Many commentators have noted that the confidential U.S. embassy cables published by Wikileaks contain nothing that would surprise an “informed observer.” I agree and have said so as much myself. However, I think this actually is the real scandal exposed by Wikileaks: there is a fairly large circle of “insiders,” which include much of punditry and journalists, who have a fairly accurate picture of most issues, who nonetheless cooperate with, and in fact, make possible, the efforts of modern states to portray themselves as making decisions dictated by pure motives and high-minded principles rather than by power and interests. In my view, the potential impact of Wikileaks and similar efforts is not necessarily about leaking well-guarded secrets, which these were not; rather, it is about changing the audience for a particular discourse from insiders to outsiders. Rather than expose unknowns, I think it is more accurate to say that Wikileaks has collapsed the distinction between the “front” and “back stages” of the modern state, and exposed the gap between the day-to-day reality of modern statecraft and its civic front.
Let’s start with dispelling the notions that these cables were well-guarded secrets. On the contrary, they had already been available to about three million U.S. citizens from all walks of life including relatively low-level members of the military and hundreds of thousands of contractors––indeed, the leaker is believed to be PFC Bradley Manning, who was 19 years old at the time he leaked these materials. It is hard for me to believe that all motivated players in the world scene have not already had access to these cables through cajoling, bribing, seducing, misguiding, blackmailing, threatening, hacking, forcing or otherwise convincing someone to do what Manning did as a teenager––burn a CD with the whole bunch. (The widespread availability of this data was a somewhat deliberate policy after 9/11 to encourage sharing of information.) I also doubt that we will see too many names of, say, dissidents or informants, as I hope that U.S. diplomats had the sense not to put names in cables that were available to millions of people. The diplomats know they are writing for a fairly large audience; this shows in the care in their rhetoric and writing style, as in the already infamous account of the Wedding in Dagestan, which might become the Balinese Cockfight of Diplomacy. Besides, since China and Russia know what deals they have made with U.S. diplomats, this is a bit like the British classifying the reports of the weather in Germany during World War II––as Walter Cronkite famously pointed out, the Germans presumably knew the weather in Germany. Thus, the latest uproar is not about secrets but about intended audiences.
Legal scholars have a term for information that is essentially accessible but not necessarily easily available: “practical obscurity.” For example, court records have long been public in the United States but in the past you had to haul yourself to the courtroom to do a search––something you would likely only do if you were truly motivated. Now, a few clicks will deliver all the information about anyone’s criminal record. That is indeed a game-changer. It is not that the information was secret and now it became public; rather, it was “practically obscure” but now it is easily available. A shift in audiences is always of major consequence—indeed, that is at the heart of the commotion caused by Facebook and Google Buzz in its first inception
The concept of the “front” and “back” stages has been most famously applied to the construction of personhood by sociologist Erving Goffman. Noting, for example, that a waiter presents himself a certain way in the front of a restaurant, when serving customers, and acts a very different way back in the kitchen (and might even spit in your food), he analogized this to a play, where an actor plays a role for the audience in the “front stage” and is “himself” in the “back stage.” As he notes, in a sense, there is no real back stage, only a series of different front stages where we construct ourselves for different audiences. Goffman also points out that a crucial part of your self-presentation in a given “front stage” is the active participation and affirmation of the relevant audience, all of whom are simultaneously presenting themselves and likewise expecting your affirmation. All of you are, in a sense, and at least in part for instrumental reasons, agreeing to treat a certain constructed presentation of self as genuine.
This does not mean that our “performances” of who we are are mere cynical pretense; our different social roles are simply attached to different norms and habits. And who we are, in turn, is not something we can affirm by fiat. It is only through the active participation of relevant audiences who act towards us as if we are who we say and perform we are, do we actually become who we are in the social sense.
A claim for identity is also a moral claim in that our front stages (which vary according to audiences) and back stage (where we have no audiences) can only differ so much before others withdraw their recognition and participation. In other words, we all recognize that people do not behave the same way with their moms as they do with their peers, but, say, the claim to be an honest and upright elected official while embezzling taxpayer funds and breaking major laws will cause one audience to withdraw their affirmation of your identity as a respectable, honest person. The presentation of oneself as a particular person is a moral claim because it demands that one be treated –and honored– in a particular manner; hence there is an inevitable tension between performance and authenticity which can only stretch so far before breaking.
Thus, my public self as a professor in front of a classroom requires that all my students in the classroom not only acquiesce to this but that they participate by performing their own role as students which in turn affirms mine. States (and journalists and pundits) are also making moral claims upon us every time they assert in public what they are about, and, crucially, every time they keep a fact from the public. I don’t disagree that certain types of diplomacy are best done away from the public eye: putting a lid on otherwise inflammatory material that might cause violence or civil strife or hammering out the details of a disarmament deal away from warmongering eyes sound like good ideas to me. I do not think “all transparency all the time” is a good idea. However, in the end, the right to keep secrets is bestowed upon states with the understanding that it will only be done so as necessary and in a justifiable manner. Unlike a person, the state does not have an inherent right to a “back stage” beyond that which is directly justifiable and accountable. Modern practice, however, has been to keep things hidden from the public to protect the state from scrutiny and debate – and this has happened with the participation and acquiescence of much of modern punditry who have become used to the insider/outsider game. The latest batch of releases is a direct challenge to this corrupted separation.
So the multiple pronouncements by many pundits that there is nothing shocking here actually expose the heart of the issue: the jaded insider game of hypocrisy and cynicism involves much of the established media and punditry. Most diplomats and journalists already know, for example, that the U.S. has been spying on United Nations officials––this had actually been exposed but received fairly little media attention, certainly less than Dancing with the Stars. Most “insiders” know how the game is played. That nations go to war for interests and resources. That, around the world, the U.S. is not seen as a pure purveyor of democracy. That lobbyists dominate policy-making. That there is a scientific consensus around global warming and that almost all the dissent is financed through the oil-coal interests. That big nations often try to use multinational institutions to advance their own narrow agendas under the cloak of high ideals. That many politicians are corrupt, ignorant and self-interested. But most of this is rarely discussed in an open and serious manner.
There are many other issues that Wikileaks raises (such as the consequences of the corporatization of our social commons, which I had previously written about) and the relationship between the relatively open and distributed nature of Internet’s infrastructure and its ability to support a dissident public sphere (DDoS attacks cut both ways and I believe that they are counterproductive as they derail the conversation away from the real topic, transparency and accountability of the modern state, into trivial questions). However, I believe that Wikileaks also points to the way forward for civic journalism to survive as a relevant force — by first becoming an outsider to power. Without major newspapers’ role in acting as active intermediaries in focusing public attention to the revelations in these cables, these would likely get lost in a sea of confusion and clutter.
Indeed, given that there are legitimate reasons not to publish certain kinds of information, and given that a lot of information does not make sense without relevant context, and given that it would be impossible for an ordinary person to sift through hundreds of thousands of documents to find or understand the important ones, it is obviously important that the public sphere retain an intermediary between “leaks” and “publication.” If the fourth estate can stop being a semi-voluntary hostage to powerful interests, it may find that that it can not only survive, but thrive, in a world where information may be free but attention and understanding remain scarce.