August 10, 2010

On Wikileaks (VII): Take Up the Wikileaks Challenge with Pride and Honor

Three False Criticisms of Wikileaks, and the Rush to Irrelevance and Error

Three interconnected criticisms of Wikileaks, and of the recently released Afghanistan material, merit consideration. These particular criticisms can be summarized as follows:

"These materials don't tell us anything new, or anything we didn't already know."

"While the materials may contain points of interest, they certainly aren't the Pentagon Papers!" (The exclamation point is always implied at a minimum.)

"Perhaps Wikileaks is to be commended in certain respects. Sad to say, though, this won't stop the war."

All three points were announced within a day of the latest Wikileaks story breaking in the news; sometimes, they were put forth within hours. This was true of both mainstream media and of the overwhelming majority of blog posts.

Not one of the criticisms is valid. They are all either woefully inaccurate or largely beside the point. Taken together -- and the first two are almost always offered in combination, with the third frequently added as a further reason to set this story aside as another non-event -- the arguments render each other incoherent. If one appreciates the issues involved and knows the actual history that is referenced, the arguments explode one another.

In significant part, these related failures are the inevitable result of our culture's insistence on speed as a primary virtue. Mainstream media, following their purpose of providing daily news (among other purposes), are expected to provide almost immediate reports of breaking news. With regard to blogs, it is worth noting that, for all the talk (largely from bloggers themselves) about "breaking new ground" and providing truly "independent" perspectives, blogs have copied this aspect of traditional media behavior with close to absolute fidelity. Of course, the internet greatly increases the speed at which purported "analysis" is offered.

Immediate reporting without more is unquestionably of value. Especially with regard to developments that indisputably will (or very probably will) have significant implications, we want to know of breaking events as quickly as possible. Yet if we reflect on what kinds of events fall into this category, we will appreciate that they are very few in number. Major weather or geological events (hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.) and the initiation of military action obviously qualify. Most of the rest of the "news" does not.

But such distinctions are almost entirely lost now: everything is "news," and it is here today (or even only for a few hours), and gone tomorrow. Everything passes, and nothing is remembered; usually, nothing is understood. This is certainly true of almost all blogging, and it is increasingly true of traditional media. From one perspective, the rise of blogging and its growing influence are an enormous boon. Certainly they are for me personally. Without the internet and blogging, I most probably would never have written most or even any of my essays, and you would never have read them. In that sense, and leaving aside the dubious moral quality of such criticism, I definitely do not come to bury blogging.

Yet from a different, and hopefully broader, perspective, there are aspects of what we might call "blogging culture" which are darkly baleful in their effects. For bloggers offer not just reports about what has happened, but simultaneously provide what purports to be analysis of what it means. But do any of us truly believe that 99% of blog posts will be remembered five years from now, or even one, or even next week? No, we don't. (I have a very faint hope that some of my essays may not fall into the same pool of forgetfulness, but then, with momentary exceptions here and there, I never wanted to do blogging of that kind. In any case, time will tell. I have no expectation that it will be notably kind in my own case.)

Nonetheless, it appears to be the commonly accepted view that the almost instant analysis offered by blogs has serious merit and represents a valid, considered perspective. I am filled with admiration, mixed with indescribable astonishment, that we have evolved so far that the world is filled with 60-second Arendts. It is truly a wonder for the ages.

Comparatively speaking, and speaking even in absolute terms, I'm a plodder. When the Wikileaks-Afghanistan story broke, I appreciated one primary aspect of it almost immediately, but only one. That aspect was noted in my first post about the story. While that aspect was important, I quickly sensed that far more was involved -- not only with regard to the specifics of the released material, but in connection with Wikileaks itself and the role it plays when set against the State, both in general terms and as embodied by the United States more particularly.

I began to set out these further reflections in my next post about Wikileaks, which appeared two days later. That post described some of the ways in which I was trying to analyze the issues involved. I won't revisit the development of my arguments here; you can consult the links to previous installments at the conclusion of this post. My point is that many aspects of my arguments only became clear to me as I continued to reflect on these matters, and that required time and what I hoped was careful thought. I will also freely acknowledge that, in my own view, it was not until I arrived at parts five and six that I began to feel truly comfortable with this material: that I had finally appreciated the various elements involved and how they informed one another.

That process took two weeks, and the process continues today. Two weeks is still fast in terms of how we think about time in many aspects of our lives, but in "blog time" it's an eternity. Most bloggers have already moved on; for the most part, they moved on within days of the initial reports of the release of the Afghanistan materials.

The first installment of the Pentagon Papers was published by The New York Times on June 13, 1971. In an issue of The New York Review of Books dated November 18, 1971, Hannah Arendt's essay about certain issues raised by the Pentagon Papers was published: "Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers." The essay, with minor revisions, is republished in Crises of the Republic.

Arendt's essay was first published five months after the story broke. Five months! What a dawdler. Yet Arendt's essay is still consulted four decades after she wrote it, as well it should be. Last evening, I sat down and reread "Lying in Politics" in its entirety for the first time in a long time; I reread parts of it multiple times. I'd intended to do this ever since the Wikileaks story appeared, and I'm only sorry I waited until yesterday.

Even The Pentagon Papers Weren't "The Pentagon Papers"

The subheading immediately above is intended to convey that the now commonly accepted view of the Pentagon Papers and their significance is largely mythological. None of that mythology corresponds to the facts and, of critical importance, even to the facts as they were understood in 1971. (The general formulation of my subheading is one I've used before in connection with notable distortions of the historical record. See, for example, "Even Churchill Wasn't Churchill." Let it be noted that the article, from July 2006, concludes: "ON TO IRAN!!!" Damnably enough, some things never change.

That essay, and the previous longer article it references, detail how the image of Churchill as a principled foe of the immense danger of Nazi Germany, at a time when he supposedly stood alone against the "appeasers," is entirely a myth. Moreover, it is a myth that Churchill himself created in large part. The actual record establishes beyond question that Churchill waffled on the question of Nazi Germany and how it should be opposed, if at all, as much as anyone else. And such opposition as he offered was not principled in the least, at least it had nothing to do with the principles Churchill later attributed to his actions. Without question, Churchill was one of the most deeply contemptible and unprincipled leaders of the twentieth century.)

In the final section of her Pentagon Papers essay, Arendt summarizes "the aspects of the Pentagon papers" that she has chosen to discuss as "the aspects of deception, self-deception, image-making, ideologizing, and defactualization." She notes that other features of the papers "deserve to be studied and learned from." She goes on to write -- and may all those who proclaim that the Wikileaks documents are no Pentagon Papers (and they know the Pentagon Papers!) take careful note:
What calls for further close and detailed study is the fact, much commented on, that the Pentagon papers revealed little significant news that was not available to the average reader of dailies and weeklies; nor are there any arguments, pro or con, in the "History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy" that have not been debated publicly for years in magazines, television shows, and radio broadcasts.
Earlier in her essay, Arendt speaks of how "the more successful a liar is, the more people he has convinced, the more likely it is that he will end by believing his own lies." Concerning the government's systematic attempts to manipulate the American public, she then writes: "The fact that the Pentagon papers revealed hardly any spectacular news testifies to the liars' failure to create a convinced audience that they could then join themselves."

As our Wikileaks critics might have been heard to say (if they only knew the actual history): No news in the Pentagon Papers! Nothing we didn't already know! No arguments we haven't heard countless times! Never mind!

The same point concerning the non-news aspect of the Pentagon Papers is made in this Frank Rich column, which is unexpectedly not terrible. I say "unexpectedly" because Rich can be relied upon to be unrelievedly awful. As just one example from my archives (there are others), see my savaging of Rich in the second half of this article. Rich fully deserved such treatment; if anything, I was far too kind.

Despite Rich's general awfulness, on this occasion he got it right. One passage from his column should be set out here:
Last week the left and right reached a rare consensus. The war logs are no Pentagon Papers. They are historic documents describing events largely predating the current administration. They contain no news. They will not change the course of the war.

About the only prominent figures who found serious parallels between then and now were Ellsberg and the WikiLeaks impresario, Julian Assange. They are hardly disinterested observers, but they’re on the mark — in large part because the impact of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War (as opposed to their impact on the press) was far less momentous than last week’s chatter would suggest. No, the logs won’t change the course of our very long war in Afghanistan, but neither did the Pentagon Papers alter the course of Vietnam. What Ellsberg’s leak did do was ratify the downward trend-line of the war’s narrative. The WikiLeaks legacy may echo that. We may look back at the war logs as a herald of the end of America’s engagement in Afghanistan just as the Pentagon Papers are now a milestone in our slo-mo exit from Vietnam.

What was often forgotten last week is that the Pentagon Papers had no game-changing news about that war either and also described events predating the then-current president.
As Arendt points out, these aspects of the Pentagon Papers were understood in 1971 and "much commented on." Rich correctly reminds us of these facts to point out the mythologizing that has transpired since that time.

Rich also identifies one of the reasons for the reaction of indifference by so many to the Wikileaks release:
The logs also suffer stylistically: they’re often impenetrable dispatches from the ground, in contrast to the Pentagon Papers’ anonymously and lucidly team-written epic of policy-making on high.
In part, many members of the mainstream media as well as many bloggers reacted with indifference because of intellectual and class snobbery and elitism. These critics unabashedly adore the "lucidly team-written epic of policy-making on high," for this approach is self-evidently "important" and "significant." Such critics don't have to slog through the innumerable, often dizzyingly unclear details: the "important" issues are handed to them on a platter. They can eat the meal at their leisure, gently masticating their own added morsels of wisdom.

They can't do this with the Wikileaks material, as I discussed in detail in the preceding installment. If we want to make sense of the Afghanistan documents, we have to do the work; in part, as I said, we have to be "intelligence analysts" ourselves. This is what I've identified as a crucial part of Wikileaks' genuinely revolutionary approach: it transfers the demanding work -- understanding the material in the first instance, and then making those judgments we think justified -- to each and every one of us. Many people don't want the responsibility. Their greatest preference is to defer to authority, to obey. Wikileaks deprives them of that opportunity. One of the results is that many people profoundly resent Wikileaks and wish only that it would instantly dissolve into nothingness.

This particular resentment stands largely separate and apart from a writer's political beliefs, and you find it on both right and left. It is more deeply personal than political convictions alone. Wikileaks allows people no excuse merely to obey, and they no longer have justification for being intellectually lazy. Wikileaks' critics often decry the manner in which government systematically and increasingly disregards citizens' voices and concerns -- but present them with the means to take back their own power in a meaningful way, and they recoil in horror. In addition to being invaluable in itself, Wikileaks' work provides this additional benefit: it reveals many people's actual motivations and concerns. And one great truth that has been revealed (again) by this latest episode is that the majority of people want to be guided by authority, by "experts," by those with "secret information." Give them that "secret information" so they can judge it for themselves and they immediately cry: "Oh, we can't possibly understand that! Only the State, or 'experts,' can be trusted with that information and explain it to us!" Most people want to obey. They've been taught obedience as the primary virtue, and they now believe the lesson and have fully internalized it.

Further Distortions of History, and the Complete Disregard for Facts

The mythologizing of history carries illimitable dangers. It not only leads to arguments that are invalid and erroneous in both their specifics and totality, but it also paves the path to enormously destructive and self-destructive action. Two additional examples from Arendt's "Lying in Politics" are instructive.

Arendt distinguishes the "problem-solvers" from the "ideologists," but emphasizes that both suffered from "defactualization." In this respect, they didn't serve to balance each other out, but only reinforced the underlying problem. She discusses the "postwar comprehensive ideology" of anti-Communism, which "was originally the brain child of former Communists who needed a new ideology by which to explain and reliably foretell the course of history." She goes on, and here we also come upon the mythologized Churchill once again:
This ideology was at the root of all "theories" in Washington since the end of World War II. I have mentioned the extent to which sheer ignorance of all pertinent facts and deliberate neglect of postwar developments became the hallmark of established doctrine within the establishment. They needed no facts, no information; they had a "theory," and all data that did not fit were denied or ignored.

The methods of this older generation -- the methods of Mr. Rusk as distinguished from those of Mr. McNamara -- were less complicated, less brainy, as it were, than those of the problem-solvers, but not less efficacious in shielding men from the impact of reality and in ruining the mind's capacity for judgment and for learning. These men prided themselves on having learned from the past -- from Stalin's rule over all Communist parties, hence the notion of "monolithic Communism," and from Hitler's starting a world war after Munich, from which they concluded that every gesture of reconciliation was a "second Munich." They were unable to confront reality on its own terms because they had always some parallels in mind that "helped" them to understand those terms. When Johnson, still in his capacity as Kennedy's Vice-President, came home from an inspection tour in South Vietnam and happily reported that Diem was the "Churchill of Asia," one would have thought that the parallelism game would die from sheer absurdity, but this was not the case.
And then there is this from Arendt's essay:
In the case of the Vietnam war we are confronted with, in addition to falsehoods and confusion, a truly amazing and entirely honest ignorance of the historically pertinent background: not only did the decision-makers seem ignorant of all the well-known facts of the Chinese revolution and the decade-old rift between Moscow and Peking that preceded it, but "no one at the top knew or considered it important that the Vietnamese had been fighting foreign invaders for almost 2,000 years," or that the notion of Vietnam as a "tiny backward nation" without interest to "civilized" nations, which is, unhappily, often shared by the war critics, stands in flagrant contradiction to the very old and highly developed culture of the region. What Vietnam lacks is not "culture," but strategic importance (Indochina is "devoid of decisive military objectives," as a Joint Chiefs of Staff memo said in 1954), a suitable terrain for modern mechanized armies, and rewarding targets for the air force. What caused the disastrous defeat of American policies and armed intervention was indeed no quagmire ("the policy of 'one more step' -- each new step always promising the success which the previous last step had also promised but had unaccountably failed to deliver," in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as quoted by Daniel Ellsberg, who rightly denounces the notion as a "myth"), but the willful, deliberate disregard of all facts, historical, political, geographical, for more than twenty-five years.
For those who are tempted to play "gotcha" with my argument and to try to hoist me with my own petard, I note that to speak of Afghanistan today and Vietnam then is not to talk of distorting parallelisms in any manner whatsoever -- but to speak of the complete identity of the mechanisms involved. The "willful, deliberate disregard of all facts, historical, political ... for more than twenty-five years" is not a parallel between the two tragedies, but exactly the same.

But you will notice that, following Arendt's admonition to "confront reality on its own terms" and to always maintain our "mind's capacity for judgment and for learning," I have omitted one critical factor from the list of identities: geography. For the reasons outlined in this article, the tragedy of Afghanistan will almost surely be greater than that of Vietnam -- because Afghanistan is of immense "strategic importance," that is, it is for those who seek to control events. As I have argued, this is one reason, and probably the reason, why we will not be leaving, even in slow-motion as in the case of Vietnam. Barring developments unforeseen at present, we will not be leaving that part of the world in the next few years, or even in the next few decades. With that hugely significant difference always in mind, and it may be a difference with implications none of us wish to contemplate, Arendt's lessons may be applied with full force.

While Wikileaks has revealed that most people prefer to obey and to follow the dictates of authority, it provides those of us who decline to obey -- those of us who have decided to withdraw our support -- with both a deeply admirable model and the means of realizing our own potential for resistance. You should grasp that means and that potential, with great pride in your determination to defend genuine freedom and the sanctity of life. Wikileaks offers us a great challenge. We should take up that challenge with pride and honor, and do our utmost to meet it.

As usual, this turned out to be longer than I had expected. I'll turn to the other aspects of the three mistaken arguments next time.


Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI