This past week, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the US Senate Intelligence Committee during its annual open hearing on the security threats facing the US. And during his testimony Director Wray was asked by US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida whether or not Chinese students in the US could be gathering intelligence for the Chinese government. ‘Yes,’ was essentially the answer, with Wray noting that the problem requires “a whole-of-society response by us.”
For those white male Americans who have felt bewildered by all of the angst currently being expressed by African-Americans, women, and numerous other victimized groups in the US, this is exactly what they’re talking about. While this specific question related to the Chinese, the issue and the problem are the same.
And that problem is that there is no conceivable way for Director Wray to be able to answer that question with any degree of accuracy. If there was a known linkage it would have already been in the news and Senator Rubio would already be well aware of it. Otherwise, Director Wray is limited to conjecture. And while the FBI Director might be considered to be a subject matter expert, and thus a sound choice to ask to conjecture, it is still conjecture.
Why, therefore, ask the question, particularly knowing that the session is open to the public? There can, of course, be only one answer. Senator Rubio was not asking a question. He was making a statement. He was being provocative. He was grandstanding.
While there can be no upside to posing such a question, there can be a lot of downside. And that was evidenced by the fact that many public figures immediately came to the rescue of the reputation of the Chinese students being impugned.
As Ijeoma Oluo, the author of the very good book, So you want to talk about race (Hachette Book Group, January 16 2018), would likely note, it doesn’t really matter what Senator Rubio or Director Wray individually think about the Chinese. It’s not about the Senator or the Director. The issue is one of structural injustice against the Chinese, African-Americans, women, etc.
Could it be true?
I have no idea. I can say with confidence, however, that it is no more likely to be true than it is likely to be true that the American government solicits American students studying in China and American businessmen working in China to provide it with information that the Chinese government would prefer to keep confidential.
The more relevant questions are why does it matter, and, even if true, what can be done about it?
The answer to the first question, as I noted in my own recent book, We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous America, is that it doesn’t really matter. The reality of modern technology and our shrinking world is that we should assume there are no secrets anymore. There is no digital security that can stop determined hackers with time on their hands. We can slow them down, but, by definition, there can be no digital technology that can’t be compromised. Only human creativity cannot be reprised or definitively explained and replicated. Digital technology, including AI, is built on mathematics. Some problems can be difficult to solve, but there is no structural reason they won’t be.
The only effective way to prevent the harm of information theft is voluntary self-restraint. And since what is “secret”, and what is “fake”, or intended to harm, we now know, can be very difficult to police ahead of time, the only self-restraint that ultimately matters is not the self-restraint of willful ignorance, but the self-restraint to use the knowledge responsibly (i.e., Not to exploit or harm others with it.).
In another worthy new book, The Common Good (Knopf, February 20, 2018), former Secretary of Labor, Robert B. Reich, notes, “Not only does the common good exist, but it is essential for a society to function. Without voluntary adherence [emphasis added] to a set of common notions about right and wrong, daily life would be insufferable. We would be living in a jungle where only the strongest, cleverest, and most wary could hope to survive. This would not be a society. It wouldn’t even be a civilization, because there would be no civility at its core.”
He is absolutely right. And as I further argue in We, Ourselves, and Us, the “rugged individualism” that has been popularly idealized as both uniquely American and the key to American leadership is not a viable cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the 21st Century. That is not to say we should give up on the individual or do any less to protect individual rights and freedoms. It is to say, however, that technology has both complicated and integrated our world to an extent that we can no longer avoid measuring progress and success in terms of the collective good.
If science has revealed anything about the universe it is that we are all in this together in the most literal sense. We can no longer afford to think of the global ecosystem, for example, in local terms of a prairie here and a rain forest over there. Each is an integrated part of a global climate, the health of which is defined by the balance achieved among all local environments.
And so it is with global social justice and our shared global security. We need to stop thinking in terms of ‘who is doing what to me’ and start thinking in terms of how we can together promote our common good.
One place to start is for politicians to stop asking provocative questions that ultimately serve no useful purpose except to reinforce structural injustice. We should stop worrying so much about what the Chinese government is doing and put more effort into giving it every reason to want to see our collective global success.
photo credit: iStock.com/pkujiahe
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