US power, wikileaks, student protest, Christopher Hitchens and openDemocracy under attack: moral authority, or authoritarianism?

Authors, authority and authoritarianism. A turbulent week raises the question of truth and legitimacy
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
13 December 2010

For me an extraordinary week as Wikileaks changed world politics while a new generation in Britain stormed Parliament, combined with my personal reading and a spat about openDemocracy's coverage. The four  came together for me as linked questions of moral authority:

  • How should Obama and Clinton react to Wikileaks? 
  • How much support should I give to student protests whose anger I sympathise with but some of whose arguments seem to me to be wrong?
  • On reading Christopher Hitchens' memoir, should one conclude that his enduring pride in his youthful radicalism is what has made him such a staunch – and continuing – supporter of war in Iraq?
  • How should I react to being (nastily) taken to task for publishing a piece by a Hezbollah sympathiser


I liked this tweet about the leaks (hat tip Albert!):

Napster showed us that copyright would not work in the networked digital age, and whatever you think should replace the old diplomacy (and, we hope, the old corpocracy), Wikileaks shows they cannot survive in current form. Assange's basic analysis is correct, whatever you think of his actions. Very roughly, he argues that conspiracy of any size requires writing; writing opens you to the threat of leaks from within (and the bigger the conspiracy, the more likely the leak). Conspiracy is hard to maintain, so resilience to sunlight (i.e. transparency) becomes a competitive advantage to institutions. Hanna Arendt, I feel, would be with the leakers.

A belief that truth, openness and common decency will win in the end is the most attractive side of American self-belief. Many of the diplomats we've enjoyed reading so much basically seem to adhere to this. (The Economist makes this version of the observation, but the one I loved was David Aaronovitch, exaggerated but nail-hitting – and unfortunately closed behind the Times Paywall – which was headlined something like: "The secret is out: the Yanks stand for good in the world"). Of course, many Americans do not have this attractive self-belief – this week saw the release of tapes of Nixon with his racist, anti-semitic rants. That America is a reality also. And if we had CIA memos rather than State Department leaks, I suspect our view would be quite different.

It was an abandonment of the good self-belief which characterised the war on terror, the Iraqi invasion and the politics we associate with a rampant military industrial complex.

So what reaction should Obama and Clinton have had to the dispatches and to the Iraq and Afghan leaks? They should have said:

We are not ashamed that our diplomats report honestly what they observe. We do not think that the social embarrassments that the press have made much of – drawing attention to this or that weakness of a leader or politician, for example – are important. We do not think that the release of diplomatic materials to date compromises our national interest. We have been impressed by Wikileaks' responsibility in redacting material that could endanger individuals and we welcome their partnership with respected old-journalism organisations.

We stand for a free and open society, and even when it makes life just a little harder for us – and to tell you the truth, it has not so far been very hard – we stand by those ideals. If sunlight starts to embarrass us, then we know that the problem is our actions and policies, not the sunlight.

Now, given that the above is what they should have said, and that the leaks harm those who oppose common decency much more than anyone else, I wonder what interests it is who have been orchestrating the attacks on Assange and Wikileaks. (I do not, by the way, hold that the molestation/rape charges are necessarily a part of that orchestrated attack; but the take-downs by EasyDNS and Amazon very clearly are). 

I have no idea. My favourite rumour and private wish is that the really explosive material that Wikileaks has yet to reveal is from Wall Street, not the State Department and that the material will show fraudulent mis-selling of sub-prime mortgages. This could allow criminal trials against those responsible and generally would open the banking bail-out to a renegotiation. 

What does this have to do with moral authority? Simply that there is a leap of faith that we need to take in the view that it is better to be open even when being closed yields tactical gain. This is the same leap of faith that is required to accept that it is better not to trade liberty for security, even for a tactical advantage against terror. If you don't take that leap of faith, you lose legitimacy and moral authority. I hope Obama understands this well – and I used to believe that he did; the leaks should be an opportunity for him to re-assert that faith and enhance the moral authority of the USA.

Student protests

As I have written before, I sympathise with the student protest. I think the government is absolutely wrong on its cuts to the education maintenance allowance (the payment to poorer families for the children who stay in education beyond the age of 16, strongly defended by my colleague Anthony Barnett in this piece), which seems like an excellent program, but I don't think it is all wrong on the loans and fees. And I think the students are factually wrong in a lot of the talk - for example about the "100% privatisation" of education.

The fact is that a market would never supply the loans as offered. The loan/fee package provides unsecured, income conditional lending with a progressive structure which just wouldn't ever be part of a commercial lender's operations. In other words, the package has a strong social element. The IFS report linked to here has all the details on the degree of its social and distributional components. They are substantial. 

The argument against the loan/fee package has to be that it doesn't have enough of a social element, or that it represents the wrong way to achieve the social ends of education because of some incentive feature or that they were imposed in an illegitimate way. It cannot be that they ignore education as a social good. Up against a wall – this time metaphorically – the critics of the reforms retreat into generalities, implying that if there is choice in a system, then it has been marketised.

As a generality, this is absurd: choice is a decentralisation of responsibility. There are many decentralisations possible between the individual and the national (or even global) level, and I happen to think that the government got it wrong in decentralising to the level of the individual. I would have allowed much greater local autonomy and choice in determining what education to offer and how to pay for it. The state-university system in America provides affordable education (for those living within states and with a sufficient history of tax-paying in a state) as well as some great universities, like the University of California campus at Berkeley. 

Now, the changes were, I think, derived in an illegitimate way. Education - from earliest ages onwards - is not working in Britain. The OECD PISA report this week showed this clearly: fee paying private schools don't help national attainment; selective schools don't help; social class matters much more in Britain than in Finland or Germany – let alone Korea or China; British children read for fun less than the OECD average; the gender gap is stuck (boys are a problem) ... We need a fundamental rethink of how education works and what it is for. Without that, we can't possibly decide how much social effort (money) should go into universities. (For what it is worth, I think it ought to be less than the current system because I suspect that there is a huge over-provision of not very good university education. But I think much more should go into adult learning and continuing education. But these arguments need to be had in a legitimate and legitimising process.)

The opportunity of the urgent solvency crisis in government was this: to say "We must show that we are prepared to rethink the relationship between state, individual and market. If we don't, lenders will flee and we'll be in Irish-style trouble. Even if we decide to spend as much socially as before, we need to tax more. We need to decide how to do this. But let's decide on how we change through a process that is going to be legitimate and is actually going to produce genuinely social answers to the question of what we value education for".

The opportunity in the crisis required more than the normal Parliamentary process because Parliament has itself failed so badly – not only in not averting crisis, but also in becoming weakened by an expense scandal at just the time it needed to stand up to an organised interest of the importance of the City.

Instead, Browne was married with Policy Exchange and political expediency to create something that will polarise a whole generation and catalyse generational conflict that will have plenty of opportunities to flare up (there is an excellent Gerry Hassan post on this here). Viewed in the long term, with really hard decisions coming up over the next 20 years on pensions, immigration, taxation, care for the old that will divide the baby-boomers and the XYZers, it could not be more disastrous. This conflict, which should never have been, will cast a shadow over many more, and more important ones.

It is that legitimacy/expediency trade-off again.

Chris Hitchens' journey

So maybe it doesn't matter that the students are wrong in the detail. They are right to protest after all. Except that the genuinely and passionately held beliefs that turn out to be mistaken leave important, maybe even dangerous traces.

Hitch22 is a fascinating intellectual memoir that fleshes out in honest detail the truth in the quip that under a neo-con you'll often find a radical who's been mugged by reality – mugged, in my view, in exactly the wrong way. The memoir moves from enthusiasm for Che Guevara – though Hitchens says that, despite never really having got his head around economics, he never thought that the prostitution market would ever disappear from Havana, whatever else the revolution might achieve – to some early doubts about the hard left in the Portuguese revolution, to a silent, somewhat grudging admiration for Thatcher in 1979 and support for her through the Falklands war – because the Argentinian junta was such an unacceptable regime.

Throughout, the strong sense one gets is that Hitchens has a consuming need to be right, to have moral authority in the way an oracle does. Even when he concedes he may have made a mistake of judgement – for example, in not supporting the first Iraq war – it is crucial for his self-belief and his integrity that he got it wrong in just the right way. Indeed, even when he thinks that he has got a judgement right – as he does in his continuing support of the second Iraq war – he is dismissive of anyone who agreed with him but for the wrong reasons (Cheney and Rumsfeld are in this camp).

Hitchens – brilliant and entertaining and extraordinarily knowledgeable – seems to find it the hardest thing in the world to change his judgements in a way that makes the younger Hitchens look as if he lacked judgement. This is how intellectual mistakes tie us up in knots. It is easy to love our past selves too much to be honest today.

This is why we should seek to protest for the right reasons. Given the propensity of the intellectual for self-love, anger alone will lead to possibly dreadful tangles later. How many influential and intelligent activists today will be constrained in what they can think tomorrow because it is hard to admit they were wrong? 

Publishing Dyab Abou Jahhah

I was nastily taken to task on Harry's Place for publishing this piece, "How to destroy Hezbollah" by Dyab Abou Jahhah who claims that some kind of US/Mossad plot killed Prime Minister Hariri. (The allegations against Tom Griffin were grossly unfair, as the perpetrator Lucy Lips has acknowledged in this retraction.) 

I don't agree with the Abou Jahhah piece. I think he is wrong in the facts about Hariri's murder – I think it is more likely it was Syrian inspired than anything else. But I think the piece was worth publishing. I thought the piece represented Jahhah saying: "This is what I and many others believe. What is your reaction to these beliefs?" The reaction in the comment stream did this – from those who bought the whole Jahhah analysis to those who dismissed it entirely, the polarisation in the world was reflected in the comments. But there was more than war in the comments. Just here and there - a few sentences - pointed to arguments that might be heard across the chasm. Taken as a whole, it is a page of openDemocracy that I believe adds to an understanding of the world.

For some – and I presume the detractors at Harry's Place – moral authority comes from publishing only what they believe is true judgement, from finding a "line". But I don't think that legitimacy or moral authority comes from being an oracular source of good judgement. If it ever was true, it is not today. The pulpit convinces no one. Instead, I believe credibility comes from being open to read, comment and reflect. That does not mean that everything should be published – there are many speech acts that are beyond the pale – but much should be discussed that we disagree with. 

What are the reasons for being in favor of argument rather than aiming at oracular wisdom? This is one of my preoccupying questions at openDemocracy – a very early statement of my views is here. One of my earliest acts here – to open our pieces to comments – was symbolically important. I did not want to be setting openDemocracy up as an oracle of true judgement but instead as a public space.There is still plenty of true judgement here, but I hope that it comes from reading whole pages, commentary and all, and not simply – or even always mainly – from authorial authority. In short, I want oD to trust its readers and become a site that is trusted because of this (hence my hope that you will generously support oD's new ten year appeal whether you agree with me or not).

I suppose the week's big events strengthen me in my view: the USA should have the strength of openness; the students should protest and face the future as truthfully as anyone can; the tragedy of Hitch22 is of a man who cannot attain the moral authority of his hero, George Orwell because of his intellectual pride; and we need to read Jahhah and the comments that accompany him; not because everyone has their own incommensurable reality but because  every perception of reality that at least seeks to argue in a truthful way influences our common reality and might - just might – be open to being influenced in its turn through the important process of being written, edited, read and commented on. And that goes for Jahhah as well as, or even especially, for the power-mongering conformists who have read him and responded to him.

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