In the 1950s, as the United States slept, its citizens were subject to a highly complex conspiracy. Millions of items were sold to the U.S. public that diverted our attention and changed our cultural discourse. A small group of people made money off of it. It was called the hula hoop.
Why do I call a plastic toy a conspiracy? Because it was a completely useless invention that won approval through a vast chain of social feedback. You probably didn’t need one, but having one excited your brain and offered you the comforts and privileges of connecting with your others in this, our species of social animal. And it’s circular, which makes it a good metaphor for people who chase conspiracies. Today we have Facebook. That, too, is a conspiracy of sorts.
So what does that have to do with the Hadean eruption of U.S. military and state secrets from the bowels of State Department offices onto the Web site Wikileaks? You might say that the site and its founder Julian Assange have also tapped into conspiracies, but if they have, they have also showed us again how banal conspiracies sometimes really are, like hula hoops and Facebook.
Assange’s supporters argue that free flow of information, even secret information, is the most important part of the democratic process. His detractors argue that he’s going to get undercover intelligence assets killed and harm U.S. security. Both sides might agree, however, that a lot of the information he’s released so far is either not new or doesn’t change the conversation much about the big picture. The stuff that has everyone screaming bloody murder is the ugly little details. Horrific sometimes. Embarrassing to certain individuals definitely. And possibly a threat to the lives of intelligence sources, including Afghans, according to Assange’s own former colleagues. Indeed, Assange seems to be the most dangerous to the functionaries. You could argue that he’s not bringing down a big government so much as hurting a lot of little people who participate in it by doing necessary jobs. If a journalist’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, we have to ask how much of a fourth estate hero this Pynchonesque Australian really is.
Assange, like the Hula Hoop, is now a meme himself. The first three letters of his name will now pull him up first in a Google search, which means he currently bests Julius Caesar, Julia Roberts and the month of July in popularity. His uploads of classified cables about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. diplomatic spying on the United Nations and perhaps even promised revelations about Bank of America could hand our government its most embarrassing intel episode since the 1970s, a series of revelations that included the Pentagon Papers and the Church Committee hearings. If you remember, this is when we found out that the escalation of the Vietnam War was predicated on an attack that didn’t happen. When we found out the CIA actually spent money not only trying to poison Fidel Castro but also make his beard fall off using poison cigars (nice Freudian, castrating touches). We also found out nastier things about how often the CIA tried to kill foreign leaders it didn’t like very much.
Wikileaks started with bits of the obvious (Pakistan’s intelligence service is not working very hard with the U.S. in Afghanistan ), then moved on to the useful (the Defense Department finally had to admit how high civilian casualties were in Iraq, which gives us more accurate, if ghoulish statistics) and has now, if you believe some pundits, skirted sabotage (the State Department says the site is giving up U.S. intelligence assets and putting lives in danger). And worst of all, the site has confirmed the dirty little secret everybody over the age of 20 should have already known–which is that our government’s diplomatic corps spies on people. (Actually, I have a 20-year-old book on the CIA that might have told you the same thing.) But knowing it is a far cry from having the specifics of it shoved in our faces. And now we supposedly have even a smoking gun to present to Hillary Clinton, who the leaks suggest asked her team at State to gain information on foreign diplomats in the supposedly off-limits United Nations, including the DNA, fingerprints and iris scans of diplomats from certain African countries. If that weren’t enough, she wanted their frequent flier miles!
Big government intelligence leaks are the kind of things that send journalists into both pink and green epiphanies and ethical quandaries. When you have material on your desk that could ruin or end lives, you have to think twice about how you use it, and that requires experience, insight and judgment. As much of a hero as the picaresqe, buccaneering Julian Assange might be to some in the fourth estate, he’s a problematic hero for many reasons, and he gives pause to a lot of us who might otherwise want to cheer him on.
I’m not talking about the rape accusations made against him by the Swedes. Those need to be thoroughly vetted and examined with great bias against the accusers. No, I’m talking about his own muddled and suspect political philosophies, his understanding of ethics and the flow of information. Assange launched his site a few years ago with a paranoid rant about systems of control, something that reads like a cross between cyberpunk fiction and anarchist Mikhail Bukunin. It’s too shallow to be considered academic, too clinical to be populist, and too paranoid to be considered a statement of journalistic ethics. It reads, in fact, like the kind of blog post you’d find in the underbelly of a Thomas Pynchon appreciation society on Usenet. The distinction between paranoia and self-importance in time becomes a distinction without a difference, and Assange, who now has arrest warrants and Interpol after him and is supposedly hiding somewhere in Britain, seems to believe that the transparency he would confer on others doesn’t apply to him or his case or his Web site. He has, from the beginning, seemed like a man with a persecution complex in search of a persecutor. Finally, he provoked a few enemies into action and has likely fulfilled anti-authoritarian dreams worthy of either Che Guevara or Willy Wonka.
Assange’s manifesto compares the players of government to little nails with twine connecting them. Not every nail is connected, but the power structure as a whole relies on the interlacing thread. By cutting these ties through exposure, Assange hopes to destroy nefarious systems by keeping the players from working together. This idea is anarchist in the sense that Assange believes information and authority are locked naturally in a constant state of mutual negation. His writing, in this one section at least, is very elegant and populist and disinfected of a lot of academic jargon, so you might be forgiven for not seeing how all completely full of crap it is.
For Assange makes the conspiracy theorist’s eternal mistake–he doesn’t see that the thinker is the one spinning the twine. Making the connections between people who may or may not get along, who may or may not be communicating. The secret conspiracy is very often the subjective creation of a person who personalizes complex information. When you look closer, what you see is often not the man behind the curtain but something a lot more prosaic–a government full of individual, siloed fiefdoms whose dukes jealously protect their own self-interest. That’s why the story of Wikileaks has so far been one of messy, embarrassing details, a few tiny conspiracies, a lot of helpful details for historical color and shading, and beyond that a lot of stuff that was mostly already understood. Not warts and all. Just a lot of warts.
We might, in fact, ask why the U.S. even needs a person like Assange to keep it honest when there are plenty of other people out there every day arrogating that glory to themselves. Four years ago, the New York Times found out that the Bush administration was letting the NSA tap the phones of American citizens, overstepping its authority by not asking for permission from the courts. This sorry fact wasn’t revealed by a buccaneer anarchist zip lining through the windows of skyscrapers like Robert DeNiro in Brazil. It was revealed to the press by pissed off insiders with grudges and fiefdoms they didn’t want stepped on. This monolithic system of power, such as it was, exposed itself.
There are countless books on organized complexity theory, if anyone cares to read them, one of my favorites is “A New Kind of Science,” by Stephen Wolfram. Leave aside Wolfram’s computer experiments, and it suffices to say that no complex behavior can be reduced or understood by the simple behavior of its constituent parts. My personal behavior, for example, cannot be predicted or understood by the interactions of my body on a cellular level. When the body reaches a certain level of complexity, it acts according to different rules.
And yet, if you’re an outsider looking in, and you see the beast somehow lumbering forward, backward, up or down, you tend to see it, first as a monster with a will and second as a monster coming FOR YOU. The yarn spinner forgets the fraud of narrative and only takes the information that tells a story, leaving out the rather humdrum information that does not. Assange may or may not understand his role in what he’s looking at. (For a another good example of this, read Matt Taibbi’s ridiculous story on Goldman Sachs in Rolling Stone last year, which lays our entire financial crisis at the feet of Goldman, much the same way idiot right wingers might lay it at the feet of ACORN or Fannie Mae.)
The fact is, big conspiracies are often very much out in the open, like the hula hoop. As much as Assange might fashion himself a new Daniel Ellsberg, there is no “Gulf of Tonkin” incident that is ever going put the Iraq War into perspective. The most horrifying thing about Iraq has always been abundantly clear: Without any evidence of foul play against Saddam Hussein’s regime against our country or proof of his weapons arsenal, and with many newspapers constantly pointing out these facts, Americans went into the country anyway as revenge for 9/11. No smoking gun is ever going to change that. The conspiracy was out in the open. You can make the same arguments about Hitler. There is lots of evidence from the early days of Hitler’s regime to suggest he was going to do exactly what he said he would. The worst thing about abusers of power is sometimes they tell you exactly what they are doing because they want you to think like they do.
If you choose to believe the narrative, however, that the forces of power are working in secret and as one, you do so at your peril. You risk missing information that allows you to make a better judgment. You hurt innocent bystanders, or narrate them into the guilt. It may or may not occur to Julian Assange that there are people who realistically need to work in secret for the greater good, whether it be undercover narcotics officers, CIA assets, Taliban infiltrators, Alan Turing breaking the Enigma Code or scientists working on the Manhattan Project. The greatest thing about the Pentagon Papers, and the reason they were necessary, is that they exposed the wrongness of the policies and ideas behind the Vietnam War and the deception behind them, not that they tried to stop our intelligence agencies from working properly.
If Wikileaks fans are so gleeful about outing all CIA assets everywhere, putting lives in danger to expose the bigger truth about U.S. control, then I wonder if they would run to the defense of Scooter Libby for outing Valerie Plame. Was his indiscretion any different just because he was part of the power structure? Or was his act defensible because the power structure is actually just a lot of competing smaller units?
Part of me still wants to support Assange (and I have to admit I like reading those tasty cables). His many detractors are going to find themselves sooner or later pitting knowledge versus security, and that’s going to be a losing battle in favor of truth. I don’t think the revelations about Hillary Clinton are going to harm the government (or even Hillary Clinton).
And yet I don’t feel like Assange appreciates the nuances enough, and I feel like in many cases he may have in fact crossed the line with this new brace of intelligence. It would be a political nightmare to actually throw him in jail and bring him to trial, of course, but that’s a political call to make. So why do I feel like the people who would take him into custody might have a better grasp on that irony than he does? To Assange, it just all looks like monsters.