Julian Assange's decision to publish more than 90,000 classified documents on WikiLeaks last weekend proved to be the most reported news story, worldwide, for three days in a row. Like many of the other shifts in the tectonic plates of collective consciousness these days, it has many layers and dimensions to it.
In terms of the actual content of the leaked documents, it's a story about war. The dialog here becomes about the cost of war, the benefits of war, the price we pay for war. Right after the events of 9-11 America rode on a tidal wave of well-wishing and sympathy. Suddenly, everybody wanted to be our friend. George Bush's popularity rated peaked at over 90 percent, a statistic that sounds highly improbable in retrospect. Now what would have happened, you might like to ask yourself for a brief moment, if we had not invaded Afghanistan? Or, to wind the clock back a little further, if Al Gore had emerged victorious from that infamous election (he did, after all, win the popular vote), would 9-11 still have happened? And if so, what would Gore have done?
This is the political conversation generated out of the WikiLeaks news. Did the invasion of Afghanistan do more harm or good? Did it solve problems posed by the threats of terrorism, or did it actual exacerbate them? What has the invasion of two countries done to the America's foreign relations in the last nine years?
The Pentagon, however, took the story in a very different way. Their concern was not the cost of war, either financial or in human lives. Their concern focused on one urgent question, "Who the hell leaked?" Those 90,000 documents do not represent, to the U.S. military, an invitation to question the ethics of killing innocent people. They point to an embarrassing security breach, and how to patch the hole in the bucket.
Same news story: different conversation. And there's another dimension to the WikiLeaks story as well, which, in my opinion, is like a 9.0 on the Richter scale in its implications. Because it's a tremor indicative of a deep, deep fault line in the American collective psyche, which has to do with the cultural subjugation of authenticity and telling the truth. Once we recognize this imbalance in the collective psyche, you can recognize one shock wave after another that has been rattling our teacups already for more than 10 years.
What would you say are the most significant differences between America and other developed countries in the world today? Cuisine? Hawaiian shirts? Coca Cola? The Hummer? Mickey Mouse? Yes, okay, those may be cultural icons, but let me point out a few more. Relative to every other "developed" country in the world, American offers minimal protective social programs to its citizens. Unlike Sweden, Norway, Germany and Britain, health care is not a right similar to clean water, police and fire service. It's something you have to pay for. Give birth to a baby in Norway and the mother gets a year off on full salary, paid by the government, to nurture a brand spanking new little Norwegian. You know what happens here.
State sponsored education ends in the U.S. at twelfth grade. In most European countries, it continues all the way through to a post-graduate degrees. Out of work in America? You'd better have parents with a spare bedroom. In Canada and most of Northern Europe, you would not be feeling so anxious.
In the developing world, on the other hand, the cost of health care, education, and basic survival is so minimal that people may be poor, but for the most part they're not living in anxiety.
The net result of this kind of imbalance is that we've had to learn, as a population, to become masters of the art of the hustle. Every aspect of life has become a business in America, and every business owner has discovered that it will either thrive or flounder according to its ability to market, to advertise. Health care, as we've already discussed, is a business in this country. Doctors and dentists, dermatologists and midwifes, have to learn to hustle. In England, they are state employees on a salary. Religious and spiritual leaders, who also need to pay their bills, also pass through the agonizing decision of whether or not to market themselves. TV evangelism, the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson, is a singularly American phenomenon. It's a product of the hustle mentality.
Perhaps more significant than anything else, politics in this country is a business. The cost of marketing for the 2008 election was over $5.3 billion, a mind-boggling sum relative to the rest of the world. In England, Germany, Sweden and Canada, it's actually illegal to pay for television advertising for a political campaign. All TV channels are obliged by law to provide equal time to all parties for a "party political broadcast."
And so the list goes on. Schools learn to hustle, to compensate for budget cuts. Firemen even learn to hustle, for the same reason. Hairdressers hustle, writers hustle, and then professional hustlers hustle in their competition to be your hustle coach.
As you well know, one of the first things to go out the window when you're desperately trying to sell something to make ends meet, is the factual truth. Did you see that movie with Ricky Gervais, "The Invention of Lying?" Great film about how life would be without hustling. There's a moment in the film where Ricky Gervais' character switches on the TV to be greeted by an ad for Coca Cola. A nervous and uncomfortable man in a suit stands against a white wall with a glass of Coca Cola in front of him. "Hi, my name is Bob," he says, "and I'm the spokesperson for Coca Cola. I'm here today to ask you to continue buying Coke. You've been drinking it for years, and if you still enjoy it, well I'd like to remind you to buy it again sometime soon. It's basically just brown sugar water. We haven't changed the ingredients much lately, so there's nothing new I can tell you about that. Uh, we changed the can around a little bit though. See, the colors are different there and we added a polar bear so the kids like us. Coke's very high in sugar, and like any high calorie soda, it can lead to obesity in children and adults who don't sustain a very healthy diet. And that's it, it's Coke. It's very famous, everyone knows it. I'm Bob, I work for Coke, and I'm asking you to not stop buying Coke. That's all." He takes a drink, and grimaces. "Its a bit sweet. Thank you." And then comes the tagline: "Coke. It's very famous."
Distorting and exaggerating the truth, or withholding significant information, has drilled so deep into the collective psyche of this country that the possibility of stopping doing it seems ridiculous. Can you imagine Pat Robinson getting real about his religious doubts? Can you imagine BP being honest about the fact that they didn't give a flying f**k about the dangers of deep sea drilling? They were just obsessed with making money. Can you image some of our great orators and politicians getting down and real on the TV and confessing that they feel completely lost, hopeless and confused about what to do with the world's messes? And can you imagine the leaders of the pentagon sharing with us that they have very little interest in the value of a human life, particularly if it's foreign. What they're really committed to is protecting our access to cheap oil.
So the third conversation that opens up from the WikiLeaks publication of war documents is that it's yet another seismic shock in the revealing and cleansing of America's collective shadow. We have a love/ hate relationship, you see, with the hustle. We're addicted to hustling, but we hate doing it. Lying and exaggerating, withholding all the time, gives us stomach ulcers, dampens our spirit, and cuts us off from ourselves. The WikiLeak story is another example of the American eagle once again shaking its wings and shedding the poison of collective dishonesty.
Remember back to the attempt to impeach Clinton? No-one cared that much about the cigar. There was a passing interest in the stain on the dress. What really got everyone's goat was the fact that "He lied." It was the evasiveness of his answers, the attempt to paint a false picture, which woke up the hounds of war trapped in the basement of our collective deceit.
Remember Enron? It was the whistle blowers who became our national heroes and heroines. And again, we were not shocked by financial mismanagement (we all know what that's like) or even financial greed (ditto). We were standing on our desks, jumping up and down, waving our fingers in the air, about lying. The list goes on and on. AIG, Bernie Maddoff, and now the BP oil spill. Pay close attention and you'll see that while some of the outrage is about their actions, it's the cover-up that really drives people crazy.
Glory be to God, Goddess, and WikiLeaks. We are now in a process of rapid recovery from our disease of bearing false witness. This is what makes WikiLeaks, and, for that matter, YouTube and Facebook, and text messaging, and whistle-blowers everywhere so glorious. They are all antidotes to our addiction to hustling.
And so it's official. The American hustler: RIP. He blazed the trails (and mark my words, he IS a man), he created chain stores, and discounts, and celebrity endorsements, and now internet marketing. He flexed his muscles and demonstrated that we can do whatever we damn well please, thank you very much. And now he gasps his last breath and collapses in humiliated exhaustion.
Please welcome the coming age of American Honesty. In our hour of need, she brings us fresh and nourishing sustenance. She understands forgiveness and redemption, and the restoration of dignity. She knows the immense power in the words "I'm sorry." She understands that what you do and who you are are not the same: She forgives the former and loves the latter.
The WikiLeaks saga is not just about war, and it is not just about an embarrassing leak. It was yet another symptom of the death of what we can no longer tolerate, making way for what we can celebrate.