Earlier this week, Tom Friedman had a column in which he “couldn’t help but wonder: What if China had a WikiLeaker…?”
It was a good column as far as it went, because it highlighted the way self-destructive American partisan gridlock prevents us as a nation from facing the future wisely and pragmatically — unlike the Chinese. So it was that he imagined a leaked Chinese diplomatic message that said in part:
Things are going well here for China. America remains a deeply politically polarized country, which is certainly helpful for our goal of overtaking the U.S. as the world’s most powerful economy and nation. But we’re particularly optimistic because the Americans are polarized over all the wrong things.
There is a willful self-destructiveness in the air here as if America has all the time and money in the world for petty politics. They fight over things like — we are not making this up — how and where an airport security officer can touch them….
Americans just had what they call an “election.” Best we could tell it involved one congressman trying to raise more money than the other (all from businesses they are supposed to be regulating) so he could tell bigger lies on TV more often about the other guy before the other guy could do it to him. This leaves us relieved. It means America will do nothing serious to fix its structural problems: a ballooning deficit, declining educational performance, crumbling infrastructure and diminished immigration of new talent.
The ambassador recently took what the Americans call a fast train — the Acela — from Washington to New York City. Our bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin would have made the trip in 90 minutes. His took three hours — and it was on time! Along the way the ambassador used his cellphone to call his embassy office, and in one hour he experienced 12 dropped calls — again, we are not making this up. We have a joke in the embassy: “When someone calls you from China today it sounds like they are next door. And when someone calls you from next door in America, it sounds like they are calling from China!” Those of us who worked in China’s embassy in Zambia often note that Africa’s cellphone service was better than America’s.
But the Americans are oblivious. They travel abroad so rarely that they don’t see how far they are falling behind. Which is why we at the embassy find it funny that Americans are now fighting over how “exceptional” they are. Once again, we are not making this up…
Very good points — the kinds of smart points that you expect Tom Friedman to make, which is why he’s one of my favorite columnists. But I was still disappointed on a gut level, because I had expected the column to answer the rhetorical question with an even blunter, simpler, more obvious truth.
China’s security solution is to suppress the flow of information, let creativity be damned, and steal from us. (The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman yesterday asked: “What if China had a WikiLeaker?” The three-word answer: They’d execute him.)
Henninger is not usually one of my faves, but this was a pretty decent column about how tough it is, bordering on futility, to prevent such leaks in the Internet age.
And my disappointment aside, Mr. Friedman’s column was excellent as well, because it, too, said things that need to be said over and over.
But it occurred to me that, whether you’re concerned that our nation isn’t pursuing the right priorities for our future competitiveness, or just outraged that the U.S. government hasn’t taken serious action to find, apprehend and lock up that sleazebag Julian Assange for the rest of his life and then some, the roots of the problem are the same.
I’ll put it this simply: The lack of national consensus. Or another way, a perverse refusal to acknowledge that we’re all in this together, and act accordingly.
I try to imagine someone like Julian Assange wandering free anywhere in the world controlled by allies of this country back, say, in the 1940s. And I can’t. There would have been such a powerful sense of a shared national interest, and instantaneous consensus that someone leaking classified military data and confidential diplomatic communications was the enemy of this country that effective action would have been taken to stop him.
Today, a creep like Assange exploits the HUGE division in our country over our role in the world. (We can’t even decide whether we’re fighting one or two wars.) Now before my antiwar friends loudly protest that I’m blaming them for not getting with the program, note that I am NOT. I’m not blaming either doves or hawks. It’s the GAP between us itself that I blame. That’s the No Man’s Land in which Assange walks with impunity. Only after diplomatic communications were compromised this week did we achieve anything like a consensus of outrage between left and right, and thus far even that is too tepid to lead to effective action. (Oh, and by the way, I’m not suggesting we be as ruthless as the Chinese. But somewhere between the harshness of that system and the utterly helpless fecklessness of ours today lies a rational medium, an effective course of action for liberal democracies that hope to survive.)
As for Mr. Friedman’s concerns… go back to that same time — the war years, and just after — and look at the way we formed consensus to do profoundly bold and intelligent things to provide for a better future for our own country and the rest of the world that we suddenly dominated: the GI Bill, the Marshall Plan, the interstate highway system, the policies that boosted homeownership, and on and on.
Today, we find it impossible to come up with a coherent, rational energy policy or keep our infrastructure up to date or deal with the deficit or accomplish anything else requiring bold action because ANY bold action envisioned by the right or the left will be fought, vilified, trashed and frustrated to the utmost of the opposition’s ability (and they’ll do so not because of any merit or lack of merit in the idea, but because the other side came up with it). And again, I’m not blaming either the right or the left, but the GAP, and the insane tit-for-tat game that BOTH sides think is more important than the real needs of the nation.
So whatever you think about the implications of a hypothetical Chinese WikiLeaker, the problem is the same.
It’s a problem that has so integrated itself into our public life that it’s hard even to think of a way out. It’s like a tumor with tentacles slithering to wrap themselves around every fold of the victim’s brain — very tough to remove. I don’t really know how to get to where we need to be. Except, of course, to vote UnParty (if ever given the chance).