Monday, 3 January 2011

The MIB-phenomenon and Democratic Action

In the 1997 movie "Men In Black" K convinces J that secrecy and privileged information is crucial for intelligent action. The assumption for this claim is that human beings as individuals act more rationally than humans as a mass movement: "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicking, dangerous animals, and you know it." Similar arguments about the irrationality of mass decision have been used to defend aristocracy, secrecy in government and military, and to attack whistleblowers and others who disseminate privileged information among the general public.

One of the most recent examples is that of Wikileaks. First with the Afghan War Diary, then with the Iraq War Diary and Cablegate, the whistleblower web site drew criticism from governments worldwide. Though there are other serious issues involved in that debate, the main question is "how much does a people have the right to know about what their government is doing?"

If intelligent democratic action is not possible then there is no valid case that can be made in favour of a democratic system. If K is right then people are best left in the dark about the essential decisions that determine much of their lives. I believe intelligent democratic action is possible, but the prerequisite is an informed electorate. That places a tremendous responsibility on the media as well as the individual citizen in any democratic society. This was eloquently advocated by John F. Kennedy in his first year as president.

He argues that nothing but the "narrowest limits of national security" should be kept secret from the people. One can question what those narrowest limits are, and whether these boundaries were crossed in the case of the leaks. Yet if we look at the total impact of the leaks, I agree with some points made by Professor Anatol Lieven from the War Studies Department of King's College in London. His complete analysis can be found here:

He argues that the arguments made for secrecy are "outweighed - in the West, not obviously in Russia - by the fact that we are after all supposed to be democracies, and our electorates have the democratic right to know more than they have done in recent years about the conduct of their government's foreign policy. Far too much misinformation and outright lying has surrounded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Overall, we in the West now live in an atmosphere of security hysteria and obsessive secrecy that would have filled our ancestors with horror."

A society is only democratic if a citizenry can protest against and stop actions they do not agree with, and such reaction is impossible if the actions of their government are kept secret.