“Before you criticize,” runs an aphorism high on everyone’s list of sweatshirt inscriptions, “walk a mile in the other man’s shoes.”
Almost by definition, clichés speak truth. Could this one help decipher the hysteria surrounding the latest WikiLeaks episode? Let’s try. But not by slipping into the shoes of Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange—but of someone in a galaxy far, far away, home, say, to a solar system of about 180 planets.
One—call it Big Planet—spends almost as much on arms as the other 179 and six times as much as the second place planet. It threatens war when a tiny planet tries to build one nuclear missile but has 9000 of its own including about 2400 ready to fire at a moment’s notice.
Big Planet calls itself an inspiration to others because of its ideals, like democracy. But just in the last 50 years Big Planet used its firepower to devastate one planet because it was afraid the wrong person would win its election, invaded another based on trumped up charges about “weapons of mass destruction,” overthrew governments, tortured prisoners, spied on its allies, and denied it all.
If someone released documents showing Big Planet didn’t live up to its ideals would we think that was “despicable” (Joe Lieberman)? “Malicious” (Charles Krauthammer)? The work of “uncaring bastards” (my friend Mike Long, writing on this site)?
Back to earth. Those facts and figures apply to the United States, and everyone knows it, not least the President. But while people like me who worked in the White House understand that an administration must sound outraged, those of us allowed to express independent thought should be a little … well … independent.
Take this “despicable” business. Walk in the shoes of those running Assange’s site. Mike Long says the WikiLeak people should drop their “impartiality shtick.” But they are not impartial. They believe the United States is an oppressor, not exactly a radical idea.
What’s despicable about releasing documents when you believe a country is—literally—getting away with murder? From the WikiLeaks perspective it would be despicable not to.
Furthermore, they risk their own lives to do it. Charles Krauthammer to the CIA: “He’s no cave-dwelling jihadi ascetic. Find him. Start with every five-star hotel in England and work your way down.” I don’t see risking death to publicize an idea as “uncaring.” More likely, Assange cares a lot.
Those sour Krauthammer views don’t reflect everyone’s, naturally, and just because Assange might be sincere doesn’t mean he’s right. But isn’t there a difference between someone who wants to fly planes into a building and someone who wants to release documents we know are true, generally common knowledge to other governments, and just secret to the public? What’s “despicable” about letting us—or citizens in Yemen—know when our countries do wrong?
This doesn’t mean it’s surprising to see the American reaction. As someone who teaches about persuasion, I read the overwhelming research about ways people condemn in others things they excuse in themselves, and the power of cognitive dissonance—the capacity to ignore evidence that might not agree with what we believe. Certainly that’s true of me. That’s what humans do.
Still, when we look back at the long list of American military adventures over the last five decades, wouldn’t it have been good to be less human – and more smart? To have had an Assange while we were secretly plotting the overthrow of Mosadegh in Iran, or when memos churning out of Paul Wolfowitz’s computer back in 2001 urged the disaster that became Iraq.
Well, you might say, truth is good—but you can’t break the law.
First, it’s not clear that Assange has broken any law. Second, we admire plenty of people who have—George Washington, for example. Besides, there is no way that a Big Planet government will voluntarily release anything damaging to its own policy. None. To find evidence instead of making assertions, you need whistleblowers.
That became clear—again— last August, when John Kerry released the secret deliberations of the 1968 Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As the Johnson Administration escalated war in Vietnam, horrified Senators were confronting the idea that the Tonkin Gulf episode we used to justify it could be a lie.
“Americans cannot expect the people whose sons are being killed … to exercise their judgment if the truth is concealed!” said Idaho Senator Frank Church, then.
Eventually, they did conceal it, because, in Church’s words, it might “discredit the military … and … destroy a President.”
Wouldn’t it have been better to know then instead of now? I think so. Wouldn’t it be to their credit if Senators cared less about who they discredited and more about who we were killing?
It’s easy to admire those who defy authority when they’re lovably inarticulate giant Wookiees, or vulnerable princesses taking a—quite illegal— risk to slip a message into a cute robot in a galaxy far, far away.
But in the real world, people of principle aren’t always lovable. We should distrust our haste to render contemptuous judgments (“despicable”) on them, or assigning them vile motives (“uncaring bastards.”). Such anger won’t make our journey to the Dark Side complete.
But it’s a good start.
Former White House Chief Speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, Lehrman has written thousands of speeches for Democratic politicians at the highest levels, as well as for nonprofit heads, corporate CEOs and entertainers.