In­tox­i­cated by a spirit of an­ar­chy

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Mary Ann Sieghart

If you went tobog­gan­ing at the week­end, you'll know the feel­ing. You're go­ing too fast, you're out of con­trol, bounc­ing about and yet com­pletely ex­hil­a­rated. It's a nat­u­ral high, but you know it's dan­ger­ous. And it's not that dif­fer­ent from the fris­son of ex­cite­ment that a lot of us have been feel­ing about the chal­lenges to author­ity from Wik­iLeaks, the stu­dent protests and the shop sit-ins.

What Ju­lian As­sange and the street ac­tion have done is to bring out our in­ner an­ar­chist. It's a sprite that lurks in many a breast. It doesn't mat­ter how old you are: if your in­ner age is less than 21, which is still true of many a baby boomer, you may have some sym­pa­thy with these ac­tivists. For me, the fris­son is all the more il­licit be­cause I don't re­ally ap­prove of much of what they're do­ing. But like many oth­ers, I sus­pect, my heart has been strug­gling with my head.

For an­ar­chy is fun. It has a touch of the orig­i­nal Satur­na­lian spirit. This very week of the win­ter sol­stice was when the Ro­mans cel­e­brated Satur­na­lia: masters waited on their slaves at ta­ble, and the Satur­nali­cius Prin­ceps, or "lord of mis­rule" was al­lowed to give or­ders, how­ever bizarre. All the con­ven­tions of so­ci­ety were over­turned for one de­li­cious week.

The Ro­mans un­der­stood, though, that while the world could be turned up­side down for one week in 52, it needed sen­si­ble govern­ment for the other 51. It may be bor­ing, un­a­mus­ing and ab­so­lutely no fun, but demo­crat­i­cally elected min­is­ters, with their civil ser­vants and red boxes, do ac­tu­ally end up run­ning the coun­try bet­ter than a bunch of stu­dents in bal­a­clavas.

I ap­pre­ci­ate how se­duc­tive the al­ter­na­tive can be. As a stu­dent my­self, I used to get fired up by The Clash's "White Riot" - "White riot, I wanna riot, white riot, a riot of my own." We used to protest ( though not riot) against apartheid in South Africa and go on Rock Against Racism marches. The song goes on, " All the power's in the hands, Of peo­ple rich enough to buy it. While we walk the street, Too chicken to even try it." It could have been writ­ten for to­day's pro­test­ers against bank bonuses and tax avoid­ance.

It's no bad thing that com­pa­nies should pay the price for so­cially ir­re­spon­si­ble be­hav­iour, even if it's legally within the tax code. Much bet­ter, though, sim­ply to boy­cott Top­shop or Voda­fone if you feel strongly about it than to take di­rect phys­i­cal ac­tion. As stu­dents, we re­fused to open ac­counts with Bar­clays be­cause of its links with the apartheid regime in South Africa and the bank lost a lot of valu­able busi­ness as a re­sult. We didn't go round smash­ing win­dows.

Nor did we shut down branches, as UK Un­cut pro­test­ers did on Satur­day. Who does that pe­nalise? In­no­cent cit­i­zens fight­ing their way through the snow and ice to buy presents for their fam­ily and friends. Shop­ping is in­tol­er­a­ble enough on the last Satur­day be­fore Christ­mas with­out your favourite depart­ment store be­ing bar­ri­caded against you.

But there's also some­thing about the lev­el­ling na­ture of the in­ter­net that makes its users be­lieve that all views are equal, all voices equally pow­er­ful. Any­one can start up a blog, all Twit­ter users can talk to each other. Some may have more fol­low­ers than oth­ers, but none is in charge, there's no chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer or ex­ec­u­tive vicepres­i­dent. So when a govern­ment en­acts poli­cies that some of these peo­ple dis­agree with, they feel this is some­how grossly un­fair. They don't see why the Govern­ment's views should have pri­or­ity over theirs, even if it won a demo­cratic elec­tion.

The in­ter­net also en­cour­ages users to be­lieve in an amor­phous ideal of free­dom of in­for­ma­tion. As a gen­eral rule, that's good. We want the Chi­nese or the Ira­nian democ­racy sup­port­ers to be able to find out on­line what's re­ally go­ing on in their coun­tries and the world. But do we want pae­dophiles to be able freely to post pho­tos of abused chil­dren? Thought not.

There have to be ex­cep­tions to free­dom of in­for­ma­tion. Post­ing a list of sen­si­tive sites which could be tar­geted by ter­ror­ists, as Wik­iLeaks did, should clearly be one of them. Yet such is As­sange's Robin Hood sta­tus (en­hanced, help­fully for him, by chis­elled cheek­bones and cool hair) that his fans don't dis­crim­i­nate be­tween leaks that merely em­bar­rass gov­ern­ments and leaks that put peo­ple's lives in dan­ger.

These are the sort of dis­cern­ing de­ci­sions that politi­cians have to take ev­ery day. Stu­dents may protest in black and white, but min­is­ters have to gov­ern in grey. Yes, grey is bor­ing and black and white are ex­cit­ing, but if you trans­late black and white into pol­i­tics, you tend to end up with move­ments like com­mu­nism and fas­cism.

The so-called democ­racy of the in­ter­net is a bit of a mis­nomer. It has lit­tle in com­mon with real democ­racy. In­ter­net democ­racy al­lows peo­ple to an­swer back, with­out hav­ing to hope that a letters edi­tor will pub­lish their mis­sive.

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