Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wiki-leaks: Tragedy or comedy?

Alfredo Triff

If the government knows that the willingness of people to give up rights in order to fight terrorism is proportional to their level of fear, then it’s obvious that we should expect more fear.-- Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 1954

Wiki-leaks has delivered another digital coup. Yet, compared with the previous Iraq Log,1 these memos -with detailed characterizations of world leaders' behaviors- seem out of a libretto from la commedia dell'arte. We learn that Libya's Qaddafi has vertigo and "cannot travel" without his "voluptuous blonde" nurse from Ukraine. Mr. Putin, is an "alpha dog" who behaves like "Batman," while Medvedev "plays Robin." Sarkozy is referred to as an "emperor with no clothes," "thin-skinned" and "authoritarian." Germany's Angela "teflon" Merkel "avoids risks and is rarely creative," and so on. American diplomats are running for cover (there's much foreign trepidation and Schadenfreude).

 Honoré Daumier, At the Theater, (1860-64). 

Public reactions to the leak are as faithful to the script as you may expect: Politicians of all persuasions portray Wiki-leaks as the monster. Republicans like Palin want to hunt Asange "with the same urgency we pursue Taliban leaders." Fox personality O'Reilly wishes the leakers were executed. Congressman Peter King avers that the website should be declared a foreign terrorist organization (shouldn't these libertarian conservatives distrust government's reach and defend the people's freedom of expression?).

Then, Hilary Clinton's response is -predictably?- surprisingly conservative! Our government feels betrayed, ridiculed. Even some progressive thinkers question Wiki-leaks' ulterior motives. A liberal commentator declares on the radio that "America has lost its credibility." In contrast, journalists all over the world support the mission of the website. They agree that the most insidious effect of our present political and economic crisis is the undermining of public opinion (the press is dying by slow strangulation).2

Keep in mind that politics is a constant struggle among different actors (groups) pursuing conflicting desires on public issues. Then there is power. And right now our military power has become political and one dimensional. This hegemony is the greatest danger. As a political observer has written, "The paradox of American power is that it is too great to be challenged by any other state, yet not great enough to solve problems such as global terrorism and nuclear proliferation."2a It is as if due to a society forcefully laid open by the pressure of globalizing forces, power and politics drift ever further in opposite directions, the system operating beyond itself, its resources become over-extended and it declines as a result.

The Pentagon, Washington, DC.

Politics as "morals"

The individuals portrayed in these cables recall Northrop Frye's Theory of Comedy.3 We're not dealing with heroes, but rather defeated, stereotyped characters. We live in a skewed, absurd world filled with unforeseen danger, social apprehension and hypocrisy, where unscrupulous characters win and the honest lose. Yet, one doesn't get a sense of impending doom but instead, an ordinary this-is-the-way-it-is debriefing. Is this not a bit manipulative? 4  

What's going on? Politics is "presented" by politicians as guided by morals, but it's actually a realm of means-to-end, which is why Machiavelli counsels that in politics, one must suspend what's right for what's expedient.5 

Politics as Law
Legal experts weigh in: Wiki-leaks has stolen documents, which constitute a criminal act (as if legal arguments cannot be overridden by moral considerations, such as transparency to the public and coherence in foreign policy). As Norman Solomon suggests, "the recent mega-leaks are especially jarring because of the extreme contrasts between the U.S. government's public pretenses and real-life actions." Of course the legal reach gets intractably complicated: there is anonymity, tracking down violations, locating the offender, claiming jurisdiction over such offender (which brings forth geography, problem with mirror siting, etc, etc.).

Is Wiki-leaks not a counterbalance in an environment where the media plays an "opiates of the masses" role, subsidized by political interests? 

Politics as comedy

One should resist looking at this as a showdown between good and evil. It's too simple. True, at one local level, some people feel they have to oppose an unjust and secretive system -while others feel betrayed by it. At a more systemic level, Wiki-leaks transcends the issue of freedom of expression vs. national security.6 Like any organism, whatever comes its way, the system tries to adapt. In this case, the balance lies between two opposite hypothesis: The Slippery Slope and the Weimar Hypothesis. In the first scenario, the government trims some rights, which raises little alarm at the time (e.g., Guantanamo and torture under G.W. Bush's reign). Then a few other rights are curtailed (wiretapping, public coercion against opposing the wars, etc). Soon, more rights are lost and gradually the entire institutional structure on which democracy rests tumbles down the slope with nobody able to stop it. In the second hypothesis, we resemble the Weimar Republic of the 1920's, which lost its legitimacy and opened the door to a tyrannical government due to its woefully insufficient responses to major public needs.

Let's not ignore that Internet technology offers the potential for more liberating forms of social organization. Capitalism and Marxism are predicated on the belief in technological progress and its potential for social improvement (unfortunately, far from fostering social change, technological developments are generally absorbed by the system and actually reinforce existing social structures). Communication and information have two sides. They provide a collection of "facts" but at the same time they become a tool for social management.

Isn't information a form of cultural and political domination?

Facebook Ad (2009).

What if Wiki-leaks presents a way for the system to purge itself in order to find an ideal equilibrium between its internal and external pressures? First, the leak is received as an unexpected, undesired event. Then we get all sort of reactions: surprise, incongruity, conflict, and the aftereffect of opposite expectations. It's all in synch with the part!

What if the leak's unmitigated public attention works in favor of the American policies the leak denounces?

Some have already observe that, compared with their American counterparts, the tone of the Arab leaders on the Iran problem (as it appears in the memos) "seems pretty jingoistic." David Rothkopf writes in The Financial Times that the Wiki-leaks information shows "the formidable courage and capabilities of many US diplomats." As you may expect from comedy's ethos, the memos already have the redeeming effect of producing more happiness than suffering. The endless repetition of the cables in all the major papers of the world ensure the desired mirroring didactic effect.

Let's wait and see how the initial shock gives way to a more optimistic assessment. The system will end up in a better place than it started at. Whether that's "really" better is another thing.
1Actually, this dump is no Pentagon Papers either. What makes this event different is the new technology. At the moment of publishing this post, one cannot access the Wiki-leaks link. Has the site been hacked? The New York Times link seemed the best second choice. 2 The inference is not that citizens ought to refuse to sacrifice individual freedom on behalf of measures proposed in the name of national security, but rather that any sacrifice should be made knowingly, with full consciousness of what is being given up, and why. It should always be necessary to make a positive case for any limitation upon individual freedom, and also for the specific method to be employed in administering the limitation. By viewing these dangerous possibilities in advance, we can reasonably hope to prevent or mitigate their occurrence. The picture projected is what might happen, not what must happen. 2a Sebastian Mallaby, "A Mockery in the Eyes of the World," Washington Post, January 31, 1999, B5.  3Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Four Essays (Princeton University Press, 2000).  4 Spanish El País follows the New York Times style of parading the different memos on its global front page. French Le Monde (in French style) presents a photo-series ridiculing world leaders. Wiki-leaks can be seen as a unique phenomenon of the digital era. The most dramatic moment in Wiki-leaks' short history is when the site revealed the so called Iraq War Logs, detailing information that the American people didn't know: 109,032 deaths in Iraq (comprised of 66,081 'civilians'; 23,984 'enemy' (those labeled as insurgents); 15,196 'host nation' (Iraqi government forces) and 3,771 'friendly' (coalition forces). 5In other words, "moral pathos resides in a situation, not where the end justifies the means, but where the end dictates means of a type which renders both the wholly good and the wholly evil superfluous."  Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision, (Princeton University Press, 2004) p. 87. 6 Most intelligence experts agree that these memos are not "NOT DIS" information, which would be really compromising.