Are Wikileaks and Anonymous Hackers All There Is Left We Can Rely on, with Trust in Business and Government at Rock Bottom?
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It may not be appropriate to say in polite company, but there's no doubt that some Americans who hold a deep respect for the rule of law also find themselves cheering the information-age ronin who appear capable of waging war against the mightiest states and the most powerful corporations with impunity – the WikiLeakers and shadowy hackers that make up groups like Anonymous.
They may not approve of all of their actions – indeed, they may find some to be deeply misguided – but for those who aren't instinctively deferential to authority, their ability to bring powerful giants to heel is as compelling as the mythical Robin Hood's battle with a haughty medieval aristocracy.
Consider the environment in which these anti-heroic nerds operate. The United States jails more of its citizens than any other country on the planet, often for offenses as minor as possessing some marijuana. In six states, courts are now throwing people in jail for failing to make scheduled debt payments. An Illinois man was recently sentenced to 75 years for recording cops he alleged were harrassing him. Just last week, a Tennessee woman was threatened with arrest for the “crime” of allowing her 10-year-old child to bike a mile to school; police said she'd be charged with child neglect if she didn't send the kid to school on the bus.
There's very little accountability, however, for the large and increasingly powerful institutions with which we interact every day. It's become extremely hard for individuals to escape from beneath a pile of debt in bankruptcy court, but for corporations moral hazard abounds. Nobody has gone to prison for the widespread fraud Wall Street committed in building a house of cards out of a pile of mortgage-backed securities. In fact, a settlement is being worked out that will let banks off the hook for their scandalous robo-signing fraud with a slap on the wrist, even as they continue to fabricate foreclosure documents. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court made it almost impossible for people ripped off by big corporations to file class-action suits. Nobody at a high level was punished for torturing terror suspects, or for spying on American citizens in apparent violation of the law.
As these increasingly unaccountable institutions – both private and public – have grown larger, we human beings have come to feel ever smaller. We have no means of resisting the myriad small insults that we suffer day in and day out dealing with corporations and negotiating government agencies. We tolerate the rudeness of customer service reps and endless hours navigating phone trees. We try to ignore the rise of the surveillance state even as it has come to surround us. Nobody really knows how to get off the no-fly list once one is suspected by the powers-that-be of being “trouble.”
More and more, our democracy feels like a Potemkin Village in which we make a grand show of participating in billion-dollar, ad-driven elections only to see our government captured by elites working behind the scenes. The corruption – the legal kind – is so pervasive that most of us simply turn a blind eye to it, helpless to push back. Sure, the vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum, including a majority of rank-and-file Republicans, would like to see the deficit tamed by raising taxes on the rich – people who have seen their burdens decline dramatically over the past 30 years. But tough luck – it's the donor class that holds sway over our representatives and fuming about it only earns one charges of “class warfare.”
It should come as little surprise that trust in the institutions that shape our entire society is largely a thing of the past. A poll conducted last September for the Associated Press found that Americans had become cynical about our major institutions. Not one of the 18 institutions pollsters asked about got high marks from a majority of respondents. “Glum and distrusting, a majority of Americans today are very confident in – nobody,” concluded the pollsters. Sixty-two percent of those polled by Gallup said they “want major corporations to have less influence in the United States.” The most recent Household Survey of Adult Civic Participation found that almost four in 10 Americans said politics were "too complicated to understand," and a similar number believed, not incorrectly, that their families "had no say in what federal government does."
Most of us humans are small, but in this interconnected world, these hackers are apparently able to play with large and immovable institutions on a level playing field. WikiLeaks, for better or worse, exposed thousands of state secrets closely guarded by the world's greatest superpower; they've shone a bright light on war crimes and corporate malfeasance. They've made Bank of America tremble in its boots, even as it glides effortlessly above the laws of our justice system.
When the major credit card companies and Paypal decided to intervene and block payments to WikiLeaks, the leaderless hacking group known as Anonymous crashed their servers. LulzSec, another hackers' group, humiliated a number of Arizona law enforcement agencies when they published some internal emails replete with foul, racist garbage. They've breeched the security systems of the CIA and the U.S. Senate.
Last week, I listened online to Bay Area Rapid Transit police responding to demonstrations in response to repeated allegations of police abuse via their own scanners, after a hacker associated with Anonymous posted the feed. As the protesters gathered at one station, Anonymous reported via Twitter on the BART cops' every move. “Do not block exits; police have orders to make mass arrests if egress is blocked,” read a typical tweet.
Like most people, I have no idea how they do what they do, and that lends an air of magic to it that may be reminiscent of the cargo cults that sprang up when tribal, pre-industrial societies first encountered visitors from modern industrial ones.
Of course, hackers, by definition, aren't any more accountable than the institutions they plague. There are many whose intentions are purely malign. Most who hold a grudging admiration for the anarchistic activists of Anonymous, WikiLeaks or LulzSec only do so because they humble the powerful – those accustomed to operating with impunity. Anonymous, branded with its Guy Fawkes mask, says it will “always stand with the people.” It's only the capriciousness of these inscrutable institutions that hold such sway over our lives that makes that message sound less than trite and self-serving.
Of course, not everybody sees it the same way. These shadowy groups are regarded as an almost existential threat by many of those in power. The U.S. government bent over backward to try to prosecute WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange as a spy; some went so far as to call for his assassination. Law enforcement agencies have devoted enormous amounts of time and energy trying to sweep up members of groups like Anonymous.
Ultimately, how one regards these rogue geeks may be a kind of Rorschach test that reveals one's deference to authority. And here, there's an ideological component at play: as a liberal, I respect authority to the extent that it acts responsibly, and no more. The poli-sci definition of conservatism, however, is a “political philosophy based upon the idea that society needs to 'conserve' traditional structures of authority and morality.” Sociologists have long argued that there exists an “authoritarian” personality type, which is far more prevalent on the right side of the political spectrum.
Personally, my first choice would be to live in a society in which a truer form of democracy prevailed and the rule of law applied equally to everyone – to the government and huge corporate persons as well as us little human ones. In an ideal world – one where government remained within its constitutional limits and corporations that murdered people by spewing toxic junk into the environment or operating unsafe mines had the same chance of getting the death penalty as some thug who offs someone with a gun – we wouldn't even feel tempted to cheer on these shadowy tech-heads. But with our regulatory agencies in the pockets of the industries they oversee, a media obsessed with political trivia and a different set of rules for the wealthy and powerful, the fact that some small humans, armed only with their wits and a modem, can strike fear into the hearts of the powerful provides some small amount of comfort.