Friday, March 28, 2003

Secrecy has unintended consequences. There are times when we expect secrecy at both organizational and personal levels; we don't, for instance, expect widespread dissemination of fine details of business or military strategies, nor of the drunken quarrel Uncle Jack had with Aunt Mabel at the last family picnic. A culture of secrecy, though, perpetuates itself even under circumstances in which secrecy is self-defeating. There's no evidence that Richard Nixon knew anything about Watergate before the fact. But, once he was directly involved, he dragged himself down in a botched cover-up. Although a quick and firm disavowal of the burglars' tactics would have been much better for Nixon politically, there was no question that there would be a cover-up. That's the way the Nixon White House had always worked.

One branch of my extended family was deeply affected by one member's alcoholism. This group is now so secretive that they don't share even happy news with anyone outside the immediate family. The alcoholic relative they were trying to protect from public shame has been dead for nearly 50 years.

Just when you think the bar can't be raised any higher, someone does it. The level of secrecy enforced (and taken for granted) within the People's Republic of China has been a major contributing factor to the ongoing outbreak of SARS. In addition to its effect and dependence upon tourism and business travel, this outbreak is occurring at a time when massive troop movements are taking place in several parts of the world -- the same conditions that contributed to the Spanish-flu pandemic in 1918. Although air travel can facilitate the spread of disease at a level undreamed of 85 years ago, there is also a much better worldwide public health infrastructure present now. But, no public-health organization can do much when denied information. The WHO, along with national and local public-health authorities, are now trying to contain a mess that might not have had to happen.

Yeah, keep it quiet. Don't let it interfere with business as usual. Uncle Jack and Aunt Mabel don't drink too much. They weren't really fighting. They were just a little tired after a long day. Too bad about the car crash on the way home from the picnic, though.