Thursday, December 2, 2010

My Vote for Person of the Year

Seems that 2010 will be the Year of WikiLeaks. In the spirit of the times, I wish to nominate Julian Assange to be Time Magazine's Person of the Year. But it isn't for reasons that you might think.

WikiLeaks has by now established itself as a rather unique place in cyberspace. Perhaps it is the ultimate expression of freedom that the internet makes possible; the disclosure of worldly secrets to an unknowing and largely ill-informed public. 2010 has marked a banner year for the whistle-blower web site with classified information on the Iraq War and the Afghan War being disseminated worldwide.

This was followed by the dumping of more than 250,000 classified US diplomatic documents beginning on November 28. There were a few rather major revelations that are no doubt embarrassing to the Obama Administration. If nothing else, it adds fuel to the fire that the president is inept in the way he conducts the business of the nation. Mostly, the documents strike me as rather benign, however. The Saudi's want the US to attack Iran's nuclear program, for example. Yawn.

Nevertheless, in the way karma works, Mr. Assange will now reap what he is sowing. First off, he is apparently wanted for rape in Sweden. That is rather old news, but it that it is being pursued now with special gusto. Yesterday, announced that WikiLeaks could no longer use the giant retailer's servers. I'm not sure what impact that will have, as the vastness of cyberspace will almost assuredly find a home for someone that generates as much web traffic as Mr. Assange.

Wherever WikiLeaks finds servers, however, they will doubtlessly come under cyber attack. Every attempt will be made by the US and perhaps other governments to deny Mr. Assange his freedom to express this sensitive information. This necessarily includes legal action. But, covert activity is to be expected as well. Hopefully, no personal harm will come to Mr. Assange. That would only martyrize his adolescent behavior.

Yes, I think the whole WikiLeaks affair reeks of adolescence. "You're mean and I'm gonna tell!" Total crap. If anything Mr. Assange's efforts will result in greater secrecy than ever before.

While I do not question the freedom in which Mr. Assange is acting, even if the information he is exposing online is illegally obtained, the freedom itself doesn't make the effort praiseworthy. Does Mr. Assange really think governments should not have dirty little secrets? Does he, furthermore, believe that the chiefly ignorant herd of humanity, who largely cannot appreciate the context for anything WikiLeaks reveals because they have no basis for context, deserves to know the dirty secrets of governments? Does he feel he is doing the world a service with his expression of freedom?

That strikes me as rather naive. Mr. Assange is like a child watching mommy and daddy do nasty things in the bedroom, taking pictures and posting them on the web. WikiLeaks is in that caliber of "information".

But WikiLeaks is simply symptomatic of a larger force at work in the world media. The force of the ever-expanding public sphere. (More on that in my conclusion.) The affair is comparable to the revelation of off-hand remarks by former Afghan War General Stanley McChrystal in the second-rate article that brought about the general's demise.

The sensational, the secret, the scandalous have always fascinated the public. It is a big part of human nature to be attracted to that which it wasn't intended to know. You know this is true. It reveals as much about who we are as the quest for liberty or salvation or enlightenment. Human beings are homo gossipus. We are especially attracted to "dirty laundry." Our essential nature is not much more elevated than that. Sorry Aristotle.

I cannot think of anyone who represents this tabloid nature of humanity than Julian Assange. And for that reason he deserves to be Person of the Year. He reflects a basic human aspiration; to know the secret, to eat of the "forbidden Tree of Knowledge" and to proclaim this act of knowing to be in and of itself a kind of liberation, a basis for protest, perhaps, and certainly giving the finger to authority.

The whole notion of freedom seems to me to be predicated as much on resisting authority, testing limits, and accessing facts regardless of the larger consequences. Indeed, it is the infliction of authority, the establishment of limitations, and the barriers to a kind of knowledge completely free of all responsibility that defines where absolute freedom ends and begins.

So, here's to Julian Assange, adolescent rebel against the parentage of classified government and corporate intelligence. Stomping his cyber feet and pitching a cyber fit in his glorious cyber expression of cyber freedom. The ultimate example of feeding the herd what it wants most. The massive dumping and ejaculation of information without context in an effort to elevate us all to the point where nothing is secret.

As the infringement on human privacy accelerates unabated, so does the yawning abyss of the public sphere open ever-wider to devour anything that any entity, public or private, wishes to keep to themselves. And the boundary of what is a Self (personal, corporate, government) dissolves into the great waste of collective things we desire to know without being any better for it.

Late note: Five days after this post Mr. Assange was arrested for rape and his web site is experiencing extraordinary difficulties staying online due to hack-attacks, which has led to counter-hacker activity, a kind of cyber war. Credit card companies and Paypal are now refusing to facilitate donations to Wikileaks. Mr. Assange has been denied bail in his arrest. Oh well, he asked for it.


Raijen said...

You make a difficult argument. I wish I could agree wholeheartedly, but it seems that there must be a balance between governmental secrets and the right of the people to know.

Yes, the majority of people probably don't understand context. They are eating up pop culture and staying away from things with substance. But there are those who deserve to know precisely because they care about freedom and basic goodness.

As for WikiLeaks... I think there should be more sites like that. Whistle blowing is what journalism is about, it's what helped to fuel the fires of the American Revolution. The government, if it wants to keep secrets, should keep them airtight. People, meanwhile, should never completely trust their government. With the right to habeas corpus still suspended in the USA, I think Wikileaks is perhaps one of the best ways to retaliate against a government that has overstepped its constitutional boundaries.

Yes, it is adolescent and puerile. It lacks sophistication. But for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction, and the pendulum of history continues to swing.

Keith said...

A thoughtful comment Raijen. Thanks for reading.