Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Malice of Ignorance

Whatever we may say about WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange, they certainly have come up with a unique way to raise our consciousness about verb tense.  Their announcement to make public what they call the “Embassy cables” has forced our State Department to enable a phrase which I recently quoted from Alfred Schutz:  “to place ourselves mentally in a future state of affairs which we consider as already realized.”  Suddenly the State Department finds itself deep in the throes of what Schutz called “thinking in the future perfect tense,” perhaps, in the spirit of Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, without having the foggiest idea of what the future perfect tense is.

If Assange were doing this for no other reason than to give a grammar lesson to those in power in order to dissuade them from exercising their power recklessly, it would be easy to recognize his announced intentions (his own “thinking in the future perfect tense”) as positive-connotation chutzpah worthy of a Chutzpah of the Week award.  Unfortunately, we do not know what his intentions really are.  Thus, while there may be no doubt about the degree of chutzpah, there are no criteria for assessing the underlying connotation as positive or negative.

This situation is further complicated by the current Administration having campaigned on the promise that the workings of governance needed to become more transparent.  That is but one of many promises that was not kept;  but, given the chronology of WikiLeaks itself, one wonders whether or not Assange has deliberately managed it as a thorn in the side of the Obama White House, a seriously painful reminder of the failure to make good on this promise.  This might further tilt the balance toward positive connotation were it not for the question of just who would feel the pain.  If that pain were focused on specific reckless acts of specific individuals, Assange’s intended action might, indeed, lead to more members of the State Department acting with a level of discretion that, by all rights, should have been the norm;  but there is no focus at all in Assange’s threat.  If we go by the numbers provided this morning in David Dombey’s report for the Financial Times, we are talking about between 250,000 and 400,000 documents scheduled for release;  and, on the basis of the protestations coming from the State Department, there is a good chance that the State Department knows more about what is in those documents than Assange does, since it is hard to imagine Assange having reviewed them all.

This is where the connotation balance swings to the negative.  It is hard to tell just what Assange takes his job description to be.  The “editor-in-chief” description, which Dombey used in his Financial Times piece, can also be found on Assange’s Wikipedia page;  but the Wikipedia page for WikiLeaks itself names him as “director.”  This may be a fine point;  but it is one way to assess the underlying question of WikiLeaks own “code” of behavior.  (I was pleased to see that “A man gotta have a code” has first place in the Web page of Top 10 Quotes from The Wire.)  If Assange is acting in an editorial capacity, then, according to prevailing normative practices of editing, he is responsible for every piece of text he releases for publication.  Since it is unlikely that he has examined every one of those documents whose numbers run to six figures, the act that he is threatening would be viewed as negligent, at least by any other editor who takes his/her work seriously.  As a “director,” on the other hand, he could either delegate this responsibility to someone with professional editing qualifications (recognizing that the buck would still stop at his own desk) or decide that no such individual was necessary, meaning that WikiLeaks was effectively a conduit, simply moving content from a limited-access site to a public one.  My own feeling is that all of these options place Assange in a very negative light.  The chutzpah still stands, but the connotation is unlikely to be positive.

There remains one other way to read the current state of play, which is that Assange has decided to play a game of chicken with the State Department.  This, too, would be an act of chutzpah;  and, while some might see it as a positive act of one lone individual setting himself up against as monstrous bureaucracy whose interests may be questionable more often than not, there is too much brinksmanship going on in global relations right now to allow for the influence of such a wild player.  In other words Assange’s “code” may be that warped version of an old Sixties motto:

If you are not part of the solution, you can make the problem so bad that someone else will finally get around to fixing it.

Unfortunately, Assange’s strategy for calling attention to the problem runs the gamut from perverse to downright dangerous.  I would thus conclude that Assange has attracted enough attention this week to deserve the Chutzpah of the Week award;  but, at least within the norms of my own worldview, the connotation of his chutzpah is decidedly negative.

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