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A Comment on: Good Manners in the Age of WikiLeaks

In an essay on Wikileaks the Slovenian philosopher and critical theorist Slavoj Žižek discusses Wikileaks and different aspects on how it can be understood. In this short paper I have tried to use some of the elements mentioned in his text.

Wikileaks has been subject to great public attention after they in 2010 published diplomatic cables reveling confidential and secret information from internal US diplomatic network. The cables contained intimidating details on foreign heads of states, analyses and views on political topics and situations in various lands as an extension of conversations, written between colleagues in one of the biggest diplomatic institutions in the world. None of the cables were meant for being read by news desks, or by the public, and as this is happening the correlation between the public utterances and view of the organisation, and its internal understanding and comments is in decay. As the opinions without the diplomatic tact and courtesy are published both the state organisation, and its officials are loosing, in the understanding of Goffman, their face. Žižek points out that the real disturbance in the cables were not the specific opinions uttered in the cables,  but that we can no longer pretend not to know what everyone know we know. The embarrassment is a fact when the secretive private opinion is brought out in public. The content of the cables could have been expressed from small civil right groups, or private persons without reaching the capital letters of the newspapers, but in this case the involuntary release is signed yours truly the United States of America; a major player on the global arena.

The cables, are allegedly acquired by former US soldier Bradley Manning who was in July 2010 charged accused for forwarding classified information from SIPRNet to Wikileaks (the cables). Since the latter is operating as a whistleblower network its objective is to be an interface where people who have sensible information of public interest can upload  data,  to be distributed, or leaked to news media. This is adding another layer of anonymity to the contributer, and enabling a channel where information can be delivered, none or few questions asked. The name, wikileaks, is made up of two words: wiki and leaks, the first is Hawaiian for quick, and may function as an adjective describing the speed of which the leaks are spread. If this is the case Wikileaks is an organisation living up to its name.

29th of November 2010 both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented the alleged cables in a press conference. One of their main concerns was to ensure other countries that something like this would never happen to the US again. The super power had lost it face to its friends and foe, as its dirty laundry was written in capital letters on the front pages all over the world. The trust was also weakened, and personnel from the embassies throughout the world must have felt embarrassed meeting the people they vividly had classified as cartoon heroes, despots and party princes to their employer in Washington DC.  The president as his minister also defined this publication as a morally bad thing by explicitly denying  that any such publications are a contribution to free information, a proposition taken by the defenders of Wikileaks. They also tried to define this act as an act which is not beneficial to democracy, but dangerous as it is undermining the diplomatic institute. There would be a zero tolerance policy towards leaks from the government.

One aspect Žižek mentions is the way  in which the state can be addressed. Žižek mentions that power comprises not just the institutions of the state and their rules, but also the legitimate ways to challenge it. To influence the power  made by the political institutions the liberal state has its conventional methods established through the press, non-governmental organisation and lobbyist arenas. Wikileaks is using agreements with the press for the release of the leaks, but its method of acquiring information is unorthodox, and voices has been raised that the insensitivity in the editorial processes has made it possible to expose individuals who should not be exposed, for example private persons not wanting to be made public figures as well as soldiers and intelligence personnel in operating positions.

The argumentation in favour of the release has been based upon principles of freedom of information. In a society where rational decisions are being made, information plays a key role for enlighten citizens to make good informed decisions in everything from buying a light bulb to choosing a government. Free information is also an important aspect of the computer science segment of society, to quote the famous MIT researcher who worked on opening code Richard Stallman not free as in sense of free beer, but free as in the sense of free speech (Lessig, 12). A distinction between the fri and gratis in Norwegian. In a time where more information is shared openly, and thus easier to access, the closed structure of the state could be seen as a contradiction  to this view. The state is, in a normative democratic view, made up of its citizens. No taxation without presentation could be a slogan used by the new moment, referring back to the inception of the government now being involuntarily opened.

The aftermath of the publication of the cables has been peculiar. The front spokesman of Wikileaks is retained in the UK accused of involuntarily intercourse with two Swedish women, he has been threatened by American politicians, honored by Russian politicians (would we have seen the opposite reaction if the Russian diplomatic cables and not the American were released?) and he has also been suggested as a recipient of the Nobel Peace price by Norwegian MP Snorre Valen. Could it be that Wikileaks has become a symbol for something bigger?

Sources:
Clinton, Hillary.(19.11.10) Remarks to the Press on the Release of Confidental Documents <http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/11/152078.htm>

Lessig, Lawrence.(2001) The future of Ideas. New York: Vintage Books

Žižek, Slavoj. (20.01.11) Good Manners in the Age of WikiLeaks.  London Review of Books, Vol. 33 <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n02/slavoj-zizek/good-manners-in-the-age-of-wikileaks>

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