The Register has an article about the feud between Wikipedia and Overstock.com. The piece is basic stenography for the Overstock.com view of the matter. It laments the horrible elite that have established a form of Web “totalitarianism,” undemocratically rejecting other points of view.
The plight of the undemocratic ruling elite of Wikipedia is hardly unique. Other sites, such as Digg and Slashdot, have had similar problems in their short histories, whether it be in the realm of criticism or potential legal issues. Wikipedia’s situation is more precarious than others because unlike other sites, where everyone can say their peace and there is no need for resolution, Wikipedia entries force people to agree on one version. In this respect, the discussion is as important, if not more important, than the end result. However, Wikipedia’s challenge is unique because not everyone plays by the rules: intellectual honesty, openness to other points of view, due diligence to be informed, etc.
One of the things that has impressed me about “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq” by Stephen Kinzer is how effective the United States was in exploiting openness in some of the governments we helped overthrow, particularly Iran, Guatemala, and Chile. All three were democracies. Fidel Castro used to taunt the United States by declaring: “Cuba is not Guatemala!” (pg. 206) Given the United States’ ability to overthrow other governments, one cannot help but conclude that Cuba’s closed society under Castro helped it resist the outside influence of the United States in ways more open societies could not.
The sobering conclusion is that democracy and an open society it requires are not utopias. However much I endorse egalitarian ideas, I also have to respect the fact it might require undemocratic means to defend them. These ruling cliques might be a necessary defense mechanism to protect the site from abuse. The legitimate question is not whether it is necessary to empower people with special privileges, but rather how are privileges determined, how do we determine who to empower, and what oversight is there to ensure those powers are being used properly? The flawed assumption of the ruling clique is that they are doing “good” or they know what is “best.” The assumption of “good intentions” must always be forcefully challenged.
The relevant point is that better implementation of egalitarian ideas would not fill the world with people that I like such as, Naomi Klein, Amy Goodman or Noam Chomsky, to name a few. I would also have to accept a world with Alex Jones and his followers in it.
For example, Ron Paul is currently one of the biggest recipients of a grassroots movement. What do his supporters deliver to help his campaign (besides a lot of cash)? A blimp. It brings a smile to my face, but I don’t think it is something that Dr. Paul asked for. However, his anything goes libertarianism is a perfect match for the innovative supporters that took it upon themselves to help him get elected. At the rate that the Republican front-runners keep on self-destructing, I would say he has as good a chance as anyone at this point. (If Dr. Paul does get the Republican nomination, I can’t wait to see the Republican national convention.)
In short, democracy is not a way to obtain the result that one agrees with. So, if you have a poll to name a whale and are expecting some name that matches your sensibilities such as: Anahi, Kaimana, Shanti, Suzuki, Aurora or Humphrey. Don’t be surprised if the result turns out to be: Mr. Splashy Pants. Empowering certain people may be necessary to protect the system from abuse from illegitimate influence, however there is always a persistent internal danger that those who are empowered will also use their power illegitimately against members of the community. Therefore, the most dangerous person to empower is a utopianist or a fundamentalist. Such people are, by definition, incapable of seeing the downsides to their agenda, or properly understanding why people do not agree with their point of view. Unfortunately, fundamentalism is far too easy a trap for anyone to fall into, and that is why it is important to have a blimp or a whale named Mr. Splashy Pants to remind us.