Transparency, secrecy, and privacy

Views about when transparency is appropriate vs. inappropriate and necessary vs. optional diverge greatly in the U.S. and elsewhere. Many people seem to fail to distinguish between secrecy and privacy. I think this has to do with a habit of making little or no distinction between the collective and the individual. In the U.S. context, I’m tempted to blame this largely on the invention of “corporate personhood,” a concept that seems to have entered the legal realm in the late 19th century in cases such as San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1882), Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), and Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Beckwith (1889).

I’ll sketch a few thoughts on transparency, secrecy, and privacy here, and perhaps someone can correct me on any points of misapprehension that I may have.

First, I think that secrecy entails an intent to deceive to gain an undeserved benefit or to avoid a deserved injury. That is, it is an exertion of power over the rights and liberties of others. Privacy involves keeping harmless personal acts out of public view for any number of reasons that don’t involve injurious deception or selfish ambition.

Second, secrecy and transparency both carry advantages and disadvantages in interpersonal and intergroup relations.

Secrecy has the short-term advantage of allowing those who use it to gain leverage through deception. The disadvantage is that it provokes and perpetually increases distrust and enmity from those who lose leverage.

Transparency has the short-term disadvantage of making those who use it vulnerable to manipulation and fraud at the hands of the secretive. Transparency has the long-term advantage of fostering trust and cooperation.

Secrecy’s strength develops quickly but is brittle. When secretive groups form, they typically end up exploiting non-members. But secretive groups are inevitably destroyed by their secrecy. Lies have to be covered by other lies, and deception transforms eventually from a useful tool into a crippling web of contradictions and tensions that cannot be undone through any means other than destruction.

It should be obvious that this has nothing in common with privacy, and there is no reason to think that private individuals are destroyed by their privacy.

I don’t want to know more about you than is appropriate for the nature of our relationship and the level of trust developed between us through interaction. If you and I are strangers or are only acquainted remotely, then I only need to know about those actions of yours that affect me. It is your right to decide whether to inform me of any of your other actions. I have no right to demand knowledge of the things you do that have no effect on me, and vice versa.

But if I start hiding from you my activities that do affect you, perhaps without your perceiving the effects for a period, than I lose my right to expect privacy in that area, and you have a right to monitor my actions in that area.

The fundamental principle is that I have power over no one’s rights and liberties, and no one over mine.

But it should also be clear that a person only has privacy in regard to his or her actions as an individual. A person acting in a capacity as agent or representative of an organization has no right to privacy. Everyone’s actions on behalf of institutions are monitored by those institutions. But as I said, legal fictions aside, institutions are not persons and have no right to privacy. By definition, the acts of institutions affect more than one person and thus must be either transparent or secretive; they cannot be private.

I’ll close with three quotes. First, Daniel Webster:

“This era is distinguished by free representative governments, by entire religious liberty, by improved systems of national intercourse, by a newly awakened and unconquerable spirit of free inquiry, and by a diffusion of knowledge through the community. [We are] inseparably connected, fast bound up, in fortune and by fate, with these great interests. If they fall, we fall with them; if they stand, it will be because we have maintained them. Let us contemplate, then, this connection, which binds the prosperity of others to our own; and let us manfully discharge all the duties which it imposes.”

Second, Jeremy Bentham:

“Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government.”

Finally, Abraham Lincoln:

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

American democracy

Institutions vs. people

The hundreds of US State Department cables released so far by WikiLeaks and its newspaper partners reveal a world in which power factions work for their own good rather than for the common good. Each state seeks to strengthen its hand against other states. None of them has any qualms about acting against the interests of their citizens or humanity as a whole.

Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us. — Leo Tolstoy

The state is an institution whose purpose is to violate rights in order to secure benefits to a privileged class. — Wendy McElroy

The modern state no longer has anything but rights; it does not recognize duties anymore. — Georges Bernanos

A state is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies also; and this lie creeps from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” It is a lie! Creators were they who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. Destroyers are they who lay snares for many, and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

So the US bargains with other states to strengthen its position vis-à-vis those states. It is willing to prop up tyrannies that it finds useful employ any means to defend and increase its power. This has always been apparent to the conscientious observer, but it is valuable to have it now in fuller view of the public.

But as Jacques Ellul said: “What seems to be one of the disasters of our time is that we all appear to agree that the nation-state is the norm. … Whether the state be Marxist or capitalist, it makes no difference. The dominant ideology is that of sovereignty.” So I’ll turn momentarily from repudiating the state and look beyond the content of the cables to speak in terms that may be more pertinent to those who prefer to focus on improving the state.

Ethical vs. utilitarian

I think that the greatest significance of the recent controversy surrounding Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks (BMWL) is how it seems to illuminate the respective weights given to the ethical and the utilitarian in an individual’s worldview.

People who give precedence to the ethical are confident in ideals such as truth, freedom, and justice. They appreciate the good that can come from the publication of this material. Most can also acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns that should be contemplated and debated. But whatever their views in that respect, they can see that prosecuting WikiLeaks or Julian Assange for espionage or the like is a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.

In contrast, those who subordinate ethics to utilitarianism seem to idolize power. They refuse to make value judgments about constituted authority and its actions. They seem compelled to defend that authority without considering the reasons for opposition or the implications of the means employed to quash opposition and the various possible outcomes of the conflict. This is the seed of authoritarianism, which Glenn Greenwald recently identified as “an instinctively servile loyalty to power even when it is acting corruptly, lawlessly, and destructively.” And the intensity of an attack on BMWL seems to indicate the degree to which the attacker is in thrall to power.

Brittle authoritarianism vs. authoritative strength

But those in the ethical camp need not discard utilitarianism, and it is the utilitarian perspective that leads to recognition that it is impossible to eliminate vulnerability. This leads to decisions about which vulnerabilities to accept based on ideals and priorities. And this maximizes strength without focusing on strength as the ultimate end.

In contrast, a strictly utilitarian perspective leads one at every moment to maximize short-term strength above all else. This self-inflicted myopia serves only to reduce strength in the long term.

I believe that an individual who does the hard work of living ethically is more likely to attain true happiness in the end than an unethical person is. Likewise, a nation whose people conduct politics ethically grows stronger than nations whose politics are rigidly utilitarian. Neither happiness for the individual nor strength for the nation can be attained through direct pursuit.

Democracy vs. plutocracy

And so I turn back to the US, where so many people believe that democracy “impresses its character on everything it touches” and that “nothing can touch democracy” (see my post of 10 December regarding Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes).

Despite mythology about the US being a place of freedom and democracy, the country has always been haunted by authoritarianism and plutocracy. I associate this with the failure to combine independence for the nation with manumission for individuals. The issue goes far beyond the struggles of African-Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, etc. Successive generations in the US have faced iterations of the abominable choice between living on one’s knees or dying on one’s feet (¡viva Zapata!). Kent State and Watergate, McCarthyism, WWII concentration camps (in the US), Hooverville, the Espionage Act of 1917, and continual labor struggles (e.g., the Ludlow massacre, the Pullman strike, the Haymarket affair, and so on). Even Lincoln, virtual patron saint Americana, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War.

But each time that authoritarianism ascended, people rebelled and turned it back before a point of no return was reached. Likewise, we must now reassert the ideals that Americans have long claimed their nation embodies and defends — starting with freedom and openness:

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. — James Madison

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. — Thomas Jefferson

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech. — Benjamin Franklin

Who are we now?

There are real threats to freedom and security. But the threat is not just from terrorists; the state itself is a threat when it operates in secrecy and without accountability. Bradley Manning and fellow leakers and a free press (which includes WikiLeaks) are not threats to freedom or security.

We must oppose injustice without perpetrating injustice. This means that sometimes determined enemies will succeed in their attacks. We need to have the courage of our convictions and a tolerance for opposition. Adhering to our convictions must take precedence over prevailing against evil. And contravening our convictions equates to surrendering to evil and becoming complicit with it in the end.

Hope and dissent

“The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words? He is the one I would like to talk to.” — Zhuangzi (庄子)

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein

The words of this blog should be transparent and forgettable — disposable conveyors of durable concepts, paradigms, and paradoxes. I expect to write often about Christianity and sometimes about current events. I may also write occasionally about philosophy, music, science and who knows what else.

In any case, I am not a technician or specialist of any sort, and I hope this blog will have a nomothetic character. The following are the primary ideas and ideals that are likely to be reflected in this blog.

I value freedom and with it truth, neither of which can subsist without the other. In addition to these two things, I will address fear (often in the specific context of the culture and politics of the US, but elsewhere as well) since it seems to have an inverse correlation with freedom and, perhaps to a lesser extent, with truth.

I value equality. Dignity resides within every person, and human relations must be based on that equality.

Partly because of this, I loathe chauvinism in all its forms. Fear and ignorance seem to birth and sustain chauvinism, which stands opposed to truth and freedom. Chauvinism implies and even requires hierarchy, which institutionalizes and legitimizes inequality. Which brings me to my opposition to the modern state.

Anarchy is a touchstone by which I assess affairs of the world and their value. I do not consider anarchy a goal to be obtained or an ideology by which to be guided. So I do not consider myself an anarchist and am not one in any conventional sense of the word. However, I can sympathize to some degree with anarchists and probably share more in common with them than with any other group on the political spectrum — except perhaps libertarians, depending on how you choose to define and distinguish between anarchist and libertarian. My guiding principle in this area is that I have power over no one’s rights and liberties, and no one over mine.

On a tangentially related note, I am interested in the concept of the technological society as explored by Jacques Ellul. I am concerned with the encroachment on the individual implied by the proliferation of technique, and specifically the perpetual expansion of the modern state through the agglomeration of techniques.

Propaganda is one nexus of techniques that particularly interests me, and I will probably write a fair amount about the struggle required of the individual to maintain a personal, spiritual identity against the onslaught of techniques that would reduce him or her to an anonymous automaton in the abyss of mass society. I hope to write occasionally about the myth of progress, which is particularly important to contemporary propaganda.

I am a Christian — or, perhaps more accurately, am trying to become one more fully — and my favorite principle in Christian theology is that of regeneration/renewal (the Greek: παλιγγενεσία — palingenesia).

I want to see justice done and to see mercy granted. The paradox of justice and mercy in Christianity is one that I find particularly difficult to come to terms with.

And paradox is something that I appreciate. Not all paradoxes, but those that seem to contain a glimpse of truth with a capital T. And it seems to me that all truth involves paradox.

Last, I appreciate dissent. The jeremiad in the name of this blog is a reference to my given name and to one of my favorite verses in one of my favorite books of the Bible, Jeremiah 15:10, in which the author identifies himself as a man of strife and dissension. Jeremiah is alternately characterized as a weeping prophet; a prophet of doom, destruction, and judgment; and a plagiarizing prophet (because he quotes many other prophets). These characterizations are apt, but he also sounds a note of hope. Likewise, I seek to express views that are critical of the present world but that also point out reasons for hope, which paves the way to joy — thus the merry in front of jeremiad.

As I opened this entry with two quotes, so I close it with two:

“In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” — Georges Bernanos

“Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterward.” — Georges Bernanos