Knowledge, Power, and the Inalienable Right to Know

Blessed Are the Whistleblowers against the Treachery of State and Corporation

On the classroom wall is a poster with a jumbo-sized declaration: Knowledge is power. I juxtaposed a quotation from John Dalberg-Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”1 I always encourage the critical thinking of learners, so I posted the quotation without comment.

While both of the aphorisms can be persuasive, they are superficial and do not capture the nuances that underlie knowledge and power.

I differ with Dahlberg. People who desire power are already corrupted in that sense and the attainment of greater power more fully reveals the nature of their corruption. To desire power for oneself is morally questionable. After all, is this personal desire not selfish? Why not desire power to be shared equally among people?

Knowledge can be a stepping stone to power, but it is not equivalent to power. Knowledge is important because it is a type of empowerment. People armed with facts and ability to apply sound reasoning are able to interpret and apply meaning to events.

For example, what greater repository of knowledge is there than a computer? Despite a huge database of knowledge — HAL 90002 aside — does anyone consider the computer to wield power?

In a school, the principal is the nominal “power,” but does that necessitate that such a person is more knowledgeable than other teaching staff? A more compelling example might be to look at the person who is often referred to as the most powerful person on the planet, the president of the United States. Yet, was George W. Bush ever lauded for his knowledge or acumen?3

Knowledge does not necessarily imply power, and power does not imply knowledge. They are distinct concepts although they may reside in one person.

The Danger of Knowledge?

Renowned author Mary Shelley made what may be framed as an eloquent pitch for the “ignorance is bliss” crowd:

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.4

It seems Shelley has equated knowledge with power. The creature endowed with life by Dr. Frankenstein did indeed gain knowledge and impressively so, but the creature was always suffused with power in the form of phenomenal physical strength. The creature’s brawn allowed it to overpower its tormentors.

What is power if not the means to effect desired action, behavior, and/or change through whatever avenues are at hand, one of which may be the application of knowledge. The ultimate power (i.e., abusive power) is to control knowledge and achieve preponderant strength to force one’s will upon others.

Another case in point: it was not the scientists who created an atomic weapon that controlled the power achieved through application of their knowledge. It was the government agents and their string pullers who would decide when and where the Bomb would be used.

Despite having written a letter to president Franklin D. Roosevelt urging research into the development of atomic weapons, Albert Einstein was, nevertheless, kept outside the loop of work on the Manhattan Project to develop the Bomb. Einstein later came to regret the outcome.5

Einstein knew that knowledge, per se, is not dangerous. The danger arises when people possess a knowledge before they are sufficiently advanced to deal with that knowledge. After all, knowledge exists even when it is beyond the ken of the seeker.

Coveting Power Is Anomie

Not all thinkers covet knowledge. Daoists view learning as increasing knowledge daily, but their goal is otherwise: “In cultivating Tao we do reverse of knowledge: get less and less – oneness (throw away distinctions).”6 Daoists seek the path to harmony and naturalness.

Contrariwise, Muslims are devoted to knowledge and desire it for everyone. While in Jordan, I was surprised when the son of an Imam informed me that knowledge was much more highly esteemed by the prophet Muhammad than prayer. Apparently, an hour of study was worth more than years of prayer.7

Possessing knowledge will not detract from the attainment of power, which is attained primarily through accumulation of wealth, through military conquest, and through manipulation of the masses, aided by media. These methods of attaining power are quite anti-social. Is accumulation of great wealth a laudable action? Given that the economic pie is finite at a given point in time, if one or a few persons consume inordinate slices of pie, leaving only crumbs for the masses, is that fair and moral? Is using violence to achieve ends moral? Manipulating the media message — adding erroneous information or depriving people of certain information — makes it difficult to arrive at what might be the proper conclusions.

Furthermore, how does it speak to a society if it fosters inequality among citizens in terms of power, wealth, and privileges such as access to knowledge?

Is such a society not already corrupted by virtue of its inequality? Does blaming the corruption of the system exculpate the society and the people within the society who abide by the system?

Knowledge can lead to power, but it is too often subordinate to power. Power can control access to knowledge; this can be used to maintain or create an imbalance in knowledge – an inequality in knowledge. Is this not, after all, what secrets represent in a society: an inequality in knowledge, where some are privileged with knowledge and others are deprived of the knowledge?

The Misuse of Power

Power is also used to destroy knowledge.

The unbridled use of power led to the destruction of the ancient Library of Alexandria, the ancient world’s largest repository of knowledge. It is contentious what form of power brought about the end of the great library. A military manoeuvre by Roman emperor Caesar caused a fire in Alexandria which is said to have destroyed many scrolls. Another popularized account has an edict by Roman emperor Theodosius I calling for the destruction of pagan edifices. The patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, knew that as long as the library’s “knowledge existed people would be less inclined to believe the bible so he set about destroying the pagan temples” in 391 CE.8

Religious power has long sought to control knowledge. The Christian Church has opposed heliocentrism, geochronometry, and many clergy still oppose evolution. Evolution is a theory based on observable phenomena and testable hypotheses whereas creationism, as postulated by the Church, relies predominantly on faith.

Religion does not just butt heads with science, it attacks disparate religious accounts. Thus Christians engaged in a disinformation campaign and historical revisionism to demonize the Muslim in Al-Andalus (the Iberian peninsula as it was known variously between 711 and 1492 CE) as the “diabolical Moor” and “treacherous, bloodthirsty Moor” despite Moors having rebuilt a decaying Europe.9

All the archives of the Moorish palatial masterpiece in Granada, Spain – the Alhambra — were destroyed by the Inquisition.9 Muslims are not pure by any account though, and in 2001 the Taliban obliterated the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

Why? Mullah Omar explained, “I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings — the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddhas’ destruction.”10

Power is used to thwart open inquiry or inquiries will be set up to whitewash events. Disinformation is a sine qua non for warmongering elitists. Power is used to control the narrative; in war, the victor’s version will prevail. Power is used to prevent inquiry or questioning of state-sanctioned historical narratives. Thus one genocide out of several that have occurred in human history has been deemed incontestable.

Right to Know

The current geopolitical context undoubtedly necessitates a certain level of secrecy. However, the goal should be to steer governments and corporations to greater, if not full, transparency. In a so-called representative democracy, can governments operate in secrecy from the citizenry and still claim to be representing constituents?

When secrecy is the norm, how are people supposed to assess the political doings of the government and properly exercise their right to choose a representative without full knowledge of what is being done in their name?

The Right to Know is severely under attack these days. The cases of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange attest to this.

As described, power is used to conquer, and power can destroy. Whistleblowers threaten the control powerbrokers have in the world, especially for the US hyperpower which has a constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech. Whistleblowers empower the masses by making knowledge available, something that scares powerbrokers who prefer to operate without scrutiny.

War is a repugnant action undertaken by moral nihilists. Truth, as the axiom goes, is the first casualty of war which is shrouded in a fog of lies. If people know about the killing of civilians, the destruction of the environment, the deliberate targeting of economic infrastructure, it would hamper the support that the war criminals rely on to perpetrate violence. That is why whistleblowers have to be silenced. That is why Bradley Manning is shut away. That is why Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, was under house arrest in Britain, why the Swedes want Britain to extradite him, and why the Americans will seek to have him extradited to the US for espionage. It is a risible charge given that the CIA, NSA, and several other US government agencies exist for the purpose of carrying out espionage.

Some of the moves Assange made are open to criticism. He seemingly made his own bid for the power of celebrity. Assange, as it turns out, foolishly courted the monopoly media, which is – of course – controlled by the powerbrokers, the ones with a vested interest in filtering information. Assange is an intelligent man. Was he not familiar, as a journalist, with the Propaganda Model of Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky?11 Assange now reaps the blowback from the very media he disclosed major leaks to.

Nonetheless, Assange deserves justice, and as long as he is not charged with any wrongdoing, he deserves his freedom the same as any other citizen. His organization Wikileaks also requires and deserves the freedom to continue informing the populace.

Privacy and secrecy are two issues being inversely affected. Powerholders like to cloak their decisions and actions in secrecy; however, while many citizens willingly divulge information in social media, others still wish to protect their personal information in a private sphere. Yet increasingly the common people are deprived of a right to privacy. Governments around the world have enacted PATRIOT Act-type legislation. The high-security surveillance state has come into existence. In the US, habeas corpus and the Posse Comitatus Act are weakened. In the age of Big Brother, people are routinely tracked by social security identifiers, DNA and fingerprint databases, tracking chips embedded in credit cards and products, etc. They are spied on in the streets, at the workplace, in schools, elevators, and who knows where else. Internet chat, emails, and cell phone conversations are stored and monitored. CCTVs are ubiquitous, as are cameras and cell phones. The fortunate upshot is that the very means that the governments uses to surveil citizens can also be turned back on the actions of the government and politicians. That is what Wikileaks has done.

The Whistleblower Imperative

The light needs to be shone, above all, on the powerholders, and that is why the world needs whistleblowing organizations like Wikileaks and whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Daniel Ellsberg, Mordechai Vanunu, Gary Webb, Katharine Gun, Siebel Edmonds, and so many others.

The very fact that people are whistleblowing is prima facie evidence that there is governmental/corporate wrongdoing afoot. Too often the “wrongdoing” takes the form of staggering crimes such as contrived casus belli, assassinations, wedding party massacres, torture, extraordinary renditions, mass incarcerations without charge, etc. If governments and corporations behaved as morally guided actors, then they would not need to fear whistleblowers. Consequently, governmental action to silence and/or eliminate whistleblowing points to malicious intentions and actions on the part of government and/or its organs.

Open access, transparency is the right of all people in an egalitarian society. In a moral universe governments should not be feared, and they should not fear exposure.

Whistleblowing is an act of courage, an act of high moral character, and an act for the betterment of society. It should be accorded utmost respect, and the whistleblowers should likewise be esteemed for their bravery, integrity, and sacrifice – and one day, very soon, whistleblowing should be possible without fear of reprisal. People have the right and moral obligation to reveal the crimes of state and corporation.

Freedom for Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Mordecai Vanunu, and all whistleblowers!

  1. Letter to Mandell Creighton (5 April 1887), published in Historical Essays and Studies, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1907), edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, Appendix: 504. Available at The Online Library of Liberty. []
  2. HAL 9000 was an artificial intelligence in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that seized control of the spacecraft Discovery One from its human crew. []
  3. See Mary Jacoby, “The dunce,” Salon, 17 September 2004. A former professor remembers Bush vividly as a pathological liar without a moral compass. []
  4. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Ch 4. []
  5. See The Manhattan Project,“Einstein: Peace and War,” American Museum of Natural History. []
  6. In Fung Yu-Lan, The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy (Ed Hughes, trans.) (London: Routledge & Keenan Paul, 1947): 72. []
  7. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, God will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise. The angels will lower their wings in their great pleasure with one who seeks knowledge. The inhabitants of the heavens and the Earth and (even) the fish in the deep waters will ask forgiveness for the learned man. The superiority of the learned over the devout is like that of the moon, on the night when it is full, over the rest of the stars. The learned are the heirs of the Prophets, and the Prophets leave (no monetary inheritance), they leave only knowledge, and he who takes it takes an abundant portion. – Sunan of Abu-Dawood, Hadith 1631 (sunni) considered sahih. []
  8. See James Hannam, “The Mysterious Fate of the Great Library of Alexandria,” Bede’s Library, 2003. []
  9. Described by Bethany Hughes on “When the Moors Ruled in Europe,” The Ancient World, 2004. [] []
  10. Quoted in Gary Leupp, “Killing the Buddha in Pakistan’s Swat Valley: The Bad Karma of Imperialism,” Dissident Voice, 21 November 2007. []
  11. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 2002). []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.