2010/12/23

Wikileaks and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is considered to be a key element in that country's mostly non-violent change from an apartheid regime to a more just (though still extremely challenged) society. One thing the TRC is credited with is breaking down the denial of white citizens about the realities of apartheid. By keeping the crimes of apartheid in the news day after day for months if not years, whites could not simply ignore inconvenient information but had to confront the ugly truths about apartheid. That helped solidify the new system and disarm reactionary opponents.

In a similar way, this slow leaking of documents by the Guardian and other news organizations is having a great effect on the legitimacy of the present political order. The first rule of PR is to get out in front of the scandal, accept blame, and end the story. Preferably on a busy news day or just before a weekend or other "dead" time. Surprisingly, this works. (For example, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom had an affair with the alcoholic wife of his best friend (both were employees of his). He admitted it, the story died, and he was re-elected as mayor and then later elected to lieutenant governor of California. WTF?)

Cablegate is not ending. It's barely even started. Even if they started with the juicy stuff, there's much to come. Only about 0.5% of the cables have been released to the general public. Each new story reinforces the narrative of US arrogance, hypocrisy, and unaccountable power. Each new twist pisses off some new sector of society - whether it's environmentalists learning that the US wanted to retaliate against GMO-opposing European nations, geeks finding out about secret negotiations around intellectual property law, or nationalists having their fears confirmed of US interference into the internal affairs of India, Yemen, Italy, and Germany, among others.

Opponents have tried for years to peacefully change US foreign policy, but it's extremely hard to get the domestic (or even foreign) press to do the subject justice. These cables gave us all an initial shock, but it's the long, slow corrosion of the US's unearned image of legitimacy in the eyes of people both inside and outside its borders that will have the largest effect.

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