August 07, 2010

On Wikileaks (VI): Good-bye to All That: Good-bye Consensus, Good-bye Establishment, Good-bye Mainstream

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V


I begin by offering my most sincere apologies to Mr. Robert Graves. That is a marvelous book. Several years ago, I discussed it and provided some excerpts here.

In Part IV, I analyzed an article by Maximillian Forte. My focus in the earlier essay was to demonstrate why the argument that the Wikileaks' Afghanistan material might help support broadening the fight against the Taliban, and even against Iran, is entirely irrelevant and invalid as a criticism of Wikileaks itself and its actions. Here, I want to focus on Forte's reliance on authority, on how he seeks to interpose some group, or "experts," or other "qualified" individuals between Wikileaks' "raw data" and the general public.

Forte presents this argument in several of his "Reasons for Concern" (or, as Forte asks: "Why might there be much less to celebrate than we thought?"). In a section titled, "The incomplete and fragmentary nature of the records," Forte writes:
In my own research with these records, involving the use of American social scientists in units known as Human Terrain Teams, I have come to some important realizations. These records are only some of the records that we might have had [emphasis in original]. They are incomplete and fragmentary. Can anyone believe that the records Wikileaks obtained, almost 110,000 of them, are all the records produced by the U.S. military in a period covering six years of war? If not, then what was left out? Why were these records released, and not others? How can we make any credible claim based on these records, without knowing what has been kept from our view? What if what we do not have would somehow modify or reshape what we now claim to know?
First let it be noted -- and underscored repeatedly -- that all of these objections could be leveled many times over at information released by the government. And who in the world maintains that these "are all the records produced" in the specified time period? Precisely no one. This is a transparently specious argument.

But is the government voluntarily going to release many tens of thousands of records concerning the Afghanistan war, or anything remotely approaching that number? Of course not. And if making "any credible claim" depends on knowing the totality of the records, and on knowing that we have the totality of the records, which is exactly what Forte maintains, then no one will be able to make any judgment ever. This is doing the government's bidding with a vengeance. Moreover, the government is never going to tell us "what has been kept from our view." Beyond these objections to Forte's argument, which you may have noticed destroy his argument utterly, Forte again misses the point completely, as we'll see shortly.

In another section, "The records are not the same as 'the truth,'" Forte says:
These are records written by combatants on one side in a war. They are written by elements of the American military, with a military audience in mind, and to suit the purposes of that military. That many of the records are based on hearsay, rumours, and unsubstantiated allegations that would not survive review at higher levels of military intelligence, is also the case. The records lack context and often lack depth: short, terse bursts of information. Information is not the same thing as meaning, nor is it understanding. It is just data, and data is dead until an analyst gives it life by adding value.
Ah, "an analyst" -- an "intelligence analyst" at that -- will give "life" to this dead data, and provide "meaning" and "understanding." This is all a lie. Keep it in mind, for I'll get to this as well in just a moment.

Finally, in "Crowd sourcing: an ideal with little substance?," Forte writes:
Having first chosen mainstream news media for the release of the first stories based on the records, Wikileaks now turns to the wider public, sourcing opinion and analysis from the “crowd.” If Wikileaks had real faith in that process, it could have better appreciated and understood the wide range of expertise in the worldwide community of bloggers, and understood that the power to gain traction from a story can come just as much from below, as from above. Presumably Wikileaks understood this, and even cherishes this principle, which is what makes its choice of dependence on the news media strange. The crowd is not homogeneous. The crowd, just like with mainstream news media, contains sensitive specialists, and miserable propagandists. There is no escaping this. When one goes crowd sourcing, one must expect a lot of opinion that is based on poor understanding, inadequate training, selective reading, wishful thinking, and a deliberate desire to distort what the records say in order to suit certain political ends. The results will certainly be mixed, and these records will settle very little in our continuing public debates. But we should always expect surprises…including nasty ones.
Whenever anyone sings praises to "expertise," "sensitive specialists" and the like, clanging alarms should go off in your head. I could choose many passages from previous essays of mine to make the following point. Let's use this one (from September 2008):
Those people who have followed the foreign policy catastrophes of recent years are repeatedly struck by this phenomenon: all the "experts" who are supposedly so knowledgeable in this area -- that is, all the "experts" who led us into the catastrophes and who were grievously, bloodily, murderously wrong about every significant matter -- remain entrenched in the foreign policy establishment. Moreover, they are precisely the people to whom everyone turns for the "solution" to the disasters that engulf us, both now and the disasters likely to come. This is what it means to have a ruling class. As I have said, the ruling class rules. The ruling class exercises a lethal monopoly on the terms of public debate, just as it exercises a lethal monopoly on the uses of state power.

What you have seen over the last six months and more, and what you will see in the coming months and years, is the same phenomenon in the realm of economic policy. All of the solons who led us into this abyss of mounting debt, worthless securities, failing financial institutions, economic contraction and collapse, rising taxation, and all the rest, will now instruct us as to how we should "solve" the crisis that they have created. The crisis may be ameliorated to a degree, and the worst of the consequences may be postponed for a while. But whatever "solutions" are implemented, whatever reorganization and reregulation is imposed, it will all be done in accordance with the ruling class's desires and goals. It will all be to protect their own wealth and power to whatever extent is possible, and to expand their wealth and power still more, if that remains at all feasible.
If you rely to any significant extent on "experts" and "specialists" (even "sensitive" ones), you'll lose. Not only will you lose, you'll very probably end up broke, homeless and/or dead. That's exactly why the ruling class wants you to believe you have to rely on "experts" and "specialists." They know you'll lose. That's how the system is set up.

Part of what is going on here is that Forte regards himself as an "expert"; note, as just one example, the pointed mention of his "own research with these records, involving the use of American social scientists in units known as Human Terrain Teams." He's enough of an "expert" to know which other "experts" to call and, even better, the other "experts" will take his call. Forte expects that, should you follow his advice, he'll be one of the people who will provide "meaning" and "understanding" to this "data." I suggest in the strongest possible terms that you decline the offer. Another part of what is going on is what I discussed in the preceding installment: Forte sees that he and others like him are losing control, and he doesn't like it one bit.

On a much less problematic level -- we're in a different universe entirely here -- we have formulations that are somewhat similar to Forte's in the Chris Floyd article I earlier discussed (also in Part IV). Floyd repeatedly and passionately denounces the reliance on "expertise" and "specialized knowledge" in the manner endorsed by Forte; in fact, the totality of Floyd's writing argues directly against Forte's perspective in almost every meaningful respect. But consider these remarks of Floyd's in connection with the subject of this post:
Ultimately, I suppose on balance it is better to have this material than not to have it. But I still question the usefulness of rolling out mountains of raw "human intelligence" -- precisely the same kind of unfiltered junk that was "stovepiped" to build the false case for the mass-murdering invasion of Iraq -- about Iran, al Qaeda, Pakistan; even North Korea gets into the mix.
About Floyd's comment that "on balance it is better to have this material than not," I can only ask: Why? In light of Floyd's arguments, it seems to me that the opposite conclusion is indicated, and rather strongly so. I would think that Floyd's presentation at least compels the conclusion that the question is too close to call.

Much more significantly, the obvious question about the highlighted phrase is: who does the "filtering"? Whom do we trust to perform this task? As he himself has stated countless times, Floyd manifestly doesn't trust our political leaders or mainstream media to do it. But Floyd appears to assume that "filtering" must be performed by someone. This is the implied reliance on authority that I mentioned.

Again, in my view this reflects a failure to apprehend precisely what it is that Wikileaks is doing, and why it is so genuinely radical. To the argument that someone needs to perform "filtering" or that we must rely on "experts" and "specialists," Wikileaks in effect responds: Then you do the analysis and make whatever judgments you think justified, if you want to -- you and anyone and everyone else. You do it. You do all of it.

As I've said, this is what a real revolution looks like. At this point, I must also remind you of the fraud that is "intelligence" itself. The actual purpose of intelligence is not to provide accurate information (it's almost never accurate), but to serve as propaganda for policy decisions that have already been made. "Intelligence" is used after the fact, to convince the still frighteningly gullible public that Country X or Group Y is a "serious" or "imminent" or "grave" threat that must be dealt with using the strongest of measures, up to and including systematic bombing and even invasion. If events continue on their present course, don't be at all surprised if this pattern is repeated in the coming months or year or two with Iran.

You can consult "Played for Fools Yet Again: About that Iran 'Intelligence' Report" for a detailed presentation of my argument regarding "intelligence," and following the links in that article will take you to much more on this subject. I will mention here one earlier piece in particular, because it speaks directly to what Wikileaks is doing. In "You, Too, Can and Should Be an 'Intelligence Analyst'," I wrote:
I therefore repeat my major admonition, and give it special emphasis:
It is always irrelevant to major policy decisions, and such decisions are reached for different reasons altogether. This is true whether the intelligence is correct or not, and it is almost always wrong. On those very rare occasions when intelligence is accurate, it is likely to be disregarded in any case. It will certainly be disregarded if it runs counter to a course to which policymakers are already committed.

The intelligence does not matter. It is primarily used as propaganda, to provide alleged justification to a public that still remains disturbingly gullible and pliable -- and it is used after the fact, to justify decisions that have already been made.

None of these facts and this background are all that difficult to ascertain, if one is committed to finding out the truth. It is a measure of the monolithic, deadly grip that so-called "conventional wisdom" holds on our public discourse that what ought to be regarded as noncontroversial and even obvious truths are transformed into forbidden matters never to be mentioned in "polite" company. And it is entirely remarkable that the intelligence game continues with none of its lethal force spent. As Jim Webb's recent pathetic explanation of his support for the abominable FISA legislation demonstrates, there would appear to be only one value that our politicians refuse to compromise or surrender: their wholehearted, indeed passionate devotion to abject stupidity.

But two can play this game, and the politicians and the "professionals" can be turned into fully deserving losers. As the above indicates, you too can be an "intelligence analyst" -- and you can do it with far more accuracy and insight than those with careers that will be imperiled if they deliver unwelcome news. Make your own judgments based on what is in the public record, as [Ray] McGovern indicates, and resist the calls to war.

After all, it is members of the public who pay for it all -- and it is members of the public who die for it, too. Let the public decide. It's only just. And perhaps, one day in the future, we finally will have peace.
Given the unrelieved fraud that is "intelligence," and in light of the conclusively and repeatedly proven inability to trust any part of the Establishment to "filter" any of this or any other material whatsoever, including "raw data," I view it as a complete and shining triumph for Wikileaks and other organizations to release as much information, and as much "raw data," as they can get their hands on. Wikileaks thus increases what is in the public record, and thereby provides more information on the basis of which you can make your own judgment. We -- by which I mean you, me and everyone else -- certainly can't do any worse than the politicians and "experts" in trying to make sense of it. Moreover, I consider it much more likely that we will do a significantly better job. And even if we don't, we aren't the ones who will be ordering bombing runs, assassinations, or invasions.

The broader point remains the most critical one. By acting as it does, Wikileaks entirely bypasses the structures of authority, "order" and obedience. By stepping outside them altogether, Wikileaks diminishes their power -- and transfers that power to all of us. Just think about what would happen if ten or twenty organizations did this many times a week, releasing "secret" and "confidential" information closely guarded by governments, multinational corporations, and others who exploit, brutalize and act in innumerable destructive and cruel ways. The world as it exists today would be severely threatened as people began to see the details of what is actually transpiring.

And many people -- many of those "ordinary" human beings across the world who today are entirely disregarded and only brutalized, and who "merely" provide the labor and often the blood that sustains the power structure that rules us -- would make sense of it. At a minimum, they would make sense of it in ways that the prevailing powers ceaselessly try to obfuscate and cover up. A lot of "ordinary" people would begin to see a fuller version of the truth.

That's exactly what States and those who rule and enable them are afraid of. That's why they condemn Wikileaks with such vehemence, in a manner that frequently verges on hysteria. The ruling class understands very well indeed the threat that Wikileaks represents, and what would happen if additional organizations utilized the same strategy. If you want to understand the threat embodied by Wikileaks, do what I suggest: multiply Wikileaks by ten, or a hundred. The ruling class sees that possibility with startling and unnerving clarity. Why do you think they're scared shitless?

And they are.

Next time, I'll discuss Forte's argument concerning Wikileaks' purported "lack of ethical concern, and an inadequate review process." I've dealt with some aspects of the "review process" question above and in earlier installments, but more needs to be added. The alleged "lack of ethical concern" is a fairly astonishing charge to level at Wikileaks when one compares Wikileaks' capabilities with those of the powers it challenges (see the concluding paragraphs here). But this argument comes up frequently, and I have a fair amount to say about it. By the way, you'll see the same argument (among others) in this uniformly dreadful article at Reason. So much for Establishment "libertarianism." The emphasis is solely on Establishment, with none at all that I can detect on libertarianism. I hadn't understood that "respectability" was a key libertarian value, just as I hadn't appreciated the enormous virtues of "journalism" as presently practiced. I learn something new every day.

I'll have a response to all that next time.