Blowing the Whistle

Amid the revelations by Edward Snowden on America’s surveillance operations, as well as the ongoing trial of Bradley Manning, and the effective ‘house arrest’ of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the one question that doesn’t seem to find much of the light of day is: Why? Why is there so much ‘whistle blowing’ taking place in our time?

Some of the initial, prominent acts of whistle blowing occurred in America in the 1970s – what have come to be known as the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal.[1] The concept of whistle blowing arose at this time.[2] To blow the whistle is seen as an act of alerting people to information which they otherwise would not have been aware, but which is potentially in their interest to know about. Prior to the ’70s, ‘whistle blowing’ was the realm of the sports referee – as an adjudicator in the realm of fairness, of equality, of rights. Something of this lives on into its modern meaning.

Since the 1970s (as well as before the term was coined, of course), whistle blowing has been used as a device to disclose what its practitioners see as corruption. Such corruption is generally practiced by the powers that be. In all of the cases mentioned above – and in many of the most prominent cases of whistle blowing in our time – the ‘power that is’ has been one of if not the most powerful institution in the world: the US government.

So what would prompt individuals within this power structure to speak out against – to blow the whistle on – perceived acts of unfairness, of ‘foul play’ – of, essentially, violations of human rights? An individual against the most powerful government the world has so far seen – this is a true David and Goliath situation for our age.

Initially, of course, these same power structures wield their might, and label such revelations as hurtful to the interests and security of the country. Such individuals are usually given trial by media and pronounced, by their government, traitors guilty of treason even before the sound of their whistle has finished ringing. In time, however, as the game goes on, things become a little clearer. Wars can be eventually ended, presidents can be forced to resign. Or at least that’s what happened in the ’70s. In a period of proven corruption, individuals shone a light on the abuse of power, allowing the public to see what was happening and to make informed decisions based on facts.

In our time – due to the individuals mentioned above, as well as to many others, and also to what the phenomenon of WikiLeaks has made possible – it seems as if the whistle is constantly sounding. The whistle of our age has not stopped ringing for some time now. Of course, this also brings the danger that we may become numb, and eventually deaf to its sounding. On the other hand, it may become so loud that we cannot ignore it any longer.

In any case, it is important to come to an understanding of why we are currently confronted with an ever-crescendo-ing chorus of whistles. In one sense, it is relatively easy to say that an increase in perceived abuse of power – that an over-abundance of inequality – leads individuals to wish to speak out against such inequality and abuse. Given that they are quite possibly not ‘traitors’ but – as time may well judge of the whistleblowers of our age – the greatest of patriots, the real question is: Why do these particular individuals choose to speak up when others do not? What would motivate such human beings to risk everything they have – including their own lives – in order to simply share information? Why would they sacrifice everything they have, not for gain nor acclaim but for the prospect of prison or a life in exile, as well as public humiliation and shame?

A choice is made, and such individuals choose, essentially, to put the truth above their own interests. Even when their families urge them to change their minds, they stand firm.[3] They stand for an ideal higher than the organisations they work for, higher than their families, higher than themselves. They believe that in their actions they are doing something which – of itself – is right, is good; in contrast to the actions which they have observed or chosen to be part of in the past. At some point they could no longer do what they had been doing, or could no longer keep silent over what they had witnessed. Knowing the consequences, they chose to make their knowledge public in order that a greater, public, circle may decide what is right or wrong in a particular situation, especially when the public themselves are affected by the activity which has been witnessed. Essentially, knowledge for the very few becomes, potentially, knowledge for all. Government expands, as it were, from the few to the many – if not to all. Everyone suddenly has a relationship to the situation at hand – everyone has a right in connection to it, especially when it concerns infringements upon their rights as human beings. When the primary function of government is at stake – upholding the rights of its citizens – everyone is affected. Through acts of whistle blowing rights are returned to their ‘rightful’ place – to each and every citizen. When they are limited to a handful of individuals, the rights of the citizenry are generally abused. Whistle blowing serves to remedy this abuse. Government is not in the hands of the few, it is in the hands of all. The forms we have – representative democracy – have not kept pace with reality. Our democracy has stagnated in decadent forms. The leaks themselves reveal the consequences of this. A permanent whistle blowing is needed.

A democracy of our time is called for – one based upon the equal right of all citizens to shape the country in which they live. This means everyone has a hand in the creation of and voting upon all policy and laws. The ‘government’ is there to uphold such equally decided laws, not to create them representatively. When the equal rights and the freedom of individuals is on the line, it is only such free individuals, with equal rights, who can ultimately remedy the situation.

In the moment in which these whistle blowers had a choice to make, a greater conscience – a greater consciousness – called them to act not for themselves, but for the freedom and rights of their fellow citizens. A whistle of conscience blew so loud in them that they could not block their inner ears from it any longer – it filled their whole being – so much so that they were prepared to climb up, willingly, onto the cross of persecution in order to let others know the truth. The inner whistle that they heard was both a higher calling and their own true selves sounding forth. They were both the original whistler and the one whistled to, and were so self-assured, so self-convinced, in their motivations that they were prepared to act on it, come what may. This is the self-reliance the great voice of the spirit of America – Ralph Waldo Emerson – himself called for. The whistles of our time are nothing other than the sound of free human beings blowing together with the force of truth and, often, with the true spirit of America. The rising chorus of whistle blowing we are currently hearing is the sound of human beings singing in tune with the spirit of progress in our time. It is the music of a better world coming into being – one based on the free choices of individuals; one based on love for our fellow human beings.

It is the same as the original story of the one who climbed such a cross in the process of blowing a whistle on the true nature of the human being. It is the same whistle – the same tone – we hear today, fashioning for each of us both the ears and lips necessary to hear and blow such a whistle as that which needs to be heard in the world.

More and more people are hearing this whistle – this call – understanding it, and responding to it by adding their own unique ‘note’ – as free individuals – to the rising chorus of our time.


John Stubley

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