August 07, 2010

On Wikileaks (V): Losing Control

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV


The Illusory and Costly Pursuit of Control

The determined, unrelenting pursuit of the illusion of control is responsible for as much particularized human tragedy and general devastation, sometimes encompassing entire continents, as any other factor. On the personal scale, all of us are brought up to believe that if only we act in the "right" way, if we have the "right" thoughts, education, jobs, families and friends, success and happiness are guaranteed to us. In this manner, we seek to control many elements of our lives; if we control them in the "right" way, we will get what we want, what will make us happy.

In the United States, this is another aspect of the American exceptionalist myth. Yet if we are at all honest, and if we acknowledge the truth of American history, we know that even the possibility of acting in the "right" way in this manner has been systematically denied to vast numbers of Americans: to Native Americans, who were almost entirely slaughtered, thus making all possibilities eternally meaningless, and who were thereafter severely restricted with regard to physical placement and social mobility; to blacks, who were denied human status altogether for centuries through the abomination of slavery, then grudgingly granted semi-human status for another hundred years through formal and informal systematized discrimination, and who today are still denied full equality through the continuation of institutionalized discrimination, together with destruction targeted at them with hideous specificity via the endlessly destructive "War on Drugs" and other mechanisms; to women, who were treated as chattel for the first half of American history, both formally and legally as well as by social convention and informal decree, and who today still must continually struggle against the cultural presumption that they are inherently weak, inferior, undeserving of full human recognition, and even evil, which belief is the root of the lesser charges; to gays and lesbians, "illegal" immigrants, and on and on .. the full list, even in the comparatively brief span of American history, is of a length that must profoundly shock any person of decency and conscience.

Yet almost all Americans still believe in the critical necessity of control, even those Americans who have been and are today systematically denied the means of pursuing it. Until very recently, most Americans thought that if they worked hard, played by "the rules" and made themselves dependable parts of the system, they would enjoy good and rewarding lives, rounded off by a secure retirement. Events of the last few years have destroyed these plans for many Americans, in part or in whole: their jobs have vanished, a great number of them never to return (or to return so far into the future that it's immaterial), their homes have been lost, their retirement savings have been destroyed. Pursuit of control has turned out to be a tragic illusion.

We all know the pursuit of control on a more intimate level as well. We think: "If I can only explain this in just the right way, then my friend (or lover, or colleague, or boss) will understand." Or we tell ourselves: "If I act in just the right way, I'll get that promotion (or this lover, or be invited to join that exclusive group)." The result will be the one we desire: by acting in the "right" way, we'll get what we want. Most of us know all too well how many times this strategy succeeds and how many times it fails, or even leads to a result directly opposed to what we had hoped for. And even if we are momentarily successful, the costs of pursuing this strategy are enormous. It occurs to me that, while I am not nearly as enamored of Mad Men as are many of its passionate admirers, it does capture this aspect of engaging with "the system" very perceptively and accurately. (I don't have current television at all, so I'm watching season three on DVD at the moment.)

The series shows in awful detail the endless calculation, the flattery and cajoling of the bosses (and even of equals and those lower on the corporate ladder), the constant manipulation, the perpetual anxiety of wondering how others are judging us and what they'll do about their judgments. No matter where these people are in the organization, they all have these same concerns: there is always someone else who must find them pleasing and valuable, who they desperately hope will choose to help rather than harm them. The same dynamics frequently play out in the characters' personal lives. Beneath the more superficial, localized emotions they experience, on a much deeper psychological level, all these people are absolutely exhausted. Pursuing control in this way is exhausting. It's a very nice touch that Don Draper, the protagonist, is both the most systematically intent on pursuing control and therefore the most exhausted: he seeks to control not only the present and the future, but also the past. He deliberately obliterated his actual past and replaced it with a history, and an identity, that he thought were more likely to bring him what he wants.

About these dynamics and the pursuit of control, you may be thinking: ah, governments and societies do the same thing. Precisely so. We'll get there in a moment.

I'm not suggesting for a moment we should forswear efforts to understand our world, either in general or as it affects us individually. That obviously isn't the case, or I would never write at all. Nor am I saying that we can't improve our lives; clearly we can in countless, sometimes genuinely wonderful ways. What I am saying is that most of us believe, as I did for much of my life, that we can control people (notably including ourselves) and events in ways that aren't susceptible to control at all. For the most part, in terms of the way most people conceive the issue, the pursuit of control is nothing more than an illusion. Most of us like the illusion, even love, cherish and depend on it: we believe it can be made to be true, and its realization will also make our desires real. I was in my late forties when I finally concluded that, with regard to how I had previously thought about the issue, I could control almost nothing. I consider that realization a significant step in my finally growing up.

The Illusion of Control and the Idea of Progress

For most of us, and especially for those of us in the West, the illusion of control is inextricably connected to the Idea of Progress. We seek to control people and events so that we may improve our lives. I discussed this Idea in one of my earliest essays about the Iran "crisis," in a piece from four and a half years ago (good lord). The fact that the Iran "crisis" today is identical in every critical respect to that of over four years ago proves, among other things, the persistence of these underlying and widespread cultural beliefs. And see the discussion in Part IV of this series for an abbreviated explanation of how this "crisis" has been created out of precisely nothing. (In connection with the piece from February 2006, I must state that there are several formulations in that article that I find inexact, confusing and/or troubling now, and a few that I would explicitly disavow. I was on a steep learning curve during that period. But I stand by the major points in the earlier discussion.)

Here's part of what I wrote those seemingly distant years ago:
This returns us to the "Idea of Progress," as [Robert] Merry discusses it in Sands of Empire. You should consult Merry's book for the full explanation; here I will offer only a few relevant highlights of the Idea, and how it developed. The first point is to distinguish between two kinds of Progress: we are not concerned here with the idea of intellectual progress, or mankind's acquisition of knowledge. Obviously, we all recognize that knowledge has increased immeasurably through the ages, and that it has grown exponentially in the last several hundred years. With the exception of a few unhappy, dedicated Luddites, everyone enthusiastically welcomes such progress.

But the progress that concerns us at the moment is of a different kind. Even though his name and work are little known today, the idea was first announced by a French social philosopher in the early eighteenth century, Abbe Charles-Irenee Castel de Saint-Pierre. He saw a future where man not only achieved greater understanding of the physical universe: he saw "inexorable progress toward social perfection, human happiness, and world peace. He foresaw nothing less than 'a golden age,' as historian J.B. Bury puts it, 'a paradise on earth.'" In other words, human nature itself could be changed and brought closer to perfection -- and the major agent for achieving this end was government. Merry notes that this conception of the Idea of Progress is a dominant one in Western thought, and that Saint-Pierre's view of achievable "social perfection" is now largely viewed as indistinguishable from Progress itself.
Merry goes on to note the view of historian Robert Nisbet that "in an increasingly secular culture," the Idea of Progress absorbed many aspects of what the idea of Providence had provided in earlier times. Progress, like Providence, represented the ideal toward which we must strive and, in modern times, it is the State which will coordinate and forcibly guide our efforts. (This is still another reason for my fundamental opposition to the State itself.) I think Nisbet is tragically correct on this point; as I recently noted, the myth of American exceptionalism functions as a secular version of fundamentalist belief and, as I have expressed a closely related idea, America becomes God on Earth.

Merry also notes "two great contradictions" in the Idea of Progress. The first is that proponents of this Idea were profoundly uncomfortable with endless Progress, so they instead advocated Progress toward "a particular end point." For many of those in the West, that end point was Western society itself, and Western democracy more particularly. In the United States, and for its ruling class, the end point became the United States and its political system (or what they proclaimed that system to be, whether the reality comports with their idealized version or not). The second contradiction is that, despite claims of the "universality" of Progress, the Idea of Progress as it developed was entirely Eurocentric: "Implicit in this was the view that other cultures were inferior to the West, and hence universal progress required that these inferior cultures embrace the Western heritage."

In this way, the pursuit of control expands to encompass the entire world: note that universal progress requires that inferior cultures be made more like the West. In other words, it is necessary for the State to control events on the domestic front to ensure the steady march toward the "end point" of Progress, but that is not sufficient. The State must also control events everywhere else. If it does not, to adapt Browning, what's an Idea of Progress for? Thus the drive to global control, to Dominion Over the World, to a policy of global interventionism.

What is absolutely fascinating is that Wikileaks has engaged this strategy precisely on its own terms: those who advance American global hegemony seek to impose their own particular Idea of Progress everywhere, as they simultaneously increase the power and wealth of America's ruling class, that is to say, the power and wealth of those most committed to both Progress in general (as they conceive it) and their own individual Progress. The two aspects are not at odds in any respect: they complement each other.

To this, Wikileaks responds: We actually are everywhere. Stop us if you can.

And neither the United States nor any other government can stop them. The illusion of control is shattered. And Wikileaks doesn't seek control as the global hegemonists do in any manner whatsoever; it provides information broadly and freely, shorn of the controls on information so desperately sought by States of all kinds. Wikileaks provides information to anyone and everyone who wants it, and they can make of it what they will.

Those who would control the past, the present and the future thought that "everywhere" meant only what they imagined it to mean. They're learning differently. Genuine freedom -- freedom without obedience or authority in any of their forms -- reaches everywhere in a way that States cannot imagine. Freedom of this kind cannot be controlled.

Consider how Wikileaks has so dramatically shifted the ground on which this battle is fought.

Withdraw Your Support, and They Have Nothing

I think that if many of us had read this in a novel five or ten years ago, we would have thought a development of this kind was absurd and ridiculous. "Oh, that could never happen!" Yet it has happened, and it is wonderfully, completely true:
The Pentagon demanded Thursday that a website that solicits leaked government secrets cancel any plan to publish more classified military documents and pull back tens of thousands of secret Afghan war logs already posted on the Internet.

The demand, which the Defense Department has no independent power to enforce, is primarily aimed at preventing release of approximately 15,000 secret documents that the website WikiLeaks has said it is holding. The Pentagon also hopes to stop WikiLeaks from making public the contents of a mammoth encrypted file recently added to the site. Contents of that file remain a mystery.

"We are asking them to do the right thing," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. "I don't know that we're very confident they'll have a change of heart."

WikiLeaks posted more than 76,900 classified military and other documents, mostly raw intelligence reports from Afghanistan, on its website July 25. The 15,000 additional documents are apparently related to that material.
In the preceding installment, I wrote:
[W]hat finally undoes Varadarajan utterly is that he sees no way to stop Assange and Wikileaks.

This is further testament to Assange's brilliance -- and it is also testament to what I call "the power of 'No'": finally, the only weapon held by those who insist on obedience to authority is your own willingness to comply. If you refuse to comply, if you say "No," if you act "irresponsibly" and withdraw your support, there is nothing they can do. Those who represent and uphold authority understand this. Many other people do not. Wikileaks may help many people to see finally the enormous power they have, if only they will use it.
The latest story is a perfect dramatization of what I meant. The U.S. government issues a "demand" -- when it knows full well the answer will be a resounding, No! The U.S. government, led by a nauseating group of genocidal serial murderers and torturers, asks those who want only to stop that government's crimes to "do the right thing."

If the Pentagon and its press secretary did not speak on behalf of a government that embodies unrelenting, world-historical evil, this would be merely funny. As it is, the amusement is that offered by especially vicious practitioners of Grand Guignol who are execrable farceurs. The laughter drips blood and suffering.

But -- I emphasize again -- appreciate how completely powerless the State is. Assange has withdrawn his support, and there is nothing they can do to stop him. This is why I keep asking, and asking and asking: Why do you support? With regard to every issue that matters, your support is all they have.

This is hardly to say that I don't think the U.S. government (and other States as well, no doubt) will try to stop Assange and Wikileaks. They surely will. But the methods by which they will attempt to stop him are only those conceived of by those who seek illusory control. They may try to capture (or "detain") Assange and others, perhaps (almost certainly) they will torture them if they do. Or they may simply kill Assange and other individuals they consider key parts of Wikileaks. Note that for those who seek illusory control, the ultimate form of control is always the same: destruction and death.

Even if they succeed at all that, even if they torture and murder again (and again and again), it won't matter in terms of stopping Wikileaks. It won't matter generally: Wikileaks has established mirror sites, so if one or even several are shut down, there will be others to keep the material available, and to provide still more material in the future. And it won't matter more particularly: with regard to the mysterious encrypted file, for example (which Wikileaks has intriguingly, and maddeningly to those who seek control, labeled "Insurance"), that file has already been downloaded by countless people all around the world. Even if Wikileaks did take it down now, it doesn't matter. Wikileaks has doubtless made provision enabling those who've downloaded the file to decrypt it, regardless of what happens to Wikileaks itself. Those who seek control can't stop any of this, try as they might.

Wikileaks has taken the only weapon it has -- its ability to make information freely available to anyone and everyone -- and aimed it directly at the heart of those who seek control and demand obedience. It has scored an immensely powerful hit. No wonder States and those who advance their policies are so panic-stricken. They're powerless, and they know it.

I'll conclude this installment here. Next time, I'll turn to another aspect of losing control, and how that prospect unnerves writers such as Forte, who see positive aspects of Wikileaks' actions but are also very critical of Wikileaks (or at least of the latest release). As I've already indicated, those criticisms arise from the loss of control, which necessarily means that the criticisms arise from a continuing reliance on authority. There is more to be said on that subject.