For many, the most frustrating part of the Ukraine whistleblower episode has been the insistence by some that the whistleblower’s identity must, at all costs, be protected. Otherwise, we are told, a career might be at stake. A life might even be endangered. It’s an argument too readily accepted by millions of Americans who have apparently forgotten the bravery of countless people throughout history who sacrificed everything to speak out publicly, and identifiably, in the furtherance of a cause. Regardless of whether you found the statement of acting Ukraine ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. compelling, he deserves credit for forthrightly attaching his name to it.
It is right to craft laws to protect whistleblowers from repercussions, to the degree that it’s humanly possible. But it is wrong to promise them a veil of secrecy. Why do we no longer expect courage from people? Why do we think that guarantees from all risk are something to be admired?
Our leaders are often no better. Mitt Romney used a secret Twitter handle to share criticisms of President Trump, which is all the more damning because, unlike many Americans, he is old enough to know better. The Republican senator from Utah grew up in the pre-Internet era, or the Age of Accountability. Romney has consistently been willing to openly criticize Trump whenever the media asks it of him, but even he fell prey to the temptation of secrecy. “Pierre Delecto” has been exposed, but has Romney concocted additional imaginary characters to carry on?
In fairness, it is difficult to believe that Romney is an outlier in the halls of Congress. It is possible, even likely, that other members of Congress do the same thing and encourage their staffers to venture online under fake names to defend their boss or attack their adversaries. That approach would merely be a reflection of their constituents. Every day, Americans from all walks of life log on to the Internet to hide behind secret identities, launching endless irresponsible insults, vindictive attacks and reckless declarations.
Forget Russian hackers. We’re drowning in a sea of lies and deception of our own making. Trump’s alleged 13,000 “false or misleading claims” at least come from an identifiable source — since he’s moved past his 1980s “John Barron” phase.
A whole generation of younger Americans can be forgiven for knowing nothing but the standards of the Internet age. The online world into which they were born is a pseudo-universe of blogs, social media and even newspaper websites offering comment sections that welcome the use of phony sobriquets, where accusations and insults that few would hurl under their real identities are encouraged and cheered.
This isn’t about victims of rape understandably seeking the protection of privacy or oppressed people in communist countries and repressive dictatorships working by necessity in the shadows. Despite efforts to defend their actions, the examples we see today are matters of convenience rather than necessity. The trend is alarming, but it’s telling how few are actually alarmed, particularly among a generation of Americans raised in a society where online anonymity is the norm. They have learned there is no need to attach their names to their thoughts when equal credibility and attention is awarded to their alter egos, shielding them from consequences or accountability.
We’ve already reached the stage where raising a red flag on the subject is viewed as quaint and outdated. But we have a responsibility to teach younger Americans this truth: Anything worth saying or doing is worth the risk associated with saying or doing it, publicly and identifiably. No worthy cause or historic movement has ever been achieved by the meek and the nameless.
Reversing course is a monumental task, waged against a virtual tsunami of mendacity. But if we don’t start stressing the importance of standing behind our beliefs proudly and visibly, all that will be left is a society of the anonymous, by the anonymous and for the anonymous. Is that really what the First Amendment was intended to encourage and protect?