It’s getting interesting, now. Or, really, a while ago.
The analysts have gotten out of their cages.
Some of the analysts I respect, and some of them I don’t; but that doesn’t mean the ones I like are perfect generators of (what I consider) cogent readings. Indeed, for me the real split here isn’t between blindsighted culture warriors and intelligent people, but between people interested in extracting meanings from the Wikileaks Affair, and those interested in reducing those meanings. And oddly enough for me, in this case I think the reducers are the ones striking closer to whatever capital-T truth the whole sprawling mess conceals. In many ways, the folks who brand Julian Assange as a terrorist get closer to the heart of things than many others I agree with far more, and are fighting the more relevant fight even if they are on the wrong side; because what’s being contested here is something about governments, not something about Internets. In other words, the main dispute isn’t ethical — it’s political.
By which I mean to say: if the question is about pragmatism, it’s the wrong question. If it’s about theories of information, it’s off-base. If we’re talking about larger questions of democracy in the twenty-first century, we are talking about the wrong things. Well, of course they’re really the right things, and we should definitely be talking about them anyway, but as far as Wikileaks goes they are beside the point. Could Julian Assange really justify a single life being lost from the release of an unredacted transcript, if it was in the greater name of transparency and freedom? That’s an extremely important question, even if it’s only a hypothetical one, but it’s still a question of ethics. Is the transparency he wishes for, the curbing of conspiracy, potentially a bad thing for many of us here in the West, not to mention for other people around the globe, in terms of ultimate effect? Again, that isn’t politics: it’s a Phil 100 essay question. It’s a very good question! But it isn’t the only one, and it isn’t the most urgent one. Even if the question is a more nuanced one, maybe along the lines of asking what makes a government vulnerable to Wikileaks “attacks” — Jaron Lanier asked this question just the other week in the Atlantic, and the answer comes back, perhaps unsurprisingly, as “the more democratic they are, the more damage can potentially be done to them this way” — it is still, ultimately, a question that’s overwhelmingly ethical in accent: as in, “what are you going to do about Wikileaks?” And as such, it too manages to evade the matter of politics, for the matter of conduct. Even Julian Assange’s own manifestoes, as engaged as they are with systems analysis, flow-charts, and grouping rules — and if that’s an ideology in practice, then it’s one that’d be shockingly coarse-grained, if it weren’t so weak-kneed — hey, that’s actually a compliment, Julian! — nonetheless betray a sort of obsessive focus on the social responsibilities of individuals, as though it really was the wake-up call that held pride of place over the sausage-making exposures.
But, this isn’t the only way to view the situation. We are all political actors of course, but though undergraduates rarely recognize the fact in end-of-term papers it is still more a Platonic vision that controls us, than a Machiavellian one. The Wikileaks Affair is a wake-up call for us, and that’s extemely important…and it’s a wake-up call for government in general, “Government” if you will, and that’s important too…but the clash, the clash, in that construction is an ethical one. Because individuals are what counts, in ethics; and if you can even treat the government as a kind of individual, a “person” in the sense of a corporate entity we all together compose as ethical individuals, then you can fairly charge at it from the inside using ethics as your spear-point. But in politics, you see, the government is not our corporate self.
The mob is.
Or, the people, the citizenry, whatever you want to call us. The electorate. The public. Whatever we are in any other light, in politics we’re not the government but the governed. Except — which is important — when we’re not. “Governed”, that is. Or perhaps rather: “governable”. And so here’s what I can dope out so far about the capital-T truth that’s implicated in this whole extended-news-cycle thing, no matter how anyone spins it:
In the West at least, our governments are overdrawn at the bank of public acquiescence.
Now, that’s not Obama’s fault, nor Hillary Clinton’s either. It is not even entirely George W. Bush’s fault, or Tony Blair’s…although their fair share of the blame is probably running at about 90%. Blame goes back a long way in this game of political deficit-spending and cheque-kiting, even if it wouldn’t matter just so long as no one made any truly provocative moves while at the helm of government; but of course once someone does, the danger is that the whole account of blame is likely to come due, and land at somebody’s feet. And I’m not talking about the Tea Party, here! I’m not even talking about the people who have the courage to protest, or even dissent in any sort of semi-public way. Hell, I’m not even talking about the grumblers; I’m talking about the politically apathetic. We think we know the dark side of apathy — politicians can get away with murder, and they never have to pay for it. Rights and freedoms can be eroded, and so long as the apathetic are getting their daily fix of whatever it is that they need, the system’s inertia can be hard to overcome, even for a person with power of their very own. But, that’s not actually the dark side of apathy, that’s the bright side of it — well, if you’re a politician it’s the bright side, or at least is often the bright side. If you’re an evil politician it’s practically as bright as the full moon. You don’t have to worry about apathy; apathy’s your friend. Apathy helps you.
And so you come to think that’s all it can do.
But that’s not the whole story. Hardly anyone is truly, soul-deeply, apathetic for real — most people are not just Bullshitters Without Ideals, they’re just sort of Hard To Bestir, that’s all. Kind Of Selfish, even. But, this doesn’t actually mean “bereft of belief”, because how can it? When the ability to absent yourself from matters political is the very essence of political freedom, it can’t. Like it or not, there is nothing wrong with being apathetic, anymore than there’s anything wrong with being different — there’s the core of representative democracy right there, if you want to take a look at it. Down at the very bottom of things, all freedoms are the same, and they’re fused with equality in the Tocquevellian sense, so the opposite branches share a root and the root is good…so how can apathy be “bad”? When no exercise of freedom can be bad, just so long as it does not outrage the principle of liberty. So when that’s really all it has to do, then by doing that it must be good…right?
Hey, but you’re gonna call that “sophistry”, and I’m not gonna blame you for it, okay? I’ll admit it sure does sound like sophistry. But here’s the thing, if apathy was “good”, we never had any positive proof of it before now — no matter anyone’s interpretation, if it was “good” that was just because some vague and practically-unsupported theory said it had to be, or else the logic of the system would fall apart. I’ll very readily submit to you that apathy has never been seen to enact a good in the Western democracies, sure enough…!
But then again, Western representative democracy isn’t that old, and no historical democracy’s ever had to be as adaptable as our young one here has, and therefore is it so impossible to imagine that this most inert-seeming of its attributes has hidden capabilities? Think of “apathy” as the appendix of freedom, perhaps: the place where “the good bacteria” gets stored against the eventuality of a catastrophic virulence that wipes everything else out. The back-up files of modern democracy; well, and isn’t every idealist’s goal dependent on its eventual activation? Don’t we talk about that all the time, “if only everyone would get out and vote”, “if only people knew they would care”? The truth is, though, things have rarely reached that fever pitch, and the true sleepers have rarely been sufficiently energized to awaken…as idealistic goals go, that’s a pretty tough one, actually, and even though that’s probably what makes that species of idealism so precious, so indispensible — whatever would we be, if it ever passed away? — there’s no denying that it still is hard, and so that’s about the size of it, there you go, that’s the world we live in. Adaptable modern democracy: it takes a lot to precipitate a true crisis in it. Any day of the week, you can see individualistically-birthed, ethical Dunkirks…even some with political consequences!…but ones that are actually political in their fundamental causes, those ones are rare. If you stir fifteen percent of the population for an hour and a half, that’s a full-blown revolution-in-the-making…if it only lasted two hours. But it doesn’t. And apathy returns.
But there’s a third road. Why yes, as a matter of fact (okay: as a matter of my opinion) there is. And that’s the dark side of apathy, which is also paradoxically the only possible movement within it short of an actual Storm-The-Bastille tsunami, a total game-changer, a catastrophe in its own right. And that’s the colossal inaction of a democratic mob, or as Buber says (oh, you knew I was going to bring him up) the action of the whole being, that comes to resemble inaction. Man, let me tell you, this sort of thing, it’s like an ocean gyre, it’s like an atmospheric wave, its motion is so big that it’s bloody hard to notice. But in these times, maybe it’s the information technology that does it, or maybe it’s the evaporation of authoritarian religious structures, but if we look we can see it working. Like:
In a generation, same-sex marriage will be the law of the land everywhere, because of apathy. People just don’t care what other people get up to sexually anymore, at least in the political sense they do not; though in ethical terms the debate over human sexual freedom will go on and on as it has since the beginning of the world, and though there will always be bigots, the question “what are you going to do about homosexual behaviour?” now has no answer even if one is a bigot, because the mob no longer cares about that conduct enough to try to interfere with it. No longer cares enough about it to sanction unethical measures. As in fact it’s been asked to: as the very last-ditch straw-into-gold Hail-Mary-pass gambit of the actively reactionary forces arrayed against it was the proposal of the “traditional marriage” Constitutional amendment, the only thing with sufficient power in the United States to conceivably hold off mass tolerance for two generations instead of one…and then it, too, would have toppled, but they couldn’t even get that.
Or consider the “War On Drugs”: within two generations, it too will be gone for soft drugs like marijuana — even if it is a gigantic engine of wealth in the same way discriminating against people on the basis of their sexuality is not. Which is why it’ll take slightly longer to collapse. Well, but these things can’t last forever, you know! Rome didn’t last forever. The Soviet Union lasted only about seventy years, though the whole world thought it would go on for at least two hundred, and maybe forever. That was really the killer of the Cold War, you know: the idea that it would go on forever…
Can you imagine?
So what are you going to do about kids smoking pot down by the river? You can’t do anything, because we’ve already been over this, and over it, and over it. And so the ethical positions people cannot help but take in their own name and for their own reasons, are not things that the mob feels any need to make concessions to any longer at this point. Refractory and inscrutable, if there’s even any difference to make between the two, the mob takes no notice of the judgement of consistency as individuals must, but simply either cares or does not care…and is under no obligation to render service to anyone, for good or bad…
…But you see, what that doesn’t mean, is that it must always be bad. “Bad” has certainly had its innings, as far as popular opinion goes…now, with victory for sexual tolerance and defeat for radical criminalization of drug use, good is getting its share too.
And such examples could be multiplied with ease — there is so much small-mindedness that won’t last, because small-mindedness takes energy, just like suicide takes energy. That’s not to say that activism, and positive exertions of democratic freedom like voting, don’t make any difference: they do. A word in an ear, like a pebble thrown on the slope of a mountainside, in twenty years can make a change as impossible to prevent as any avalanche…but the ultimate engine of an avalanche is still gravity, just as the natural force that’s enlisted to do most of the Superman-style “change the course of mighty rivers” work in this world is still the force popularly known as “the path of least resistance”…
Which is also making itself felt NOW, with the Wikileaks business, in the following way:
Which is that the general public has no sympathy whatsoever for their governments. Or, to be a bit more precise: no sympathy whatsoever with their governments. So right now, those governments are working just as hard as ever they can, to reframe the Wikileaks Affair as something that is not so much about them, as it is about us…what are we going to do about Wikileaks?…because without the sanction of the governed, they can’t actually shut it down. But, that isn’t working. Right now, though perhaps we can’t see the movement because it is too vast to notice, the same governments that recently found it so easy to assemble crypto-fascist sentiments and legislative game theory into the apparatus of a nascent police state — because of apathy, because no one really cared, because it didn’t impinge on the acquisition of their fix — because they hire people to stop that kind of thing for them, which is what checks and balances are all about — those same governments are suddenly finding themselves hard-pressed to not have to directly ask their public for approval of their increasingly-corporatist methods. All of a sudden. All of a sudden!
All of a sudden, they need our help: our positive aid.
And they won’t get it, because it’s too much work.
The average apathetic person is morphing into a leading member of an apathetic mob, that doesn’t want to lend a hand, that sits back after work with a beer in front of the tube and nastily chuckles to see their leaders’ discomfiture. And does not even bother to smash the bottle afterwards. It’s all just so much Reality TV, now, to us: we don’t fucking care anymore. And this is the dark side of apathy, which is the moment of the worm’s non-turning…Wikileaks releases evidence of a banal secret culture, a stupid culture with massive privileges regularly abused, and it is not the serious and horrible evidence they make available that is the main thing for us, but it’s the Dumb Shit that causes that Whole Movement. In parallel, the remaining vestiges of real journalism (hooray for the remaining real journalists!) go to war with their governments over press freedoms and war crimes both-at-once, while the governments’ not-so-secret shame is that they’re motivated more by the stupid embarrassments than by the shocking revelations…but now that the two are made into one they can’t win on either, they’ve picked the wrong fight, they’ve brought a serious knife into the circle instead of a pranking pen-laser, they cannot try to stop the dumb shit without also being seen trying to stop the important shit, and maybe if they hadn’t been so lulled by our apathy they would’ve chosen more wisely but they WERE, and now they’re FUCKED.
And so here is the power of the reducers: Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and everybody else with a hated name is ready to blow this shit right up, in the name of core democratic freedoms and the right to be intolerant to evil…ready to go absolutely to war over it. And they’ve got the ammo, too. God, for once, is on their side; they don’t have to be consistent, they just have to get in there…
Because that’s how politics works, baby!
And therefore the crazy post-Bush Republican fringe groups, the brown-suited flat-earthers (gone in a generation!), find themselves with no choice but to engage in this amazingly losing battle…
(Along with, it must be said, those who’ve unfortunately had the flat-earthers’ bill come due down at their feet…but don’t let me for an instant give you the impression that makes them innocent…!)
(Because they’re NOT…!)
…Only because the belief they can win is so massively built-in to every move they make, that they can’t figure out how to let go of it without letting go of their casus belli itself, and so the fight is always over who gets to say they’re the fighters, and practically nothing else. Indeed, the most awfully inevitable thing about the entire scenario is that the bad guys are exactly right about where the battlefield is, they’re just terribly wrong about the lay of its land…but to adjust to that reality they’d also have to adjust to all the other realities they’re out of step with, and therefore they can’t both win and fight, and therefore even the smallest retreat is impossible: they must be the aggressors, always. For thirty years they’ve worked hard and steadily to fold every issue into the same issue, into One Big Issue, into an Excuse Ideology that satisfies no higher ideals but only scratches deep itches…until now there is no battle they can fight that is not, by their own successful definitional insistence, decided in the overture: in the very first trumpet-blare. And every time they lose, it was their last chance to win, but they’re too pot-committed to sever the losses, and they’re too wilfully dumb to see (as any good reality-show contestant would) that as soon as the voting goes against you the first time, you’ve already lost the control you were relying on to establish or keep your position…and so even though this is actually a REALLY big battle they’re totally unprepared and underequipped for it. But worst of all. Worst of all. Worst of all…
Their traditional supply line — apathy! — has been completely cut off.
And so, as odd as it sounds, their only remaining friend is the intelligent public, that reads Jaron Lanier articles and cares about ethics in a way they themselves never have. If they were smart people (which they’re so evidently, provenly not that I involuntarily snorted just a bit as I typed that), they’d look their own shit in the face and realize that their ethical talk is all just cover for their real biases — just an excuse — and so even if it’s a really fun game to employ ethical issues in what we might call a trolling fashion against their political opponents, it’s a game they should be more than willing to give up once it isn’t helping their political agenda anymore. Julian Assange a terrorist? They only call him that because it’s a magic word, like “Shazam!” — if it works then it gives them power, which is all they want. It has nothing to do with the ethical component of Assange’s actions, obviously; it has entirely to do with securing the sympathy of the electorate. And if intelligent people are likely to then spend their energies in debating the ethical suitability of the label, once it’s been falsely called…well, that’s just a bonus!
So they think. But it isn’t true; because they’ve grown too used to “sympathy” and “acquiescence” being functionally indistinguishable, as far as the electorate goes…and in this case, those two quiddities have split apart. You could probably get the sympathy if you were only willing to work hard enough, or at least what would ordinarily be “enough” of it — which will be enough to make it not matter if you can’t actually make the word “terrorist” stick — which you can’t! — but governments and their spokespeople have really had such a fantastically easy ride these last few years that their estimate of “hard” is probably pretty screwed-up in the first place, and in the second place their idea of what would constitute the “work” is also, very probably, off by a million miles. Because while in the past even a little bit of sympathy has been proven to be enough to get people to do nothing, it doesn’t follow that any amount of sympathy on its own will be enough to get them to do something…but something is exactly what they need, because without it the “terrorist” claim falls apart from sheer ethical incoherence, and as soon as you’ve presided over an implosion like that you won’t look like a person who’s great at gaming the system by raising ethical issues, you’ll look like a lousy game-player who can’t be trusted to speak on those issues…because you’re too damn dumb to pass Phil 100.
So, where’s the percentage in playing that game? There isn’t one; the horns have already sounded, to call the faithful to the field, and they haven’t bloody come. The game’s up: no one believes that a vote for Assange is a vote for Osama, and a vote against Jesus and America. They’re having too much fun snickering. They’re staying at home. They won’t support the reactionary reducers because trust in apathy has kept the Brown-Suited Ones from re-investing in the psychic infrastructure of their bullshit as much as it’s kept them from re-investing in the physical infrastructure of their country, and now the levees are busting.
So if the bad guys were smart, they’d up stakes and get the fuck out of the battlefield — forget trying to dry off Wikileaks’ wet dynamite by dragging it into the warmth of The House That The War On Terror Built, let Lanier and Sterling and even me (extractors by nature, all of us, but I only wish I was in their league!) try to confront the mob’s snickering and bloody-minded sentiment with an ethical, analytical scolding instead, and hope that the non-apathetics out there will find themselves sufficiently motivated by the high-minded tale of how it’s better to be an Eloi than a Morlock, that they’ll be happy to turn on one of their own…or possibly, more accurately, turn him off…
And just pray that nothing happens that really amuses the guy drinking his beer in front of the tube, like…oh, I don’t know…maybe Colin Powell giving a press conference in which he announces his support for Wikileaks, because if Wikileaks had been around when the Iraq war started then he wouldn’t’ve had to lie about the WMDs?
Well, but even if that doesn’t happen…
…This is still all over, now. Because the reactionaries would actually be smart just to hunker down and hope Wikileaks’ disclosure-tornado somehow passes them by — better off in that, even if it doesn’t pass them by! — except they can’t get out of their own way: if they’re not the fighters! then they’re nobody. They just don’t know how to stop charging, even if it is over a cliff. Heck, they’ll just charge all the harder! Screw you, heathen cliff, you’re not a real American! Jesus Christ, they don’t even know what they’re not fighting for anymore. It’s just sad. And it really is over. But give them this, if you give ‘em nothing else: that at least they’re never confused about what they’re fighting against…
Politics, you see?
It’s a lot like the Jerry Springer show.
No one watches it just to hear the Final Thought.