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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Freedom and the Problem of Informed Consent



"I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it."
– Col. Nathan R. Jessup (actor, Jack Nicholson; writer, Aaron Sorkin), A Few Good Men

I see a lot of stuff out there criticizing the U.S. on its handling of foreign policy, criticizing the President personally, suggesting that internecine conflict hampers us from making a move, or suggesting that an intelligence agency or secret world conspiracy is behind the many seemingly inexplicable things we see.

You could argue any of these points of view, but in the end your arguments will be flawed. Because you do not know what you do not know. You're not in the room when the foreign policy discussions are held. You aren't the President. You would only have a second- or third- hand account of a story leaked by someone who has a bias or vested interest in portraying things a certain way. And you definitely aren't still on the inside an intelligence agency or the pit of a secret world conspiracy and simultaneously standing on the outside talking about it.

Does that mean the information bubble is hermetic? No, obviously. But it can't be trusted because the nature of secret information is to remain as such.

The real issue is informed consent. We need it, but what if we can't afford it?

What if "the people" need to be protected from themselves in order for the world to survive?

You will respond, and I won't blame you: "That's unacceptable to me," because "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

You will say: "The very same people who claim to 'protect' us will, in a world without informed consent, also be our physical and virtual jailers, and will be impossible to resist or overcome.

You don't want to live in a police state.

I don't have the answer for you.

I can only say that the basic human need for free choice compromises the two opposing models of governance we're seeing in the world today.

* The first is the open dictator model, which essentially says: Our ruling group is in charge, we only care about ourselves, stay out of our way, and if you don't we will kill you.

* The second is the model which says: Our inter-denominational ruling group is in charge, we have to manage this world together, and whoever doesn't want to play nice gets isolated from the rest of us.

The people in charge of these modes of governance don't seem to get it.

They say, in effect, you don't get to know what we know, because your open debate of secret information compromises the integrity of our rule (Model 1) or our ability to keep you safe (Model 2).

They don't understand that freedom is so basic a need that people will die for it. They will exhaust their entire lives seeking it, like a suffocating person chokes for air. They will stand on their sword, ruin their careers, walk away from lives that were formerly bought and paid for with silence.

Open communication is fundamental to freedom. People will not rest. They will force the issue.

People will make up stories or piece them together in order to force communication happen.

And so - since you cannot silence the people even though you may think this is a necessary thing - what has to happen is as much credible communication as possible.

The government, any government, must say: I can tell you this much, this is real information, chew on that. I can't tell you any more.

And the real information has to be as extensive. The data has to be raw and cooked, that is people need data sets as well as an explanation of what those data sets mean. Not an ideological explanation but a narrative.

There arises the question, what happens when the enemy uses this data against us? That is not a light question. Someone has to sit down and think about it, logically, rationally. It's an issue that must be debated, in the open, in public.

I believe that government can do better. Official communication does not have to be clumsy and flat-footed and leave us lurching toward chaos. It can be measured, and reasoned, and believable and calm. It can be the kind of talk that speaks to intelligent adults, as opposed to the substitution of Tweets for speeches. (I cannot tell you how much that irks me.)

It wasn't always this way. Something has gone off the rails. Either the threats are worse and we can't talk about them at all, or the solution is so radical that we can't talk about the vision that is unfolding, and so we try to pass the time in the meantime, hoping that people won't notice.

They notice.

Sometimes I want to crawl into my old TV set, I want to live in The West Wing. I want to be the C.J. who represents Martin Sheen. I want to be Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, a hopeful young Republican admiring the image portrayed by Ronald Reagan.

I know we can get back to where we need to be. We don't have to accept murky silence as the price we pay to avoid Model 1 dictatorship. But we will need an honest debate about freedom and the boundaries of official communication to get there.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.