Letter From Canada: Why Is America So Furious About Wikileaks?

The most baffling thing about the Wikileaks Cablegate kerfuffle is the massive foot-shooting overreaction across the entire American political spectrum. Here in the rest of the world (okay, in Canada), we’ve already moved on, because (to date) the cables are more shrug-inducing than explosive—but US senators are still in the throes of a bizarre frenzy of rabid chest-beating and tooth-gnashing.

Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, has called for Julian Assange’s prosecution, despite the general consensus that he hasn’t actually committed any American crime. Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has a slightly clearer-eyed view; he wants the law changed so that Assange can be prosecuted as a terrorist. Joe Lieberman wants a criminal investigation of not just Assange but also the New York Times.

What exactly do they hope to accomplish? Do they think that if they do somehow manage to convict Assange—who, remember, was only the publisher, not the leaker—they will have eliminated the threat of Internet information dissemination forever? Don’t they realize that with every boneheaded speech and op-ed, they ratchet up the free publicity and do Wikileaks a huge favor, when a dignified silence plus a few veiled threats would have been far more effective? Can they really be so stupid?

Well, yes. The US government is like Wall Street: behind their veneer of all-powerful control, most of the people who run things are not particularly bright. I just read Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which depicts the financial collapse of 2008 as a catastrophe caused not because Wall Street was corrupt—which would have been almost okay—but because it was lethally stupid.  His next book should be about Washington.

The American diplomatic corps actually comes across as smart and competent in the Wikileaked cables. Unfortunately, the politicians they report to seem anything but. The scariest truth that Wikileaks has confirmed is that most of the world’s decisionmakers, like most Wall Street ‘wizards’, are petty, bureaucratic, dogmatic, myopic, and hostile to any innovation, largely because they’re not very intelligent. Not that smarts are everything, but it’s hard to tackle complex problems when you don’t fully understand them. It’s easy to forget this in the tech world, which is (relatively speaking) a results-oriented meritocracy … until you step into most governments or megacorporations, and find that suddenly the ambient IQ has dropped 20 points.

The tech sector is the only thing America has going for it these days. (Unless you count crumbling infrastructure, runaway debt, paralyzed government, or a trillion-dollar military bogged down in pointless faraway non-wars.) Unfortunately, the American government seems too dumb to realize this: so they maintain stupid visa laws, while ignoring smart alternatives; keep playing fast-and-loose, at best, with net neutrality; and, oh yes, plan to wiretap (and—thanks to Wikileaks—censor) the entire Internet, at great cost, apparently in the hope that bad guys will never discover the magic of public-key encryption.

You probably don’t want to read about political idiocy here, and I can’t blame you. But it may be time for the tech industry to start paying much more attention to the political world, because as Wikileaks vividly illustrates, these days almost every political issue has tech aspects—and hence, down the road, tech repercussions.