In a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, British historian and moralist Lord Acton said these famous words: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This utterance of human nature can be found throughout history, regardless of the politics or culture involved. There’s something about being in charge that causes those in charge to need more.
I like to write about human nature, because it’s one thing that never changes. Whether you believe in God or not, the evidence is pretty clear that man wants to be his own god. That’s why we need an internal governor to live with each other and get along. Either that, or an external governor will rule us, although another group feels we can educate ourselves to a better place. I’m unconvinced but willing to give it a shot.
Wikileaks is arguably the biggest cultural event so far of the 21st Century, and while others are debating the many issues associated with it, I want to talk about culture and human nature. Wikileaks makes everybody uncomfortable, but why? I can think of at least ten reasons.
Before I go there, however, a little review is in order for those unfamiliar with my work and philosophy. The hyperconnected Web is pulling us into an eonic cultural shift, from modernism, with its hierarchies, to postmodernism, with its participatory nature. What exactly we’ll end up with is unknown, but it won’t be what we’ve had. If you don’t like “postmodernism,” try post-colonialism, for the world of hierachies fits very well into the colonialist mindset of “the masses NEED the elite.” In a hyperconnected universe, this isn’t necessarily true, and so we have a cultural conflict that some have described as a “war.” I don’t think it’s a war; it’s just the passing of the times. And just as modernism didn’t “replace” the faith of its predecessor, postmodernism won’t entirely replace modernism either. Change, however, brings discomfort, and that’s the biggest problem with Wikileaks.
So here are ten things that make us uncomfortable about Wikileaks:
- We can’t trust authority. Modernism needs that trust in order to function. It’s a world of oaths and promises, which are problematic in a trust-less culture. Wikileaks clearly shows that the secret world of diplomacy is very different than the one that we’ve been led to believe exists. This lack of trust is pandemic in our culture today, which is one of the reasons we’re looking to each other instead of “up” to culture’s leadership.
- Leadership lies to us. This directly impacts trust, but there’s an even bigger issue. If we can’t trust our leadership to tell us the truth in the bigger matters of life, how can we believe they’ll tell us the truth in the mundane? “He who is faithul in little will be faithful in much,” but the opposite is also true. Nobody likes to be lied to.
- We’re just pawns. We go through our lives knowing but not admitting that we’re really powerless, and we search for power everywhere. The demonstration of how our government routinely pulls the wool over our eyes or hides things from us screams of our powerlessness, and we feel used. That makes us uncomfortable.
- Powerlessness leads to fear, and that threatens the basic concept that we’re safe. Wikileaks makes us feel we’re unsafe, because the facade of control presented by our government is really a house of cards, according to what we’re learning. We don’t like how that feels.
- That leads to the next thing that makes us feel uncomfortable about Wikileaks: we wonder what’s going to happen to us? Fear seeps into our lives in ways we’re unprepared for, and this is complicated by what appears to be the collusion of the press in keeping us “down here.” The sources that the press quotes, after all, are the government. They lie, and the press passes it along. Nobody has prepared us for this, and we’re frightened.
- We’re disillusioned, because we thought that our interests were “the country’s” interests. Clearly they are not. To the extent that big business and the banks represent “our country,” you could say that foreign affairs are about us, but Wikileaks is showing us that in all the ways that matter, our government is interested in what happens to the haves, not us.
- We are not the “government of the people” that we were taught in elementary school. We are, instead, a government of the elite, who play us and other citizens of the world through secret dealings with other elites, regardless of their affiliation, but always to the end that the rich get richer.
- Our institutions are not infallible. We go through our lives in the hope and belief that those in charge work on our behalf, but Wikileaks shows us that they work on behalf of themselves. This, we discover, includes every institution, and this disillusionment makes us feel uncomfortable. All are run by humans, and humans with power…”
- The real government isn’t the one we see. The shadow government revealed by Wikileaks is really in charge, and they answer to no one but themselves. Its power is derived by keeping the truth to themselves, so what appears to us to be black can, in reality, be white. We can handle the truth, but it’s kept from us in the name of “need to know.” This is what hyperconnectivity disrupts so very well.
- Finally, we’re learning that our global reputation is earned. All along, we’ve thought that “they” were nuts, and we’ve never quite been able to understand why “they” don’t like us. Well, hello! Those in charge here lie to “them,” and at least some of “them” know it. This makes us super uncomfortable, because we suddenly realize that anger over such can cost us lives in the name of war.
Looking ahead, Wikileaks could very well be the major catalyst in the cultural transformation that’s been brewing since the 60s. Those in charge don’t like it, because the fatted calf being whacked here belongs to them. I genuinely like the forced transparency that this has caused, because, like many of my contemporaries, I’m just sick of all the bullshit. Yes, we have it good in this country, but that’s because we have a Constitution written by some terribly wise people with funny wigs, and the extent of our discontent lies with how far we’ve drifted from that document. If this helps us get back to that, then I say that’s a good thing.
I also think this leads to an opportunity to shine for those intellectuals who believe so much in education. If we truly want to govern ourselves, we’re going to need a boatload of information upon which to base our decisions. That, too, seems like a good thing to me.
The prophets of the 60s spoke of all of this, and perhaps that’s what makes some of us most uncomfortable.
Buffalo Springfield: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
And, of course, Dylan:
“Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s naming.’
For the loser now will be later to win
And the times they are a-changin’.”