange personified the ideal of transparency.
There were also opponents, those who associated the disclosure of state secrets and classified diplomatic communiques with the demise of political order and the onset of chaos and anarchy.
As it has turned out, WikiLeaks adherents and opponents alike lacked needed skepticism. To that end, simple questions remain to be asked: What is the guarantee that the dirty linen of all political forces will be equally displayed? Will that massive and comprehensive project be used by one force to smear another?
True, being informed is good for democracy. It is good for voters to know how politicians reason, what they really think, and what they are actually capable of doing. But how good is an incomplete picture? What is the public benefit of getting voters all riled up about one politician’s crude jokes while keeping them completely ignorant of a rival politician’s propensity for child abuse?
For leaked information to achieve its declared ideal of transparency, it would have to approximate that form illustrated at the beginning of this article.
On the one hand, media would have to release pertinent information about every politician. Rather than airing the dirty linen of only one politician while keeping the dirtier linen of another under wraps, it would be better to release only public statements made at news briefings.
On the other hand, we would have to learn everything there is to know about every politician. What value is there in knowing only half the story – knowing that a politician publicly curses at an official meeting and not knowing that, behind closed doors at home, he beats his mother-in-law over the head with a chair?. More to the point, it is as difficult to identify the limits of legitimate public interest in political life as it is to measure the bounds of offensive conduct.
The question we have to ask is, Who would ever want to go into politics if every detail of a politician’s personal life were subject to complete transparency? Would politics necessarily become the exclusive domain of saints? Or would less-than-saintly politicians have to create a political binary code or some other secret language through which they could still plot intrigues? Would the value of “transparency" then simply lose its weight?
The reality is that absolute transparency will always remain an unattainable ideal. That is because reality itself has become ever more difficult to ascertain. It is as politically important as ever to obtain information, but media channels for instantly discrediting that information have multiplied and become more diversified.
Ideally, “secret files” would be gathered by means of crowdsourcing whereby, as in the case of Wikipedia, the collective intelligence of the public would contribute to an all-important cause. That is the principle which the name “WikiLeaks” is intended to convey. In practice, however, obtaining secret documents and confidential communiques differs qualitatively from entering information into a user-generated encyclopedia like Wikipedia. If the latter contribution can be made by any enthusiast from his or her bedroom, the former requires huge resources. Even assuming an idealistic underpinning, the need for long-term financial and political assets is unavoidable.
Leakomania can only survive on a global scale in one of two forms: it will either continue in its existing WikiLeaks-type framework and be legally prosecuted or it increasingly will air dirtier and dirtier linen and further soil political reputations.
Under the first scenario, the state would have to impose mechanisms for strict censorship in order to control and severely punish the release of secret information. Historical experience shows that it is just a short step from wide-ranging censorship to a downturn in democracy. The distance between those two points is even more condensed with modern technologies by which complete information control is unimaginable without digital isolation and the operation of massive and repressive machinery.
Under the second scenario, we would have to acclimate ourselves to bombardment by an ever-expanding inflow of political dirt. At the same time, we must bear in mind that he who pays the piper calls the tune.
The pre-election period in Georgia clearly illustrated that large financial and political resources behind the release of damaging information had little, if any, regard for how close or how far from reality that information was or whether it was an outright fabrication. Whether or not that type of “transparency” helped the society to make an informed choice is a story yet to be told. For now, we can boast that, at least in this one respect, we have kept pace with global processes.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 117, published 8 October 2012.