Entry from February 21, 2009

See if you can spot the hidden assumption, astonishing when you think about it, in the following, which comes from the lead to an opinion piece by Ronald Goldfarb in tomorrow’s Washington Post — they sometimes publish these on their website a day early — about why the executive branch of our government should be forbidden by an all-powerful judiciary from keeping more secrets than Mr Goldfarb would like:

When most people think of “state secrets,” they no doubt envision military plans for troop movements in wartime or back-channel diplomatic maneuvering. But in fact, most claims of state secrets pertain not to the dramatic undercover actions of spy novels, but to civil matters. And thanks to a little-known, half-century-old case, the U.S. government has been able to use the state secrets defense with increasing frequency and marked success to prevent embarrassing information from coming to light.

Did you spot it? I’m guessing not. I almost didn’t spot it myself, having turned away from the column without reading further until, a moment later it suddenly hit me: Hey! What’s wrong with the government’s preventing embarrassing information from coming to light? Or, in other words, why is embarrassing the government self-evidently a good and desirable thing?

Of course we can understand why it is a thing that is very much in the interest of the media. Embarrassing the government is their bread and butter, and The Washington Post is therefore quite naturally disposed to concur in Mr Goldfarb’s learned opinion. But why is it a good thing for the rest of us? Yet those who are of the media culture don’t just assume that what’s best for them is best for all of us; they assume the rest of us must assume it too. It is literally inconceivable to them that publicizing embarrassing things about the government, the government of all of us, could not be as good for the people as it is bad for their government. The persuasiveness of Mr Goldfarb, who is a lawyer, in calling for the judicial, rather than the executive branch to be given charge of deciding what it is and what it is not proper for the government to keep secret, depends entirely on our sharing this assumption — which is what makes me guess that most of us, at least most of the readers of The Washington Post, will in fact share it.

“The American people are entitled to know that their public officials are acting with fidelity and high standards,” he continues, though he doesn’t cite the statute which so entitles them, adding that “that sentiment was first voiced in 1807, when Aaron Burr, defending himself against charges of treason, subpoenaed President Thomas Jefferson”s correspondence.” This is not, perhaps, the happiest example he could have chosen. But “acting with fidelity and high standards” is not always something you can judge from even a whole correspondence, let alone one bit of it taken out of context. Ultimately, this is a historical judgment, with no guarantee even that historians will get it right. People like Mr Goldfarb appear to imagine that information, even incomplete information, automatically implies correct judgment as to the rectitude of people’s behavior.

But let that go. Say that the government has, indeed, fallen short of fidelity and high standards in a particular instance — as, indeed, which of us has not from time to time? Even lawyers and journalists have been known to do things which, were they to be made matter of public comment would be acutely embarrassing to them. Nor are lawyers and journalists noticeably more likely than other people to expose their own friends and families to public humiliation. It shows that the honorable principle of giving the benefit of the doubt to those who are themselves honorable is not completely foreign to them. But somehow they think that this honor doesn’t apply to the government. I blame Watergate, which both romanticized journalists and established the precedent of treating the journalistic enterprise as being, in its very essence, one of challenging and, wherever possible, delegitimizing the government. The kudos accruing to Frost/Nixon, which is up for an Academy Award as Best Picture tomorrow night, are doubtless owing to the same kind of assumptions that Mr Goldfarb makes.

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