Rethinking Electronic Civil Disobedience

In a book published some 30 odd years ago titled ‘How Democracies Perish’ the French political philosopher Jean-François Revel wrote:

Democracy tends to ignore, even deny, threats to its existence because it loathes doing what is necessary to counter them… What we end up with in what is conventionally called Western society is a topsy-turvy situation in which those seeking to destroy democracy appear to be fighting for legitimate aims, while its defenders are pictured as repressive reactionaries.

It is this author’s contention that the recent attempts at hactivism by the now famous WikiLeaks website and the controversy surrounding its owner Julian Assange is precisely such an attack on democracy as Revel predicted. What is even more surprising is the painful accuracy with which these attacks have been misunderstood to be acts of revolution against oppressive regimes.

This is especially true in relatively young and artificially-liberalized democracies such as India where Journalism - partly in order to save its face from the recent embarrassments and partly to divert the common man’s attention from its inherent moral corruption - has canonized Assange and his establishment and portrayed him to be the champion of a new technological media renaissance. But even in older democracies such as Britain, too much has been published in support of the WikiLeaks adventure while its criticism has been relegated to the back seat.

The irrationality and immaturity of the bias in favor of this newfangled mode of activism is revealed when one considers the message being sent by the whole WikiLeaks issue (and its media-hyped celebration) to, for example, organizations with a Jihadi persuasion. It is funny to see, that the liberal tradition in countries which are paranoid about their safety to the extent that they manually frisk high ranking diplomats of major allies are exalting the reformer-cum-revolutionary status of a person they know next to nothing about.

What is also not discussed enough in the news surrounding the whole affair is what the true import of the leaked cables is. Anyone basically acquainted with the geopolitics of the countries indicted or mentioned in the leaked cables would tell you that what is revealed in those cables is what is being talked about in diplomatic circles much more openly albeit in a more formal tone. It hardly takes a genius to figure out for example, that India is indeed a self-appointed candidate for the UNSC seat (and there is nothing wrong with that either) or that NATO countries are planning to protect Poland (that’s is precisely what NATO was created to do).

If then, the argument WikiLeaks is supporting is that Diplomats should always talk in formal, subjectively-desensitized and politically-correct, official language then it is basically tantamount to taking away the free speech of the diplomatic community - which already suffers from the official impediments of an over-neutralized language.

But most importantly of all, it is the response to the WikiLeaks by governments worldwide that has catapulted what should’ve been an easily overlooked nuisance into the ranks of major historical blunders like the Watergate scandal. Instead of having a calm and reasoned debate with members of the civil society and media, the Governments (especially the American govt.) launched themselves into attack mode against Assange and the entire order of underground Hacktivists. The redundancy of the leaks was, it seems, overshadowed by fears of what they might contain as opposed to what they did contain. It should be noted that there is a lot more messier information lying in the secret records of most major powers today and the inability of the Americans to decipher as to exactly what and how much of what was leaked was truly damaging to their repute led to their taking the overtly defensive stance.

But the American attack on Assange and the sudden rehashing of old court case against him in Sweden is as unjustified as the DDoS attacks on major financial websites by the so called “friends of WikiLeaks”. The term “Cyber-Anarchism” may sound like aural manna to the ears of some yet-to-be-disillusioned seeker of an anarchic utopia but for adults who understand the fragility of the cyber-ecosystem, the threat is more real than ever before. This eye-for-an-eye mentality of both parties involved will simply erode the protective fringes of the online-freedom that netizens around the world have carefully preserved for a decade or so.

By no means is this author denouncing activism (cyber or otherwise), [he is] merely stating that alternative versions of electronic civil disobedience exist which don’t threaten the politico-administrative foundations on which societies are built. Versions which demand accountability without resorting to any kind of anarchism and which actually seek accountability for acts of omission and commission. Turning the internet into a shoe-pelting party for the mildly dissatisfied will simply result in the slow and painful death of free-speech on internet. It is human nature to be fascinated with secrets but just because something is secret doesn’t necessarily mean it is important.

L’affaire Assange frequently reminds me of the day when my 4th standard classmate who had just discovered how babies came into this world used his mediocre language skills to spread this newfound and forbidden piece of information. Expectedly, the news started a mutiny of students against their parents. “How could they do something this dirty?” was one question that seemed to sum up the sentiment in the air that day. This analogy tells us, in a predictable way that the internet has reached an adolescent stage where it is particularly prone to bad influences. Any reasonable individual knows that geopolitics, international-strategy and foreign policy isn’t all unicorns and magic storks and any insistence on washing dirty laundry in open would ultimately stink up the institution of democracy.

This is not to say, however that any pragmatic notion of liberalism must come with an in-built system for repressing bad politico-strategic memories nor does it imply that the necessary evils of governing nation-states in a predominantly capitalist world should be ignored. All that is required at this stage is firstly, to infuse the idea of relevance and values within the networked ratio of consciousness of online populations of the world to the consciousness of bureaucracies which sustain them. Secondly, we need to educate people to use the powers of the internet wisely and instead of using it for nitpicking and hair-splitting critiques of governments for the sake of revolution “here and now” they must be taught to use the internet as a moderator of any relevance-to-values imbalance which might creep on our way to truly emancipatory technological solutions.

Lastly, In a world clearly divided between those who think Julian Assange is a villain from a bond movie and those who like to think of him as the “digital Gandhi” it is wise to point out that he is neither. He is perhaps little more than a younger version of himself hacking his way into the pages of human history. Governments around the world must wisen up to his accidental but insightful revelations into society, culture and the evolutionary stage of the internet, he should also be put on an international governmental payroll for investigating further into the nature and modes of cyber-activism and should be a member of every committee investigating ways to prevent and defend societies against cyber-terrorism. Needless to say he should neither be turned into a hero nor a villain and the ridiculous charges against him must be dropped.

The ‘Leak’ in Public Consciousness

The basic criticism of the latest WikiLeaks episode revolves around the notion that making sensitive information a part of public domain knowledge jeopardizes public safety as it can easily be used by non-state players to cause harm to the masses. This criticism, is however incomplete as it fails to address and check the philosophical and psychological grounding over which such immature attempts to democratize information thrive.

To understand the true import of WikiLeaks we must leave aside the fact that apart from the potentially dangerous revelations of WikiLeaks such as a list of “critical infrastructure“ sites around the world, much of the information under the CableGate scanner is unremarkable and deals with basic truisms (e.g. NATO countries plan to protect Poland); forget for a minute also, that most of this information is deliberative in nature - these are not acts of omission or commission that governments are generally expected to be accountable for; forget also the not-so-moot-point that Diplomats too have the freedom of expression and need a measure of informality as a tool to allay the over-neutralization of their language due to occupational hazards.

Now, even from this dumbed-down mode of reasoning, there scarcely is any revelation in the “leaks” that warrants attention of anyone serious about the real issues concerning the world today. The media attention given to WikiLeaks seems to stem from the mere fact that these cables were supposed to be official secrets. Its evident now that the internet has truly come to the rescue of everyone looking for instant gratification of their highly romanticized fantasies of a revolution.

In India, a comparison of “CableGate” with “RadiaGate” also gives us a clearer understanding of the main issue at hand. While RadiaGate exposed the modus-operandi of a morally corrupt media working from the insides of an institutionalized darkness of a gangrenous journalism, WikiLeaks radicalizes the notion of secrecy-in-accountability by undermining the importance of guarding relatively sensitive information from the eyes of a vigilant civil society. The result is that the masses get ever more paranoid in a world where the media cannot be trusted and those independent-whistleblowers and cyber-activists who claim to be the more responsible replacements for traditional media start broadcasting information which can potentially be used against the people themselves, thereby rendering powerless the very masses they proclaim to empower.

The roots of the CableGate spectacle seem to lie in a misunderstanding of the role and significance of the government in keeping secrets from the general public. Accountability in foreign policy of any country should hardly be a matter of concern to anyone without the means for understanding or processing the vast amount of information involved in the making of said policy. Needles to say, there are aspects of this information which, in the wrong hands can cause much damage not only to the country in question but to global order in general.

The advent of the internet and opening up of information, the general trend towards liberalization and the progressive nature of democratic reforms around the world seem to give some people the wrong idea that anyone with enough information can challenge the status-quo. What this heady concoction of information and liberalism seems to withhold from the thusly enlightened fellow is that there are facets of status-quo which must not be challenged for the sake of basic rights of mankind. Also, this has once again pointed towards the need for the internet population of the world to evolve models of self-censorship for the internet so that any “leaked” data may be protected before it reaches the wrong audience.

A clear, dispassionate analysis of the whole WikiLeaks affair shows the dangers of stretching the limits of accountability and transparency to the point of reducing them to the idealized rhetoric of conspiracy theorists. It also shows that secrecy (both at an individual as well as political level) is indispensable. Therefore, all that Julian Assange and his partners must be lauded for is showing us the limits of political activism. Having means to do away with secrecy does not necessarily mean we have to do away with it. Mr. Assange may disagree with me but I do not see his credit-card numbers “leaking” anytime soon.

it only shimmers

This curtain now before my eyes
renders no service and does not exercise
any rights
Or left-of-centers

it only shimmers
with a pristinely dark purple hue
under the melancholy winds from the
Oriental wall-fans

with the hands of two shadows
sprawling above it like a giant bird
as if migrating
to distant shores
beneath the clouds from a fog-machine

elevator music above the velvet clefts travels
across the starry dust particles
dotting the vastness of the projector beam

as they dance to a voice from the darkness
of the wafting cascade
of the drape i gape into
that now is the dark blue ocean parting to reveal a countdown
once was the curtain before my eyes.


Another letter to the Hindu:

The WikiLeaks scandal shows how the cultural logic of late capitalism epitomizes banality and glorifies the redundant in its effort to allay the everyday ennui of modern life and redeem every last drop of sensation even from a scandal of marginal magnitude.

The latest case of leaking of diplomatic cables especially highlights how even the superfluous can be deemed revolutionary given the right packaging. That diplomats are also entitled to their own opinions is a fact as much in support of free-speech as the case made out to be in Julian Assange's latest tweets against amazon.

For most of us, therefore, Assange's megalomania and attempts at social engineering seem to be revealing little in terms of novelty and hold nothing in terms of innovation. All he seems to be telling us is that there are pipes within the concrete walls of our homes through which our feces occasionally flow. Well, we already know that.

(An edited version of this letter was published in The Hindu on Dec. 07, 2010)

Relative Impeccability

The Following is a reply sent to in response to this article.

Ex. Supreme Court Judge V.R. Krishna Iyer expresses great pain ("Submission of Suspicion", Dec. 1) at being "morally molested" by Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati's statement to a bench of supreme court that: "If the criterion [of impeccable integrity] has to be included, then every judicial appointment can be subject to scrutiny. Every judicial appointment will be challenged." But his reaction smacks of that typical preemptive defense that is usually found to have its roots in deep and vulnerable insecurities.

In-fact our entire Judiciary suffers from this "holier-than-thou" attitude that is derisive of the very institutions of equality it proclaims to promote and protect. For the astute reader there is nothing in Vahanvati's statement that warrants such revulsion and scorn as V.R. Krishna Iyer seems to direct at it. All Mr. Vahanvati seems to be saying is that the standards of integrity are relative and that no Judicial appointment is above a morally absolute and Ideal notion of integrity. Jesus Christ said something similar when he proclaimed "let he who is without sin, cast the first stone". The Attorney General is not in his naiveté proclaiming that the integrity of every judicial appointment is already compromised, but he is merely stating that should the standards of integrity be made ideal (as opposed to pragmatic) enough, then even Judiciary can come under suspicion.

It is high time that the Judiciary realizes that in today's world where nothing is absolute, and knowledge abounds and people ask more and more difficult and fundamental questions, its (Judiciary's) supremacy is not be something that will be taken for granted. Judiciary should no longer compare itself to Caeser's wife who was above and beyond suspicion ex-officio, instead judiciary today is much like Lord Rama's wife (Sita) who was not only suspected but also had to prove herself and her purity through a trial-by-fire.


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