Good manners and Wikileaks

Slavoj Žižek, London Review of Books

Is the publishing of confidential US state documents an act in support of the freedom of information, of the people’s right to know, or is it a terrorist act that poses a threat to stable international relations? So far, the WikiLeaks story has been represented as a struggle between WikiLeaks and the US empire.

But what if this isn’t the real issue? What if the crucial ideological and political battle is going on within WikiLeaks itself: between the radical act of publishing secret state documents and the way this act has been reinscribed into the hegemonic ideologico-political field by, among others, WikiLeaks itself?

In one of the diplomatic cables now in the public domain, Russia’s leadership duo of Putin and Medvedev are compared to Batman and Robin. It’s a useful analogy: isn’t Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s organiser, a real-life counterpart to the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight? In the film, the district attorney, Harvey Dent, an obsessive vigilante who is corrupted and himself commits murders, is killed by Batman. Batman and his friend police commissioner Gordon realise that the city’s morale would suffer if Dent’s murders were made public, so plot to preserve his image by holding Batman responsible for the killings.

The film’s take-home message is that lying is necessary to sustain public morale: only a lie can redeem us. No wonder the only figure of truth in the film is the Joker, its supreme villain. He makes it clear that his attacks on Gotham City will stop when Batman takes off his mask and reveals his true identity; to prevent this disclosure and protect Batman, Dent tells the press that he is Batman – another lie. In order to entrap the Joker, Gordon fakes his own death – yet another lie.

The Joker wants to disclose the truth beneath the mask, convinced that this will destroy the social order. What shall we call him? A terrorist? The Dark Knight is effectively a new version of those classic westerns Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which show that, in order to civilise the Wild West, the lie has to be elevated into truth: civilisation, in other words, must be grounded on a lie. The film has been extraordinarily popular. The question is why, at this precise moment, is there this renewed need for a lie to maintain the social system?

Read the full article by Slavoj Žižek in the London Review of Books …