With the reported actions taken by the U.S. Justice Department against Birgitta Jónsdóttir and the WikiLeakers, a question needs answering: What becomes of the mess?
In answering this question, lately what grabs my attention in the U.S. is not the particularly shocking and ostentatious display of ignorance offered by idiotic TV personalities, nor the unnecessary sabre rattling of some neoliberal government bureaucrats, politically exiled neoconservative pundits and loud-mouthed coffeehouse revolutionaries. For me it is the extent to which the WikiLeaks story affects the traditional and erudite scholars of international affairs, the jaded and frustrated academics, as some take on their new role as the heat shield of protection for cooler heads.
As a person reluctant to take sides in this whole debacle, it seems appropriate to asked experienced people for their thoughts, and I’ve heard quite a bit. Some have suggested, quite reasonably, that WikiLeaks should account for their actions. Others have suggested that governments and multinational corporations, quite reasonably, should account for theirs. If there was one thing I could extract from this dichotomy it is this: no matter who is accountable, I don’t trust the end result allowing average human beings the ability to make substantial foreign policy decisions for me.
No. I will not join in the chorus of people with colourful adjectives to describe their disapproval of WikiLeaks or some actors in business and politics. That’s too simplistic. What I will offer is this thought offered to me by a truly knowledgeable and experienced former diplomat: there is a reason why confidentiality in diplomacy has existed since at least the time of Ancient Greece; it works.
There are countless occasions in the human experience to describe the reaction of masses to unfiltered news. Oftentimes, they involve pitchforks and burning flame. Americans can especially attest to this. When the public of Philadelphia learned of the 1794 Jay Treaty, they burned effigies. When we saddled up for imperial adventures in Spanish territory, William Randolph Hearst was more than willing to stoke the flames of a public all too willing to kill. In 1914, Doughboys were all too willing to kill the Hun. Lastly, when some Americans became enraged with their declining standard of living, they took to Capitol Hill, marked up picket signs, misspelled “fascist” and somehow the word “Obama” and called it a Tea Party.
Dissenters may point to individuals with mass appeal and a pluralistic mindset – the Noam Chomsky’s, Aung San Su Kyi’s, Eleanor Roosevelt’s and Dag Hammarskjöld’s of the world. But can one honestly say that these people don’t fit their job descriptions? They are, and were, brilliant, stoic, independent, well educated and talented. Is that a profile that you can assign to even all of your relatives, let alone the public at large?
As a person with enormous interest in international affairs, it’s hard not to have curiosity in knowing what my government is secretly doing. There is an enormous proliferation of movies, books and TV shows devoted to real and fictitious secret government activities and corporate malfeasances to choose from. But they are mostly dramatized, and no one is actually harmed. The real harming is done by those who see the horrors of war and conflict as an easy solution to most of the world’s problems. Thankfully WikiLeaks have no harm in that. However, they are able to produce different results.
What if WikiLeaks causes a pre-emptive strike on Iran as a result of growing suspicions and secrecy between states? The U.S. and China won’t stop producing sixth generation fighter planes if they learn through a leak that the other side is making one. America will not cease to be the world’s military superpower. The disclosure of classified information does not suddenly diminish the power and resolve of the state to its meet its goals – it enhances it.
If there’s one thing that the purveyors of WikiLeaks are forgetting, it’s that other open source media, such as Wikipedia, still require skilled professionals to perform their duties. Without that basic level of management, the whole enterprise can degenerate into ridiculousness on the whim of a bored teenager with too much time on his or her hands. It may be the case that WikiLeaks intends to appeal to the intelligentsia as well, but then why bother spreading it to the public at large at all? What can and should working people do about the problems that they have no knowledge or experience in dealing with, anyway? Call their MP? Their Congressman? Most people in the developed world are content just to get a new toaster. Most people in the developing world don’t even have that luxury. Instead, their power mad dictators enjoy these material benefits and stifle any real justice and political reform with brute force and deprivation.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on WikiLeaks. After all, as an American, many narrow minded individuals could assert that I am the source of the problem with my outlandish and horrific views, and after all, their organization has also done some interesting things to ruffle the feathers of despicable leaders and captains of industry around the world. But is dishonesty an American problem? Is war an American product? No. We are all in this together in that respect.
The release of the diplomatic cables was opportunism at its worst, and the total result seems to be the ascension of Julian Assange as a media icon and the utter dehumanization of Bradley Manning, a bright person who would have been far better off not volunteering for the military to begin with.
Nothing may change. Governments will circle the wagons by restricting more, offering less information, and finding more covert channels of communication. The people who take an interest in working with in international affairs and who may not necessarily agree with the Wars but want to serve a greater cause – will find themselves under the microscope with the wars continuing, business as usual, unless, of course, WikiLeaks have completely altered the rules of the media and political game.
In that situation, what will occur? It’s my hope, and my desire to see the ascension of a robust mainstream media that can question the urges by some individuals in government to use war as a first resort. In the last ten years, America has seen its conventional media follow lock in step into major military and political campaigns without as a much as an eyebrow lifted. Embedded journalism in our armed conflicts has oftentimes produced a mouthpiece for government opinion. When a few daring individuals in media attempted to change this situation, such as Dan Rather and in the case of President Bush’s military background, he was brought down. When Joe Wilson attempted to thwart the advances of the Iraq conflagration, his wife, Valerie Plame suffered the consequences. But now, as we have seen, someone is able to successfully stand up in defiance of a monopoly of force and information and channel it to those who can truly offer it to the public a justifiable rationale for dissent.
Though I despise the arrogance of any individual who uses grandiose vocabulary about change and reform to further his or her own means of undeserved profit or prestige, I will say this: WikiLeaks may have opened the floodgates to allow a new means of journalism to thrive: journalism with backbone. Now conventional media will be faced with the knowledge those without cosy political connections or large financial capitalization can justify assertions of wrongdoing, whatever its appearance, with irrefutable facts that can be broadcasted around the world and without their blessing. Perhaps now the poor will justify their uprisings against hateful dictators in word and deed. Maybe all of it will bring our media back, and maybe people can get something more substantial than a toaster – like real justice.
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