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Why did we become weak and scared?

Does a connection exist among hardiness, freedom, honesty, and courage on the one hand, and fragility, subservience, secrecy, and timidness on the other?

I am especially interested in whether we lost these good qualities, and replaced them with these bad qualities, when we started lying to ourselves. Why would any group deliberately do that? That is the true mystery. Why would any group blessed with good things give them up voluntarily? You also have to ask, how voluntary was it? The process may have been more coercive than we think.

What is required for a group to stop lying to itself? All of its secrets have to be revealed. Everyone in the group has to have access to the same knowledge. Without that condition of openness, some people hold power over others, by virtue of their superior access to knowledge. Equality of access to knowledge is the only equality that matters.

What happens in a group when some people within it hold secrets? The group actually ceases to be a group. The distrust that results from holding secrets destroys the group’s cohesiveness. Secret holders rule over everyone else. We are constantly told that money is power. Therefore to achieve more equality among people, we need a more equitable distribution of money.

That argument is not true at all. Money give you certain advantages, but power isn’t one of them. Knowledge is power. To achieve equality, you need equal access to knowledge. That means no secrets. We are not talking about private information here. Individuals determine what information about themselves they care to reveal. We are talking about public information. No information that belongs in the public domain ought to be secret, held by some people, but not by others. That gives the people who know illegitimate power over those who do not.

You can see why I have developed this argument. The amount of secret information that belongs in the public domain has become immeasurable. We argue inconclusively about privacy rights, but that argument forces us to look through the wrong end of the telescope. Public institutions have no privacy rights. Only individuals do. If public institutions hold no secret information, individual privacy rights will take care of themselves.

Government should be permitted to hold only a tiny amount of information, and the information it does hold should be available to everyone. We have always prized government limited in its scope, and weak in coercive power. Assurance of both lies in open information. We have already seen that constitutional protections do not actually protect one’s rights when government conceals information that ought to be public.

Let’s return to the question that launched this discussion. Why did we become weak and scared? You can say that I am begging the question here. Who says we are actually in that condition? I would say the evidence is altogether too obvious, but I’d also say that laying out the evidence would not sway people who disbelieve the premise. So let’s begin and end with the double question: what makes us weak, and what makes us afraid? On the other side, what makes us determined and less timid?

The answers to all of these questions are simple. Lies and dishonesty make us weak and afraid. No amount of official prevarication, propaganda or evasiveness can alter that moral relationship. On the other side, truth alone restores cohesiveness, and openness promotes social equality. From this sense of unity, where all have equal stakes in a common fight, comes the hardiness and courage we need.


Here is something to remember about information secrecy in the national government. Barack Obama promised transparency during his 2008 campaign for the presidency. The promise seemed to say, I want you to trust me, and I want you to trust the government the president represents. Then he broke the promise! How’s that for building confidence in your new president.

It’s useful to understand why he broke that particular promise. After all, he made it the center of his campaign, and he knew the consequences would be pretty bad if he didn’t at least try to do something to open government up. Posting public relations updates at http://whitehouse.gov won’t cut it, especially not with citizens who are fed up with the huge amount of deceit and dishonesty that emanates from every branch of government, especially the White House.

So the transparency issue is up in the high stratosphere of presidential double-dealing, along with, “If you like your insurance, you can keep it.” The difference is that Obama knew he couldn’t keep the health care pledge when he made it, whereas the national security folks had to educate the new president about classified information after Obama took office. That’s when he learned how unrealistic his promise of open government was.

As we know from watching this president for three quarters of his presidency, the chief executive, who looks so strong, is actually quite weak, especially in areas of national security. Obama’s transparency pledge went straight to the center of the national security state’s power. The security state’s ability to operate freely depends on secrecy. The military and intelligence branches would never let a newcomer undercut that freedom, or the power that rests on it.

Was Obama naive to make promise like that during his campaign? I would say so. Even Eisenhower, during his farewell address, warned explicitly how far the national security state had gone to undercut constitutional government. Fifty-five years later, the security state has had a lot of time to consolidate. If Obama, a temporary office holder, thought he could take on the security state’s practices of secrecy during his short time in the White House, he surely misunderstood the extent of new authority. We may have elected a president who didn’t understand the presidency.

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