Sunday, May 29, 2011

Which Bastards Do We Choose?

In an article in the March 2011 edition of Wired magazine, there is an article by Matt Schwartz entitled “The Overlords of Open Source: Why are people-powered projects ruled by tyrants?” The article begins with a quotation from Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame who, in answer to Der Spiegel’s question as to why he didn’t use his talents to build a fortune and a Palo Alto home with a swimming pool to go with it, said “I enjoy creating systems on a grand scale and I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable.”

To this he adds, “And I enjoy crushing bastards.”

Schwartz asserts that “[a] certain amount of megalomania is perquisite for any entrepreneur” adding quickly, “You can’t believe you’re the world’s best answer to an important problem without at times coming off like an arrogant prick.”

But Schwartz’s concerns are not so much with arrogance or even megalomania. His concern is that “when you create a dominant website but eschew the vast wealth that could come with it, conventional checks on your power no longer apply.” In other words, “people-powered projects” don’t play by the same rules as the big dogs in the free market fundamentalist capitalist world. And that’s pretty scary to folks like Schwartz.

His answer? “[O]ver the long haul, capitalism tends to act as a moderating force on the bastard-crushing fantasies of the web pioneers.”

Of course, the reality is that capitalism has rarely been a moderating force of any kind. Having just watched Too Big To Fail last night on HBO, the megalomania and arrogant pricks are clearly in no short supply among the free market true believers. These are the folks who came very close to driving the entire world into a depression three years ago, a looming disaster whose shadow still towers over the world despite massive governmental injections of tax moneys to stabilize the chaos resulting from what greedy bastards squandered away during the Bush years. There are a lot of things you could say about that market but from the standpoint of taxpayers, it was hardly free.

The notion that a capitalist would call his ideology and the greed-driven practices that flow from it a “moderating force” is beyond absurd. Indeed, the moderating force that failed was a government emasculated by corporate moneys and free market fundamentalist true believers.

That’s one of the reasons that Assange is a hero of sorts to many of us. His WikiLeaks brought to the surface the many behind the scenes dealings of government and business allowing the taxpayers to see what our money is actually buying. No doubt there are many who see Assange as a bastard for doing so. I simply find it sad that it requires this kind of semi-illegal conduct to create any degree of transparency in government and business, the two forces which most directly impact the lives of people in the 21st CE.

Mr. Schwartz should not delude himself. Capitalism is hardly a moderating force. Indeed, in its worst, most unregulated moments, its greed is the fuel for instability and chaos. Its captains can be bastards of the first order, making loans they knew were not repayable to people who stood to lose everything and then covering their tracks with creative accounting which told us the lies we wanted to hear about the financial abyss their greed had dug.

I cannot say that I am totally comfortable with folks like Julian Assange deciding unilaterally what aspects of government and business need to be exposed to the public scrutiny. That does present the megalomaniac potential that Schwartz fears. But the idea that we will be protected from such dangers by the moderating impact of the business world is the stuff of fairy tales. And so long as we have the best government corporate money can buy, we will sadly need the bastards like Assange to represent our interests.

The question is not whether we trust a bastard. It’s simply which one.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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