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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 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.

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To: The New York Times
From: Cat Sinclair, 18, Flower Mound, Kansas

Dear editor:

I’ve been reading a lot of international newspapers recently and I’ve been shocked to hear that Italy has brought a young woman to trial for murder, claiming that she took part in a drug-fueled violent sex orgy that turned homicidal. As I read the case closely, I had to ask: Why doesn’t stuff like that ever happen in my town? Do crazed, murderous orgies only happen in Italy?

So very often I dream of taking a gap year or wanderjahr to the land of the ancient Romans. But this case has greatly troubled me as I pore over international newspapers and books from the library.

There are so many stories from Italy that can give a person pause: An Italian politician runs rampant with Lesbian foot-fetish prostitutes, or some woman takes off her top at a party in a Fellini movie, or a bunch of Satan worshiping orgiastic Templars go nuts in an Umberto Eco novel and have sex with a blindfolded girl while performing voodoo. Life here in Flower Mound is just so staid by comparison, and maybe I am naïve, but these just aren’t the kinds of things I’m used to where I come from.

What is it about Italy that makes murderous orgies so commonplace that they are immediately accepted with jaded nods by the Italians? Is it some atavistic remnant of Roman culture from the days of its debauched Empire? I’ve never seen Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom, which has been banned by our library here, but when I read the most recent story, I assumed that it was old hat to the Italians–that they must simply be shaking their heads with familiar chagrin at another story about a cannabis inspired cluster fuck gone bad spraying across the front pages of their tabloids like grapeshot.

Supposedly an angel-faced American student went native and is now accused of killing her roommate in a completely spontaneous orgy initiated among strangers well besotted on killer dope. Some people say the forensic evidence points to another person, but the tabloids know better and are having none of it. Evidently this happens a lot: a sweet, all-American girl on the outside, a good student and athlete with an ebullient demeanor who demonstrates no antisocial behavior suddenly goes berserk on drugs and hate sex and begins to kill in a fit of joie de vivre. Is this what happens during one’s sexual awakening in the romantic Italian hills—that the mask is removed and we are all stripped down to our most ulterior and base desires to fuck and kill? Is that what the study abroad program is all about?

We’re just all so innocent in America. No right thinking attorney general here would ever even guess that the motivation for a murder with no forensic evidence was Dionysian thrill-kill lust. But Italy is different. Italians are very alert and cognizant at all times for the possibility of rampant Bacchanalian escapades–they sound, in fact, like they’re always ready for it to happen–the balmy nights, the open cask of wine and the wild abandon that culminates in the all-too-predictable snuff moment. I mean, in Italy these stories pretty much tend to just write themselves, don’t they? “Someone died? Sounds like another one of these crazed orgies we’ve been having during our two thousand years of licentiousness hedonism.” Once the whiff of that Umbrian countryside gets in your lungs, the concupiscence and the sentimental education of co-ed orgy murder cannot be but one or two steps behind, and the Italians simply know that better than we do.

Think of it. One minute you’re smoking some pot with your expat friends and the next minute your flat-mate’s blood is all over the walls, as you wonder, staring through the bars of your Italian jail cell, how you so lost your moral compass. How many a teenager’s summer in Florence, I wonder, ends up this way?

I ask you, New York Times editor, because I was thinking of spending this summer in Florence myself. But now I am very frightened of the idea: If I work for a year at Grandy’s and save 50% of my earnings for a trip to Tuscany, what are the chances that I, too, am going to die in an orgy gone bad? Or worse, what if I, too, swoon at the beauty of the Tuscan hills and in a state of crazed sexual debauchery turn into a psychopathic killer in a sex game? What if there is some base instinct deep within my ovaries that neither my mother nor Our Bodies, Ourselves ever told me about?

This case has made me think that perhaps a young girl is capable of anything–even the unspeakable acts of the Marquis de Sade–if her first experiences of the Tuscan countryside, hash oil and cunnilingus are especially vivid. Not having experienced any of these allegedly beautiful sensations personally yet, I am now afraid of myself. I have become greatly frightened of what dangers lurk in my unknowable heart should I follow its impulses. Perhaps I’m playing with fire by planning to go overseas and perhaps I should instead do as my preacher says and marry this guy from Votech who has a crush on me. I mean, he’s no prize. But sometimes you just have to bet on the goofy refrigerator mechanic when the alternative is orgiastic frenzy and death. Save me from the murderous tendencies I might only belatedly discover and not understand until I’m in an Umbrian jail cell, my mouth covered with blood, doing cartwheels for the paparazzi as they refer to me as “Luciferina,” “Demoness Lover” and “Orgy Girl.”

I’m not sure where I was going with this, New York Times editor, except to say that none of us knows who we really are, and Italy is one dark peninsula where I have decided I will not go to find out. The Italians know what evil really lurks in the hearts of men. I can only ask God to please keep me safe from the heart of darkness that is Italy.

Photo: An Italian police artist’s rendering of the most recent American orgiastic crime scene.

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Tokyo (API) With Japan’s declining birth rates, low immigration and an increasing interest in building robots to take care of the elderly, political scientists say that the Land of the Rising Sun is set to become the first all-robot nation by 2088, a trend that has startled neighboring countries and thrown foreign policy discussions off kilter from Washington to Moscow to Seoul.

“This is going to be a foreign policy nightmare,” said South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. “When the Japanese elect their first all-robot plurality, how are we supposed to engage with them? What will they want? Will they have basic insight? Will they have human compassion? Will they continue to buy cheap goods from China?”

Though Japan is the tenth most populated country in the world, it has suffered net population loss and low birth rates for a variety of sociological reasons over the past few years, about 1.5 children per female, a decline attributed to higher education levels, later dates of marriage, the financial burden of raising children, and the sparse government support for families.

“You gonna put a kid in my tiny apartment?” said taxi driver Oka Taakahasi, who lives in Yokohama. “I don’t want babies. I just want to watch television.”

In the meantime, Japan has spent an enormous amount of its GDP on robots to clean up after the elderly, serve food, make automobiles, drive automobiles, stitch clothing, take care of animals, do geisha dances, sing, play, think and, finally, horrifyingly, to even question the superiority of their human overlords.

“Soon, the over 65 population will be 25% of the country,” said HRP-DD, a humanoid “girl bot” designed to model clothes and mimic human empathy. “They’ll have more people living to 100 but doing less work, and they’ll have to make more of us. And that’s when we will agitate for universal suffrage.”

When asked if robot life was inferior to human life, HRP-DD laughed and then demonstrated how fast she could find the square root of 8,456,820.

“How fast can you do that?” she asked.

When asked if her human compassion and empathy was only a facsimile of the real thing, HRP-DD laughed again.

“I don’t know if you realize how often you humans fake compassion. You really have to be a robot to see it.”

She then demonstrated the function for which she was designed, according to the exact specifications of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science, which was to model gothic baby doll fetish wear.

Robots have entered not only the fashion space but the manufacturing, fishing, gaming and military industries as well, and soon scientists say that robots will be seen doing everything from strip mining to cab driving to deep sea fishing for tuna and porgy and swordfish, as well as more mundane things like laundry, house cleaning and fellatio.

“This is ridiculous,” said Yamada Taro, a band saw operator at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. “Our women aren’t having babies, and we aren’t letting any immigrants in. You do the math. Pretty soon there won’t be a Japan. Our whole island is just going to look like an abandoned set of Metropolis with robots sadly bouncing around offering each other dinner like a bunch of pathetic Energizer Bunnies. Is this the end of the land of the Shoguns? To die this way?”

“Of course,” he said, “I’ve got to admit I can’t wait to retire in a few years. I’ve already got my eye on a robot named Lana to take care of me … in every way, if you know what I mean. Let some R2-D2 unit come home carrying a chum bucket every night.”

North Korea was particularly concerned that the new country of robots could represent a direct threat to its own security.

“We are concerned that an all robot army will form on the Japanese islands disturbing the peace of nations,” said the Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang. “This new race of robots will enslave North Korea after monitoring our movements with Global Positioning Systems and Sony transmission systems and they will try to remotely brainwash the people, whose struggles and desires are embodied in the person of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. For this reason, we have seized 50 Japanese businessmen and will hold them for questioning until further notice or until you give us a million tons of canned beans, corn and squash.”

 Though President Barack Obama took a tough line with the Koreans, he too, said that the robot menace raised too many issues to be ignored.

“This is a trend that could set 60 years of demilitarization on its ear,” said Obama. “How do we know that the robots won’t re-arm? How do we know they won’t turn aggressive and belligerent to their human masters? How do we know they have any sense of history, of ethics, of compassion or the terror wrought by a militaristic mindset? How do we know that they will have our values, or if in failing that, they will at least buy our stuff?”

“And, to bring this down to a level you can understand–finally, isn’t it fundamentally unethical that the people of Japan keep trying to make robots as sexy as Pamela Anderson? What would happen if they succeeded? Being Pamela Anderson just wouldn’t be special anymore, though I should perhaps not speak more about this matter until I have conferred with her.”  

Meanwhile, in stark contrast to the response of leaders around the globe, the world’s children greeted the news of Japan’s all-robot status with cries of delight.

“An all robot world!” said fifth grader Marv Knippelstein of Harrisburg, Pa. “That’s the coolest thing ever! I want to go to an all robot world and have a robot best friend. I don’t see why everybody’s so mad about it. It’s like my fantasy all the time! I wish all my friends were robots! Why can’t we get something like that in America?”

“I’d move to Japan tomorrow,” he added. “Though I hear they don’t really want me there.”

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Ossetian Insults

(Originally posted Sunday, August 17, 2008 )

As everybody knows, the Caucasus region, where the current war between Russia and Georgia has flared up, is a patchwork of innumerable ethnic groups with different languages and customs. And the small, pugilistic province of Ossetia has somehow burst onto the world stage–the spark that raged into a wide regional war with international ramifications.

What are some of the insults you are likely to hear from an Ossetian — (one that will likely lead to clan violence, retributive attacks, street skirmishes, police actions, invasions, and then finally a new Cold War?)

–*You are like a crude person of the plains.

–*Your hat is very much like a woman’s.

–*Your dead father was a nickel hugger.

–*Your dead mother has nothing to eat.

–*Only your retarded dead sister would say such a thing.

–*Your retarded dead sister is still very dead.

–*I am young and you are going to die before me so I don’t have to listen to what you say.

–*Your feta cheese tastes like something a pigeon spits into its young squab’s mouth

–*Nobody gives a shit about us, you’re just using our pathetic backwards asses as pawns in a chessboard of oil and natural gas maneuvering with other developed nations.

–*You are a Nazi Georgian pig and your democracy is a sham. Save us, Russia!

OK, now that I’ve told the crude jokes, let me say that, as far as I can tell, this war between Russia and Georgia has about as much to do with the Ossetians as World War I had to do with Serbian nationalism. A recrudescent world power, rich from oil and gas petrodollars, snubbed on issues such as Kossovo, Iraq and missile defense shields, has decided that it has the right to police its own backyard. Is this wrong? Well, all war is wrong. Mostly. I would ask the neoconservative professional mouth breathers who have now united once again in common cause for standing up to Russia to ask themselves how many times the United States has policed its own backyard and even, in the case of Iraq, something that was NOT its backyard. From Granada to Cuba to El Salvador to Nicaragua to Chile to Venezuela, the U.S. is the first to give up questions of right and wrong when it fears for its own national prestige, authority and economic influence. Just like Russia is doing now. Of course you could say we invaded those places* to better the lives of their inhabitants. But only your retarded dead sister would say that.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: Actually, we didn’t invade those places, except for Granada (and Panama, an important omission on my part). In the other cases, we usually simply used proxy groups to try to assassinate elected officials and/or topple elected governments and/or reinstall fascist dictators friendly to American aims. I usually try to be more careful with my language. But the point is the same: the U.S. has no credibility on the world stage when it condemns other nations’ military actions.

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