Thursday, December 23, 2010

WikiLeaks: A Reading

Holy polemical rhetoric, Batman! (No, not you, Putin.) In the last few weeks lightning rod WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange have been metamorphosed into diabolical super-villains or ultra-righteous super-heroes, depending on who’s drawing them. Let’s take a deep breath, and masticate this bolus for a minute before we try to choke it all down.

Last week, I approached this topic like any journalist might: with the desire to say something new. I wanted to examine Assange’s philosophy, as opposed to his actions per se, to try to trace out the conceptual links between his push for government transparency and, on the incoming end, the public’s demand for greater regulation of the economy; and, on the outgoing end, a growing consciousness of the disparity between a global economic structure and a national political framework. What I found, however, was far more complex. 

Much of what has been said thus far focuses on the normative aspects of this controversy: whether the actions of WikiLeaks should be seen as desirable, or even permissible. It is a very polemic issue in that it is attempting to renegotiate the boundaries between accountability and security and, in the process, conceivably inflicting undue harm upon others. Nevertheless, information is a fundamental tool of democracy and as such it belongs in the hands of the public on whose behalf the government operates. Political apathy is endemic in American society. At the very least, WikiLeaks has presented an opportunity for democratic participation. 

But the sheer magnitude of information made available by WikiLeaks raises a whole host of other issues, many of which point to the global order as potentially harmful to citizens. Whether its China’s status as the U.S.’s “banker,” or the propensity for massive infiltrations of state secrets, the interconnectedness of the world has, again, been made excruciatingly clear. 

In an article that appeared in a June issue of The New Yorker, Raffi Khatchadourian wrote of Julian Assange, “He had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution.” Assange envisions himself as a champion of the people – a technologically proficient incarnation of FDR. Or, as suggested by Dr. Craig Murphy of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass Boston, even of Woodrow Wilson, whose first of fourteen points advocated “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.” 

A noble sentiment, but the question on everyone’s lips has been: “Is such a diplomatic process feasible?” I interviewed Dr. Eben Weitzman, who is the Chair of the Conflict Resolution, Human Security and Global Governance Department at McCormack, and he spoke of something called “second tables.” This is an important concept when considering the work of diplomacy. Second tables, he explained, is a term used to signify the dualistic character of negotiation. If the “first table,” is the diplomatic table, then the “second table” is the one at which sits the state department official to whom the diplomat will report. This is true on both sides and at both ends of “the table”: each diplomat will sit again with their respective heads of state, and each respective head of state will have to justify policy decisions to the general public. As Dr. Weitzman put it to me, “If people can’t have confidential conversations, then their ability to negotiate is severely hampered.” Besides, save for the inflammatory comments that, when published, effectively caught many diplomats with their pants down, the private face of diplomacy seems to look a lot like its public face. In many ways, the most recent cables paint a picture of diplomacy that is already surprisingly transparent. 

Which may be more than can be said for WikiLeaks as an institution. Although Assange has been given the blessing of Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971, many still question the legitimacy of his organization. Steve Coll, who operates a blog for The New Yorker, wrote, “Assange declares that he is pioneering an improved, daring form of journalism. That profession however, despite its flaws, has constructed its legitimacy by serving as a check on governmental and corporate power within constitutional arrangements that assume the viability of the rule of law.” And Khatchadourian points out “Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most – power without accountability – is encoded in [WikiLeaks] DNA.” 

In his provocative essay “We, the People of Europe?” Étienne Balibar noted a similar paradox with regard to the existence of borders around a democratic state: “They [borders] are the absolutely nondemocratic, or ‘discretionary,’ conditions of democratic institutions.” There is a significant irony in the fact that Assange’s organization, with which he hopes “To radically shift regime behavior,” retains some of the inherent contradictions of that so-called regime. Furthermore, if Assange is looking to encourage transcendence of the national political model, he will be faced with the same challenges in providing internal protection for his sources as international organizations are faced with in protecting human rights; viz., the fact that any form of trans-national belonging is always underpinned by a web of international treaties among sovereign states. 

Hannah Arendt, in a 1951 statement of prophetic clarity and resonance, wrote, “Deadly danger to any civilization is no longer likely to come from without…The danger is that a global, universally interrelated civilization may produce barbarians from its own midst by forcing millions of people into conditions which, despite all appearances, are the conditions of savages.” It is precisely this kind of danger that Assange is trying to subvert through the WikiLeaks mission. 

Within the current globalized landscape, there is no longer any spot on the planet that is not subsumed under state control. If individuals are forced out by their state, then they become what Arendt would call naked in their humanity. State borders that have traditionally delineated not only nationality, but also social standing, have been drawn towards the centers of civic space --– there is a Chinatown in every major U.S. city. The problem with this model, as Balibar points out, is that “by definition, a globalized market has no “outside” in either a geographical or a sociological sense…There exist only forms of inner exclusion.” It may be possible to view WikiLeaks as an attempt to move outside of this model in order to foster conditions for new forms of inclusion. By eschewing the traditional contextualization processes of journalism, Assange may be offering an unmediated opportunity for the public to engage directly with these forces of globalization and “inner exclusion.” By allowing the general public open access to wide sheaths of information, he is effectively wresting control from institutions and making everyone, himself included, accountable to the public not only for their specific actions, but also for their ideals and overarching policies. In this respect, I think we are seeing a progressive kind of transparency from Julian Assange. 

As it appears at the current moment, this controversy has polarized the general public into those with security concerns who maintain status quo support for national politics, on one end of the spectrum, and those with concerns about over classification who maintain liberal theories of transparency and democratic control on the other. In the end, Assange can only work to maintain standards of fair and balanced reporting that some believe have been abandoned or obscured by the traditional news media. If he is able to do that, then we may be seeing the advent of a new kind of journalistic integrity after all.

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