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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Wikileaks

I remember the Pentagon Papers — a time when disclosure of government documents revealed key government secrets. The absolutely crucial step that led the revelation of the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO program came when an activist group broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, grabbed documents and published them. The word COINTELPRO happened to be on one of them, which ultimately led to the Congressional investigation that exposed a good many of the FBI’s layers of illegal secret activities. So I certainly see the importance of air, light, exposure. And yet I think the whole Wikileaks program is not only wrong in itself, it is a prime symptom of so much that we here have been describing as wrong in education and our time.

Here’s why: the assumption of the current dump of diplomatic documents is either that we the public have a right to know, or that the government has no right to hide, the conversations and calculations of diplomats. That strikes me as completely wrong. It is the total Now Is What Matters attitude of a moment that places more value on immediate contact than depth. I’ve mentioned Zadie Smith’s piece about Facebook, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/25/generation-why/ Well it strikes me that Wikileaks is exactly what she decries in the piece — the flatening out of lives into bits and exchanged data. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about history, politics, government, anyone with the merest smidgeon of adult sense, knows that diplomats are required to speak one way in public and another in private, that they must provide cover to their home consituencies while exploring what actions can be taken somewhat out of sight on the world stage. That is a baseline assumption about how the world works. Wikileaks seems so immensely childish — an endless leftout scream of the child whose parents have gone out to the party.

One obvious reason for students to learn history is that they need some grounding, some depth, some sense of context — which is precisely the opposite of Wikileaks — they are All Now All of the Time — as if their great pleasure in finding this stash is all that matters. It is just so immature. But it is the immaturity of a time in which we are far better at creating digital connection than we are at crafting deeper meaning. And that is why our work with young people matters. Everyone else is selling connection, we have to give them the experience and pleasure of depth. If I were teaching a high school class I’d have them read Metternich or Kissinger or Machiavelli or Sun Tzu now while the headlines talk about Wikileaks. While the whole world learns that rain is wet, my students would be unfolding their umbrellas.

Comments

  1. Mira says:

    Great post. The other event that comes to mind is the note in the wastebasket that kicked off the Dreyfuss Affair

  2. I think there are some glaring omissions in the Wikileaks releases – the massive Chinese economic investment in the Pakistani tribal regions – and known CIA support for the Baloch separatist movement. This includes the funding of Baloch separatists to be trained in bomb-making and other terrorist activities. Without these important details we are left with a simple demonization of Pakistan – with information available from the mainstream media. The whole thing is starting to look, feel, and smell like “limited hang-out” to me. Americans are getting restive because they know they aren’t being told the truth. So they are fed just a tiny bit of benign scandal, and that’s supposed to shut them up. The official narrative justifying the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan makes no sense whatsoever. I blog about this at http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2010/11/28/afghanistan-and-the-road-r

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    this is not the place to discuss foreign policy, but I do agree that the release of some information as if it were all inclusive is problematic.

  4. Mark Flowers says:

    Marc,

    I’m a huge fan of your work and of your blog, but I have to disagree with you here. You say:

    “the assumption of the current dump of diplomatic documents is either that we the public have a right to know, or that the government has no right to hide, the conversations and calculations of diplomats. That strikes me as completely wrong”

    “If I were teaching a high school class I’d have them read Metternich or Kissinger or Machiavelli or Sun Tzu now while the headlines talk about Wikileaks”

    It strikes me that the lessons of history show precisely that Metternich, Kissinger (!), Machiavelli, and Sun Tzu were wrong, at least so far as a democratic republic is concerned. They may have had it right that secrecy is the best way to guard power for oneself, but that is not what our country is supposed to stand for. It is exactly the public’s right to know that is at stake, especially in this case, where the current president ran partially on a platform of more transparency than the former president, and has yet to live up to that promise.

    I’ll admit that these current documents, re: diplomats, are somewhat less vital than the previous dump about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the fact of the matter is, that with our media having completely abdicated its role as a watchdog of the government, Wikileaks is one of the only organizations out there trying to hold our government to some level of accountability. Whether or not the specific information leaked is vital, was done in a perfect way, it is clear that Wikileaks is primarily concerned with informing the people, and an informed electorate is what a democratic republic is supposed to be about.

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    Mark: please feel free to disagree with me in any and all ways, here or elsewhere. In my view what Wikileaks is offering is not information, it is unsifted material. And I do think that any governing body has a right, in fact an obligation, to maintain a level of secrecy in its relations with other nations. That is the mode of operations that makes governmental action possible. We have a representative democracy — we elect officials who we can expect to be privy to information that the rest of us do not have the time, training, or in fact the security clearance to evaluate. I do not trust the wisdom of crowds in such matters. I mentioned Kissinger as an example of diplomatic history — though I also brought up the Pentagon Papers as an example of appropriate leaking. I guess it comes down to this — if there is a case where our government is trying to hide actions and crimes from the public (say, bombing Cambodia or rendition of suspects to nations where they will likely be tortured) it is a valid public role to expose those actions. Where our government is merely doing the diplomatic business of a government — where not everything can be made public — then the public does not have a right to know. I do not see Wikileaks as making any such distinction.

  6. Teri-K says:

    Although this is an issue where reasonable people can certainly differ, I do agree with your column. Another thing that bothers me about Wiki-leaks is the disregard for an individual’s right to privacy. If an abuse or crime was being uncovered, I’d feel differently. But basically what has happened is someone has decided to publicize everything they could get their hands on, regardless of it’s importance. Do we really want to live in a world where every conversation, e-mail, or phone call we may have can be considered fair game for public consumption? I don’t.

  7. Mark Flowers says:

    To me there are two important issues where I’d argue with Marc and Teri-K

    1) There were actual crimes uncovered, including the fact that US diplomats were specifically ordered to (illegally) spy on other diplomats as well as in the United Nations.

    2) While I agree with Marc and Teri-K that the amount of information is overkill and that some of what was disclosed was not necessary, and could be detrimental, my personal view (and I understand if others disagree with me on this) is that the amount of information that our government keeps secret from us is *so* large, and the number of people trying to actually keep us citizen informed of these secrets *so* small, that I for one would much rather err on the side of too much information than too little. If we lived under a vastly more transparent government, I might feel differently about it, but we don’t, and I see Wikileaks, however flawed (and I certainly agree that it is flawed) as being one of the few organizations trying to keep that secrecy in check.

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    Mark: We just see this very differently. I assume that diplomats have gathering information as part of their mission — learning that that crosses into spying hardly merits exposing and thus damaging the many subrosa contacts and connections that all nations must engage in to meet the complex challenges of the world. In my view there is a basic immaturity in Wikileaks — and I think our jobs as educators is to give students a sense of how the world works — how nations handle, and have always handled, their tensions and conflicts. I think giving them that background, depth, and perspective is far more important than this flood of unfiltered material. To put it a different way, I think these documents would be a treasure tove for the future historian — who would be able to see them in their proper context. That is totally different from what the are now — where the potential damage far outweights any potential gain.