Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Secrecy and democracy

I was discussing issues of national security the other day with someone I respect and whose opinions differ from mine a bit in some areas. Quite delightfully, this young man, a military officer, respects me in turn sufficiently that we are able to converse without resorting to rancorous sloganeering, and he made the point that the government knows things that the general public does not know.

As Hamlet said (okay, Shakespeare), “Ah, there’s the rub.”

Secrecy weakens trust. Always, and in any relationship. What my government does based on information that it conceals from me weakens my trust in my government and that is the antithesis of democracy.

Unquestionably, in the interests of (although I have become weary of this over-used term) national security some things must remain unrevealed, but in a democracy that secrecy needs to be minimized or it erodes the very basis of government. On my part I need to respect the reasonable use of discretion, and exercise trust in the absence of any evidence not to do so.

When excessive secrecy is accompanied by a pattern of visible dishonesty then there can be no trust at all, and a government which does not have the trust of the people is not democracy. As soon as the last vote was cast, the oaths of office taken and the first lie told, democracy died.

Secrecy has been the hallmark of the Bush administration from the beginning. It has fought vigorously, for instance, to keep secret from the people who elected it just who the parties were that participated in the development of the energy policy. But when anyone disagrees with actions that are taken based on secret information, actions which have blowback and which are taken for no visible reasonable basis, the Bush Administration labels them as “unpatriotic.”

This government says that the definition of democracy is merely the casting of a vote. Wave the proverbial purple finger in the air and you can call yourself a democracy. Democracy (small ‘d’) is more than that, much more.

Democracy is the participation of the people in the government of their country, “government by the people.” That requires an informed electorate, not only during an election campaign but all of the time and about all issues. Democracy requires that the elected leaders continue to listen to the people and to talk to the people, not just in political sound bites, but like someone talks to a “grownup.”

In the thirties this country was facing collapse and Roosevelt made his famous sound bite about having “…nothing to fear but fear itself.” It was not that sound bite that led the country out of despair, though, it was his weekly radio “fireside chats” where he talked to the American people at length. He told them what his plans were and why, and described to the country why he believed those plans would work.

He gained trust by transparency in government. That was democracy.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:53 AM

    not only the Bush administration, but the elected representatives as well. They so often do as they want, or as their contributors want (bear in mind almost everyone is a "special interest"). Where are "the people" in this mix? Frequently left out. Especially in California, where the pols themselves have redistricted all democracy /evenhandedness out of the electoral process. And we pay these guys? egads....