Wikileaks: Why Plato Would Have Loved It

Yesterday and today, the world was awash in news about the latest disclosures on Wikileaks.

The official U.S. reaction was hysterical — and predictable. A cacophony of American politicians is frothing at the mouth and screaming for blood. Wikileaks should be investigated for all sorts of crimes, including treason. Wikileaks should even be branded a “terrorist” organization. (I dare ask: who exactly is being “terrorized”?) And since this morning, the site was down due to hacking attacks so massive that U.S. cyberwar and intelligence agencies must be considered the main suspects.

Unfortunately, the heavy-handed response by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and others did even more harm by feeding into the negative perception much of the world already harbors: that the U.S. has gotten out of control; that America has turned from a benevolent guarantor of world peace and stability into one huge, egomaniac, narcissistic, hypocritical, imperialist and gluttonous global bully.

Clinton, her posse and her government colleagues also exposed that they are hopelessly out of touch with the new realities of the 21st Century information age. The whole depth of the paradigm shift brought on by information technology has not even dawned on these people. Digital IT will change the civilized world more fundamentally than Gutenberg’s printing press from around 1440 — and much faster. Attempts to thwart the free flow of information are becoming as counterproductive and futile as book burnings once were.

I was reminded of what Plato would have said about this affair.

Even 2,400 years ago Plato knew: morality comes from full disclosure. It is human nature that without accountability for our actions, we all become compromised as time passes. Moreover, the power to conceal one’s actions leads to temptation and corruption.

To illustrate, Plato told the parable of the Ring of Gyges, which we find in The Republic.

According to legend, the  wearer  of the ring of Gyges can make himself invisible at will. Found in a cave tomb by this simple shepherd tending his flock, Gyges discovered the ring’s secret. Intoxicated with its powers, Gyges infiltrated the palace of the King of Lydia, seduced the queen, then conspired with her to murder the king. He topped off his coup d’état by making himself King of Lydia.

Plato observed that even a habitually just and humble man who possessed such a ring would become a thief, knowing that if he couldn’t be seen, he could not be caught.

Plato (in the voice of his character Glaucon) argues that morality is a social construction, whose source is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and honesty. Without the threat of sanctions, moral character would begin to evaporate. Those who abuse the power of the Ring of Gyges slowly but surely descend into moral bankruptcy and suffer irreparable failings of character.

Many times over, human history shows how right Plato was.

We are still slow to understand and learn from past mistakes. Ever since World War II, we have allowed the amount of information concealed by the U.S. and other democracies to increase exponentially. All for the sake of “national security”, as we are supposed to believe.

Necessary or not, the ability to keep huge sectors of America out of the view and scrutiny of Americans also handed the Ring of Gyges to the administrators of major portions of the national budget, and to ever growing sectors of government.

Today’s situation is the result. Plato would not have been surprised at all.

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