POWER AND MEDIA: A LOOK AT WIKILEAKS AND GOVERNMENT

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By Alexsandra McMahan
Staff Writer

As Turkey heats up after Erdogan’s reelection, Egypt frantically reorganizes for upcoming parliamentary elections, the primary candidates for the United States presidential race in 2012 are going ahead full-steam and the International Monetary Fund is still frantically replacing Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the world seems to be swirling with government shifts, political play and power questions. None of these elections, however, nor those of any other nation-state, will offer a viable candidate for the “Wikileaks” party. There will not be a write-in option, and no “Wikileaks” man will participate in the Republican primary debates, even if he waters down his values and tells individuals to “try heroin”. Indeed, many politicians would scoff at the idea that such a political party exists at all. But does it?

Wikileaks, the “keep governments open” (http://wikileaks.org/) organization founded by Julian Assange in 2007 is not a political power in the common and narrow definition of the word. They have no congressman or parliamentarians, they pay no lobbyists, and they are definitely not contending Putin for his [re](re)reelection in Russia next year. They are, however, causing the United States to question their judicial process for soldiers and have shaped foreign policy more quickly than Republicans and Democrats alike. Wikileaks was also credited with “providing some of the spark in the Tunisian revolution by US news agencies” and “had a hand in cooling relations between the United States and Canada”. Canada could also be replaced with Pakistan, Haiti, and several other countries; the United States’ foreign policy tact (or lack thereof) was greatly exposed by the Wikileaks’ February tenth release of embassy cables.

In all the shifting and redefining of national policies, Wikileaks will remain outside the structurally defined “government” of nations; as a result, its power is underestimated by some, and overestimated by still more. One could ask if it should attempt exposure and change through normal governmental channels, but the more important question, it seems, should be about the political power structure itself. Instead of “Who plays by the rules?” nations and individuals must now ask something more basic: “What are the rules?”

Every government, history and civics class in the United States has proposed that this nation, and most others of democratic inclination, play by the Lockean structure: the nation has a government, and that government—instilled by the citizens’ voluntary consent—protects us, for better or worse. Implicitly, this also suggests that we obey that government (the infamous “give up some liberties to protect others” argument) and the laws it imposes.

Great. Except we are no longer the United States of America. We are the United States of America with relations to China, trade agreements with Europe, and a border war with Mexico. We are the United States of America with a powerful media heard throughout “195 nations in the world” and influenced by the actions of those other 194 countries. We are also the United States of America with 300 million individual bodies, which contribute to the International community of 6.7 billion. As the technological landscape shifts, individuals garner more flexibility in how they influence those around them. Channels of communication widen and deviate, individuals become as well-known as corporations, and single men can develop internet websites that connect the community of “2.1 billion internet users”. These powerful levels of connection often work parallel to but outside of government channels of law and order. They are responsible to the laws of their countries, but their influence is not confined to that nation. Their online location is flexible, and their ability to create and synthesize information is not restricted in the way that a government’s (Lockean) responsibility to their people restricts their “democratic” actions. A question results: who is in charge?

The answer lies in one’s choice of “right” versus “wrong.” In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War the Athenians finally conclude to the weaker Melians in the “Melian Dialogue”  that “you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Thucydides’ point has since been diluted into the approach “might makes right” that is only used critically to describe dictators and oppressive regimes. However, as Assange remains out of the hands of legal systems (at least slowing their inevitable descent upon him) and governments race to ameliorate the damage caused by Wikileaks’ “Guantanamo Files”, “Cablegate Releases”, and “Warlogs”, the idea of power shifts in favor of a “might makes right” structure. Sure, governments are still in power, and the Lockean structure still exists: we have laws in the United States, and the President still maintains stature as one of the world’s most influential figures. But our laws and our President (as well as the laws and leaders of other nations) have cowered in the face of one website, one man, and one project’s ability to divulge their secrets and affect billions of individual opinions. Here, power clearly divests into one man’s hands, and the idea of right between equals make one wonder if governments and Wikileaks are on the same level or if United States’ officials should lower their heads and “suffer what they must.” Is this right? Should it be? And more so, is this the way of the future?

Alternatively, the argument stands that governments have an obligation to their people, as do the people of those governments. Indeed, the United States’ foundation of justice, law and order is this principle of contractual agreement. Within those bounds, one may argue, Assanges’ actions—particularly in regard to classified governmental material—breaks the contract mutually established in the name of protection. Critics have pointed out the impacts of this, as “Afghani civilians were placed in danger” by Manning’s releases to Wikileaks and “nations revolted against their leaders” , and they have suggested that one man should not be able to interfere in the societal protection of all. Traditionally, this argument holds, as individuals have implicitly agreed to participate in the rules (laws) of the contract (government). However, the lines get messy: Assange is not a citizen of the United States, and he has no obligation to obey their laws. Intelligently, he chose the nation with the freest speech laws (Sweden) to house Wikileaks’ databases, and “protected” his sources through anonymous online drop boxes. There is also the caveat that the World Wide Web is just that: a worldwide, intangible structure that cannot be pinpointed as “belonging” to any single nation. This begs the question: does Assange still have to play by the United States’ rules? Opinions vary, and the argument then becomes whether the government violated its contractual stipulations first by usurping powers and liberties from the people for their “protection”.

Ultimately, the question of Wikileaks’ morality will not be solved in a day. But it is important to consider that the rules of the game might be of more importance than who is “right” and “wrong.” If the traditional governmental structure survives intact, it will need massive adjustments to regain the trust and credibility of citizens who thought their governments’ were acting in their best interest. Wikileaks’ role as a game changer in opening/violating governments and helping/harming people will affect the global political game. As for individuals, the tension of their decision lies in whether one desires protection at all costs, even that of his or her own knowledge, or whether as individuals, one feels we should have greater exposure to and accountability for knowledge in the world. Clearly, Assange prefers absolute exposure and the power of one man over one government in a very untraditional manner. If governments continue their shady dealings and Wikileaks continues its high-profile unveilings, Assange might just get his way.

Image by Wikileaks.

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