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The Two Sides of the Assange Indictment

The First Amendment protection serves even the worst of us.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been re-indicted with violations of the Espionage Act. Journalists reacted to this, predictably, with worry that it will portend more charges against journalists for publishing classified information that it’s in the public’s interest to know. The intelligence community and state department types reacted, again predictably, pointing out that WikiLeaks was willfully negligent in publishing, failing to protect sources and methods at all.

The answer lies in the middle, of course. Assange is utterly condemnable. WikiLeaks beside him. Both for their poor showing of integrity, and for their assistances of foreign governments to the detriment of reason and democracy. Meanwhile, the long-standing traditions of the First Amendment are not so easily abandoned. Bad actors, acting in bad faith, to do bad things, are still afforded the protection of that hallowed law.

While there should be obvious civil liabilities for publishers that do real harm to individuals, the bar for criminality must remain set at active participation in the illicit gathering of classified or otherwise private materials. While the indictment of Assange indicates the prosecutors believe there are instances of that, and they should be able to seek to convict on those counts, the acts of mere publication, however unwise, should be protected.

The fact of a despicable individual not having a book to be thrown at them does not grant them even a modicum of redemption. However much one may hold bloodlust for the deserts menu to be trotted out, however vengeful the public attitude, and however blueballed it may find itself, the facts of a person’s character remain unchanged. A scoundrel is not more so for wearing an orange jumpsuit, and many innocents have worn them or the stripes.

The integrity of Julian Assange depends upon him alone. The integrity of the First Amendment, infinitely more important and more valuable than Assange, depends on the collective effort to see it used as wisely as possible, but to see it defended against the overreach of prosecutors under any and all circumstances.

The governments of the world, employing confidential and covert sources and methods, would do well to properly compartmentalize that information so that no organization or individual could meaningfully corrupt their capabilities. The technical capabilities to mask documents and databases, to keep informants and operatives safe, must be taken as seriously as possible (including against the corrupt interests of a lunatical president and a pliant attorney general).

As damaging as the WikiLeaks releases have been (alongside other acts of espionage against the nation), they could have been far less so if the government and military did more to protect identities.

A Free Press

One of the biggest reasons the United States has advanced is that we have a strong media (endowed with the natural freedom of the press, with its recognition in the First Amendment) that has helped to keep corruption in check. Those who value liberty must value fact-based reporting of the state of our institutions and of the world.

Indeed, where the US has gone awry it is often coincidental with media failures. Think of the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq as a good example. Fox News is another good example.

A year into the imitation presidency, with a president who cannot understand the role the nation has played, with its quest to move ever-forward, we continue to see attacks from a man that must always pretend to know what he is doing. And yet, the media continues to indulge his pretense. I could not count the number of editorials and op-eds that have called on the president to take some action or other, always failing to understand that this is not a White House equipped to take advice to heart.

There were a number of times when the media decided he was becoming presidential or sounding or appearing to be the man of the office. Ha!

But the presses roll on. They learn, which is why we need them. A self-governing nation must have a learning mechanism. It reviews the facts and attempts to keep the narrative on track: we still require good governance. We must strengthen the rule of law once again. We must take care of the planet. We have an obligation to our neighbors to help them better themselves. We must know the state of things to make sound economic decisions, too.

The press lets us know when abuses have come to light. They try to uncover abuses, they try to tell the story that our founders knew when they wrote amendments against police corruption, against military permanence, and against religious zealotry infecting government. Those that wish to wrap themselves in the Constitution while committing those sins should not be surprised as it constricts around them.

And the press will be there to report the tale.

Language and Emotion

More thoughts of speech, communities, etc.

One trick candle on the Open Source/Tech community’s cake has always been inclusiveness vs. culture. Every few ticks it reignites, sending the partiers scurrying, trying to decide why that damn candle keeps combusting, what to do about it.

Let’s say you adopt an old sled dog, and it has this habit of running to the right every time you exclaim, “gee!” And you scold the dog, “dummy, why you do that?”

So let’s say you have a developer, and they’re trying to express themselves well for a presentation. They have some aesthetic philosophy for presentations, some learned directly and some by the experience of seeing things that seemed appealing to them.

They want to make their work humorous, knowing that humor helps people to learn and remember and pay attention. And they want to use strong language, because saying something like, “maybe, if you think you might possibly need your data at some potential future time, you could probably store it on a hard drive, thumb drive, or some other long-term storage medium, if you want to,” happens to be a poor use of language.

They want it direct, they want their words to punch the listener, to motivate real action and progress. “Wake up! Stop storing everything since 1970 in volatile memory! If our boxen crash, we won’t even know who won the last Supergame!”

Or they have a hard go of making some esoteric subject like How to Whitespace Your Cascading Style Sheets funny. They find that after their third “tab” pun, it’s sounding a bit stale and lame. They write code, manage coders. They aren’t pro comics. Most of the humor they’ve directly experienced in their lives have been in private conversations with other people of the same groups, and the major direction of that humor has been group solidarity and reinforcing group behavior.

You also run into outsiders of the culture, unfamiliar with the cultural context of some of the language and behaviors.

But willing these cultures out of existence will fail. Replace them, that’s the key.

The problem: replace them with what? You need roughly a one-to-one mapping of terms. And your terms have to be bolder, stronger somehow, than their inferiors.

Let’s say the word is butthead. The person chose a term offensive to people with butts for heads, or whatever. “Don’t be a butthead, have your editor make whitespace visible to ensure you don’t leave any excess.”

Butthead, a pretty rough word. The audience would look up, seeing the glint in the speaker’s eye as they said it. They would say, “I do not want to be a butthead, did you see that glint! I will always check if I’m leaving excess whitespace in my styles!” They will create plugins for their editors, to add an icon of a butthead in the corner if the “make whitespace visible” option is turned off. There will be a parade in the speaker’s honor.

But no, it is not to be, butthead is potentially offensive. Our hero requires a replacement, equally strong but without the cultural baggage attached. Where might such a word be found? A thesaurus?

ass, asshead, badaud, bakehead, beetlehead, block, blockhead, blubberhead, blunderhead, bonehead, boob, booby, bullhead, cabbagehead, calf, chowderhead, chucklehead, chump, clod, clodhopper, clodpate, clodpole, dizzard, dolt, domnoddy, donkey, doodle, dope, dotard, doughhead, duffer, dullard, dullhead, dully, dumb-bunny, dumbbell, dumbhead, dumby, dummy, dunce, dunderhead, fathead, flat, fool, foozle, gabby, gaby, galoot, gawk, git, goof, goon, gowk, idiot, ignoramus, imbecile, jackass, jerk, jobbernowl, jolthead, knucklehead, loggerhead, looby, loon, lout, lubber, lummox, lunkhead, mooncalf, mutt, muttonhead, nincompoop, ninny, ninnyhammer, nitwit, noddy, nonny, noodle, noodlehead, numbskull, numskull, oaf, pumpkinhead, put, rube, sap, saphead, sawney, schlemiel, shallowbrain, shallowpate, simpleton, soft, softhead, softy, sop, sot, squarehead, stick, stock, stupid, stupidhead, swab, thickhead, thickskull, thickwit, tomfool, tommy noddy, twit, wiseacre, witling, woodenhead, yokel, zany

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. That list omits a lot of other terms, and doesn’t attempt to include modern terms like lamer or luser, some of which come specialized from specific fields and subcultures.

Maybe the speaker can find an appropriate replacement. That’s the challenge: a term that beats the most salient term the speaker had, while keeping in the realm of understanding of the audience. But the challenge goes further. If every time someone wants to use strong language they must wade through a sea of words, the cognitive cost for just composing a simple sentence becomes too dear.

Instead the challenge morphs into finding good replacements and using them. Akin to running a business to supplant the market leader, the new terminology must exceed the old terms’ cultural expectations and desired traits.

This challenge reminds me somewhat of the various online communities I have encountered over time with bars on swearing or use of explicit language. They implement this as a filter: the incoming text is scanned against a list of offending terms, and offending terms are replaced with placeholder characters. They never publish a list of terms, and the kids always find circumventions, either through unicode/encoding methods, or finding terms that are not censored but are just as explicit as those that are.

But ultimately this is a matter for an evolving culture to deal with. It’s entirely healthy for offended people to speak up. Calling for heads to roll doesn’t do much good unless the offense is particularly direct and dire (eg, they insulted someone directly without provocation and in a manner that constitutes an attack). But calling for more thoughtfulness is always in order. Calling for renewal of the community bonds is appropriate.

It’s not appropriate to seek to silence the critics of the critics. Devolving into a them versus us mentality in a motion that was predicated on increasing inclusiveness is ridiculous. Again, unless the circumstances were a very direct attack upon an individual or a class of people.

In general, people should be educated about the limitations of the First Amendment, as argued and decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (at least, for communities primarily located there), in order to understand some of the ideas that are essential to what constitutes the improper use of speech. These don’t apply directly to all speech, as communities have their own standards, but that itself is part of the Court’s calculus re: obscenity.