Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wikileaks: So boring I have to either write about it or take a month-long nap (UPDATED)

It is frankly impossible that you would've missed this if you have access to a computer, but just so we're all on the same page: WikiLeaks released a quarter of a million classified U.S. diplomatic cables to the public on Sunday. This is intensely, insanely, almost overpoweringly boring. Here's the top ten reasons why.

10. Top __ Lists. God, I hate this device. Five Biggest Revelations! Ten Most Important Revelations! Top 10 Revelations! Jesus. Seriously, quit it.

9. The repeated insistence by members of the commentariat (and the even more offensive political ideo-idiotsphere) that "this isn't really news." Of course it's news. If I published the archives of your email, it would be news. Just because there's not a whole lot in the email that we didn't already expect -- you hate your mother-in-law, your wife gets on your nerves from time to time, you think your boss is stupid, and you still occasionally talk to a college flame -- doesn't mean we're not gonna squeal and wail when we actually see it in print. This is basically the archives of the State Department's email. (But come on, nobody's getting fired.)

8. The repeated insistence by members of the media that this is HUGE NEWS, that no matter what else you say about the whole thing, you can't say it's not news. Really, who could be happier than the guys who are relieved of the burden of actually having to run anything down or do any research for their stories, but can just do the fun part -- telling you what they think about why this should matter to you, complete with an explanation of how it confirms previous biases, suspicions, and assertions -- without the legwork of exposing the facts? (And then there's the curious case of the journalist who is outraged by the leak, but would have found the whole thing totally acceptable if WikiLeaks had had the good sense to release the information to trained journalists like himself for vetting, filtering, and analysis.) But seriously, there's nothing in there we didn't already know. It's not huge news, it's just a useful resource for you jokers who get paid to sit around and go through this stuff all day.

7. The repeated insistence that this just goes to show you I've always been right.

6. The repeated insistence that this just goes to show you so-and-so has always been wrong.

5. Over-the-top bloviating about the cloak of secrecy under which government operates, and how the destruction of that cover is a worthwhile end that justifies nearly any means, etc. And more broadly, the way that one's analysis of whether WikiLeaks' actions are fundamentally good or fundamentally evil seems to depend not on some objective consideration of ethics or principles, but rather whether those actions facilitate or endanger one's personal ideological or geopolitical priorities.

4. The government's ceaseless argument that the release of diplomatic cables endangers lives and international security, and the handmaid to that argument: the assertion that countries and individuals who collaborate or cooperate with the U.S. in the service of their own interests will somehow find it prudent or plausible to refuse that cooperation entirely now that past instances of it have been made known. UPDATE: Secretary Gates apparently feels the same way, despite what Secretary Clinton has said.

3. The way that a widely-reported news story relating to diversion of classified information leads people who don't really know much about the purpose or function of government information management/protection mechanisms to declaim at length the failures of the system.

2. The hilarious-if-it-weren't-so-boring double-standard that permits journalists and commentators to say either A) that leaks are good and necessary, but this one "seems different" (perhaps because the leaking wasn't to professional journalists) or B) that war/imperialism/executive overreach/foreign policy position X is bad and unnecessary, but there's still something "fuzzy" or uncomfortable about WikiLeaks' actions.

1. This post will almost certainly drive more traffic to the blog than any other in a long while -- several of which were much more original, more thoughtful, better researched, and just generally more compelling, if I do say so myself -- simply on account of the fact that it mentions WikiLeaks.

Now here's why -- despite this story being so obviously boring -- people seem to care so much (and by "people," I especially mean journalists): because there's no story the media loves better than news about the news. This "news" isn't really about content or substance, but rather about the fact that the content and substance that everybody already knows got caught on paper somewhere. It's political theater. It's grandstanding. It's false surprise and false embarrassment. It's the sort of revelation-that's-not-a-revelation that drives political campaigns (Barack Obama probably really does believe that religious gun-owners are somehow mentally or spiritually less advanced; George Bush really did know that there was a difference of opinion about the intended end-use of Iraq's infamous aluminum tubes) and explains the existence of a media organ like POLITICO: inside-baseball coverage that allows the privileged intellectual elite to snicker at the naivete of those who don't understand the way the game is played in the big leagues.

It's a boring waste of time. It's a blank canvas for the sort of Greenwaldian, conspiracist metanarratives that constantly float through the ether, looking for "news" for which they can provide an "explanation." It's about words, not actions. It's the thoughts and feelings and analysis of American personnel abroad (with a few notable exceptions that hinge on the revelation of facts, not just impressions about facts), people who are necessarily offering their expertise and opinions in an effort to meaningfully shape policy. [As an editorial aside, this is actually one of the few really meaningful takeaways from the whole "cablegate" matter: the American diplomat seems far more thoughtful, analytical, and eloquent than his counterpart in the defense bureaucracy.] In some instances, there will be real impact. But the only way to understand that is through detailed examination of specific cables in the context of broader relationships, something that very few people offering thoughts on "what this all means" are willing or prepared to do. (One exception here is Blake Hounshell, who also deserves an exception to the "Top 10 lists are stupid" rule: I'll cut him some slack on his "10 Conversations That Just Got a Little More Awkward," which is the sort of tailored, context-rich, meaningful analysis that -- if it were more common -- could make this subject just a tiny bit less head-splittingly banal.)

So there I go spending a whole bunch of time decrying what a waste of time it is to think, talk, and read about WikiLeaks, and why you should probably be doing something else. I should've opted for the nap.


  1. If these leaks are so insignificant, then I suppose Bradley Manning should receive a slap on the wrist and a DADT meritorious service badge, no?

  2. I agree with your point that, in a way, wikileaks is a Rorshach test: commentators and pundits see what they want in them.

    It's odd how quickly the initial lines are bieng drawn within the public debate here in the States. It's either terrible and a sign of this administration's incompetence, or it's really not a big deal and everyone is handling the situation well.

    I don't like the situation because of the way its been handled. Whistle-blowers ought to care more about the potential negative actions of what they are doing. Dumping lots of documents, while talking about what else you might have, makes the story about YOU, the whistleblower, and not any possible corruption that may be uncovered. It also doesn't allow focus on one or two issues, so that they are lost in all of the frenzy.

    I said at KoW that all of this reminded me of a self-indulgence.

    Plus, the innocent people that may be hurt, the changes to the way diplomats do things - the potential negative effects are too easily brushed away by some.

    The thing is, there is no way of knowing exactly what all the potential outcomes will be, large or small. I don't see how anyone can know that with any certainty at this point.

  3. Wikileaks could be useful if you had a specific subject and wanted to look at the diplomatic cables around them - say the ousting of Allende from Chile, etc. But other than that a combination of compartmentalization, bureaucracy and a form of government best described as 'anarcho-tyranny' it is simply irrelevant what the US politicians wank about in their emails, because they're as completely detached from reality as your average prole on a desktop.