Monday, December 6, 2010

Wikileaks #2: In one ear and out the other

The other day in the shower, don't ask me why, "The Banana Boat Song" popped into my head and I started singing it for my own entertainment. As I did, it struck me as it never had before how strange the cultural role this worker's lament ("Daylight come and me wan go home") has taken on, at least in U.S. society, is. It seems to me anyway that it's now part of that horrible "vacation" genre where you can find my two least favorite songs of all time, "Margaritaville" and "The Piña Colada Song" and a number of other abominations, simply (as far as I can tell) because it's "tropical." The horrifically solipsistic "Worst vacation ever?" at the end of the intro to this article, which at no point mentions that the island we bombed to shit just for fun had people who considered it home, is another example of this revolting habit. All this is, of course, what the Situationists and the Sex Pistols were describing when they talked about cheap holidays in other people's misery.

This tropical = vacation equation is just one example of a larger phenomenon by which our imperial consumer society transforms and absorbs contrary or potentially harmful data. It happens on every level, too; one of my favorite examples of it on a smaller scale is "Imagine" by John Lennon*, which plays frequently on Lite Rock format radio in spite of its lyrical content, which stands in firm opposition to everything Lite Rock radio exists to prop up. Most people's mouths know every word to the song, but very few allow it to reach their minds.

I experience it frequently in conversation, especially at work; people in general (and I'm sure I'm included in this at times as well despite my awareness of the mechanism) are very good at automatically agreeing with everything they hear--and not just mechanical agreement, I mean agreeing and actually discussing back--and then immediately disregarding it. I've talked endlessly with people at work about the nature of wage slavery, and even gotten good responses, but then five minutes later people who a moment ago were totally with me will be right back to identifying with the company rather than with one another.

I don't say this to be like, oh, people are so stupid; I say it to emphasize how good the system has gotten at insulating itself from shocks. It's even convinced us to do the work for it!

This is the background of one of the more common criticisms of Wikileaks I've been seeing from people who are coming from a position outside of the mainstream--people, in other words, whose criticism of Wikileaks does not arise out of loyalty to the State.

That criticism is, of course, that Wikileaks isn't so much bad as useless. Any damaging information released through them will simply be chewed up and swallowed by the system, just as easily as "Imagine no possessions" or the existence of human beings on atolls. And it's true, at least for now. I wish we wouldn't help it to be true so much by saying, over and over again, "This is pointless," "Everyone knows this stuff already," and so on (this is the role we play in the machinery, though we prefer to call it cynicism), but it's true anyway.

Luckily, however, that criticism is irrelevant. I'll be discussing why tomorrow. And no, I'm not being coy, I'm just tired of typing right now. If you want to know the perspective I'm going to be approaching it from, it's described in Aaron's famous post at zunguzungu, which you've probably already read.

*Or, to be more seasonally relevant, "Happy X-Mas (War Is Over)," which functions similarly.


Hattie said...

This reminds me of the all-time horror vacation songs that drove me nuts in Europe in the 70's, "Vamos a la playa," and "Viva Espania," catchy little earworms tht celebrated the touristic destruction of Spain.
You really nail it in this brilliant post. It's getting so I turn more and more to blogs like yours rather than to mainstream news outlets.

BDR said...

It's worse. This past Saturday as I was preparing a shitty blog entry the internet went down; within seconds I was on the phone to comcast begging them to re-absorb me into Corporate's collective.

The comment password is *helerl,* which I like to this is an onomatopoeia (and a serendipitous chance to use obamatopoeia in a sentence besides this one in the near future).

Richard said...

I admit I was in the "it's pointless" group (or, more accurately, my attitude was "who cares? what difference does it make?" etc), but I do see it differently (and that zunguzungu post really helped me to do so)

Justin said...

I had not read that famous post or even knew who/what zunguzungu is. I am bad at blogging.

While reading your post, I was thinking a lot about a curious form of 'liberal/progressive' criticism against Wikileaks, that is the undue focus on the personality of Julian Assange. I don't just mean the rape charges, but the people who distance themselves from his cause not on the merits of his stated intentions, but because they say he is an asshole/narcissist/who gave him the right?/etc. I mean, you hardly ever hear people pan the iPad because who elected Steve Jobs and gave him the right to decide what we want? It's very similar to a strain of rightwing critique against President Obama, where they say he is a narcissistic asshole, perhaps in part because his actual policy is often very 'conservative'.

I've been chewing on this, but I've yet to really get at what I want to say of it in the right way. Your point about in one minute agreeing with you about wage slavery, and then in five minutes going back to identifying with the owner rather than each other is a big part of what I see in Wikileaks. Not all of it though. It also reminds me of debates/disagreements with people who generally do not share my political views, but on some topic agree, they maintain distance by saying they agree with most of what I say, but then do not define any little things they disagree with. Its a way of maintaining an emotional distance when there is no basis for a rational distance.

OK, I'm rambling, thinking while writing... Hopefully there is some coherence to this. Now, to hit publish or delete...

Jack Crow said...

I'm still in the "handled poorly, this feeds the Spectacle" camp. Because I have a whole lot of faith in people handling this poorly.

But, looking forward to your follow up all the same.

veriword: gradoo

davidly said...

The strongest indication that it makes no diff is that there's no denial. It's no longer necessary. The linked post doesn't really take this into account.

Richard said...

I think that there's no denial is not relevant to the point being made in the zunguzungu post. Or, rather, the content of the leaks is not what matters.

Ethan said...

Thank you Hattie! I don't know if I specifically am the best person for the task of replacing the entire news media, but I can assure you that you're better served without them.

BDR, my own internet provider is making me helerl, too, and I also am meekly accepting it and asking for more.

Jack, I agree that if you consider the leaks as aimed primarily at us down here at the bottom, they do tend to feed the spectacle. It's how I originally approached it, until like Richard I had my mind changed by the zunguzungu essay. Even considering that, I was still inclined to think largely positively of them anyway, because there is essentially nothing that we can do on a massive scale that would not feed into the spectacle, and the leaks are at least an attempt at breaking through.

However, in my zunguzungu-inspired take on the situation, I'm not sure that spectacular analysis applies. I could easily be wrong, though. I'm not going to address that directly in the next post, but I am interested to know how you feel about it after.

davidly, if you have the time and inclination do you think you could expand on that? As I so often do, I think I agree with Richard on this one, but it could be that I'm misunderstanding your point.

Ethan said...

The goddamn new blogger spam filter has not yet caught a single post from Tiffany or Coach or Mac, but it has caught legit comments from Peter Ward on another post and Justin on this one. Justin, I just fished yours out of the filter.

And I'm glad you hit publish!

I have a post in the works about the personality criticisms myself. I love your Steve Jobs comparison/example...that line of thinking hadn't occurred to me. I hope you don't mind if I quote you whenever I write my post about it. Also looking forward to yours, should it ever come.

I'm not sure I completely understand your third paragraph, which is probably my fault. Are you comparing those conversations to other people's responses to wikileaks, or to your own?

Ethan said...

Justin, I also just realized that I thought your comment said something about concrete plans to write a post at your place on the topic, but it does not actually. Sorry for assuming that! If you do write a post, I'm sure I will enjoy reading it.

miguel said...

Really great post Ethan. I'm not too crazy about the knee-jerk naysaying myself - though I was briefly there - in part, because it fails to comprehend that we are on very new territory. So my feeling is, why discourage people from participating? Share a file and hope for the best.

At the same time, I am getting equally irritated with the "It's not about the data, it's about making the conspiracy choke" school of thought, where I also briefly found myself. For one, it's more in league with the same false-knowingness that animates the naysaying and shares with it a prematurely trivializing regard for the data itself and the inherent worth of sharing it.

I don't believe that anyone can predict what is in all of those cables. Nor can they predict what the impact will be when knowledge of them is shared more widely.

The distribution of those files (including most emphatically, the poison pill) that banks, governments, corporations are working like hell to prevent is worthy NOW at this moment, for its own sake. Wikileaks is, at the very least, the world's loudest collective shout of 'Bullshit' at Empire. Surely that's a good thing, by itself.

miguel said...

Also, it seems to me for the choking conspiracy thing to work, the content has to matter to some fairly large mass of people. The conspiracy is not going to restrict its own oxygen for nothing. If the players in the conspiracy observe that the worst imaginable leaks can be easily withstood, absorbed and forgotten with the potential added benefit of further normalizing corruption and atrocity, they will surely be back to business as usual and leaks will just be part of the general cacophony.

miguel said...

The strongest indication that it makes no diff is that there's no denial.

The only thing they could possibly deny is the authenticity of the cables themselves. Even in the current media environment that would be hard to do for any length of time. Besides, which is more effective propaganda, denying that, for instance, Hillary ordered spying, or getting a bunch of experts to say, oh that, everyone spies.

Also, your point seems kind of at odds with the massive censorship and intimidation campaign the government is waging against the leaks. Some seems to think they 'make a diff.'

Justin said...

"I'm not sure I completely understand your third paragraph, which is probably my fault. Are you comparing those conversations to other people's responses to wikileaks, or to your own?"

I was rambling a bit and jumping around rather than taking steps.

I was saying two things; the first is that in response to your experience having a conversation with co-workers where there appears to be some awareness of what it is your up against, and then five minutes later behaving contrary to what it appears you know reminds me of the liberal/progressive lines of attack on Wikileaks. In one conversation they can criticize the government, quite harshly, and then later take sides with the government if anyone actually takes concrete action against it. In the work place, people are content to bitch and do nothing, just like in politics, and then resent anyone who tries to take action outside of the boss-approved channels.

The second thing I was reacting to was to note that often people come up with very meaningless, personality driven points of disagreement to rationalize their discomfort with going beyond disgruntled complacency to action. This is building on the first point in some sense, to be comfortable with watching someone actually do something about the situation and not just writing a blog post or bitching to a confidant, they have to find some point of disagreement. I still don't think I am hitting on that point right, because the example I hinted at from my personal life does not follow, so that deserves a third point which is...

Sometimes, people posture as independent, or respectable people by claiming disagreement with someone else whom they do not actually disagree with. In the case of Wikileaks, it is to distance themselves from having to do anything. I.e., 'that Assange is such a narcissistic asshole' or 'who does he think he is?', etc. Because anyone who actually acts is self-involved, an egotistical schmuck, immature, unrealistic, misguided, etc. The respectable course of action is to do nothing at all. And of course all of this is very much beside the point, which is the point, because disagreeing with the ideas behind something like Wikileaks is a thornier path.

Justin said...

To continue,

I always notice a particular tic in political discussion when two people who are normally not in agreement, or identify with different political flavors, agree on something. One or the other will not offer unqualified support for the other's statement, even though they share the same position, they will create a false distance by saying something like, "I agree with most of what so and so says about this." - then they do not actually say what the minor differences are between them.

Its a small thing, but I notice a lot.

davidly said...

What I meant by "denial is no longer required" is just that no one cares enough either way.

If Watergate happened today, Nixon could just say that "this is nothing new" and/or question the legality of Carl Bernstein's existence.

For good or bad, Wikileaks doesn't shape opinion. But our frame of reference has been shaped by lifetime's worth of mass-media consumption, and that has already led one to support at least one team and its captain. More info at this point is just overload.

It's not that I am for or against Wikileaks, per se. I'm not actually even sure what they are, at the end of the day. Still, I'm not convinced that the material being leaked isn't at least in part intentional on the part of the "intended target".

Basically, I just think that Wikileaks as a gathering and disseminating structure serves the conspiracy as much as the conspiracies themselves. Statements, stated intentions and desires, and actions on the part of those doing the puppet theater in front of the stage curtain may serve to frustrate and confuse certain elements of power, but I see more rallying around that divide and conquer.

And for all I know, the race to get Assange could just be a way to make the masses think that their on to something, when they aren't really. A way to make sure that every niche in society has its hero to believe in and enemy to curse.

No matter what we find out tomorrow, it won't surprise us. And we won't be able to do anything about it. But Wikileaks. Sure, why not.

Ethan said...

miguel, hah, well, you may not like my next post (which I'm almost done with now) as much.

I don't disagree that we can't know what's going to happen. I certainly don't know that the conspiracy is going to choke. What excites me, as I'm going to post more about soon, is that this is the first time I've seen something that might work.

On this: Also, it seems to me for the choking conspiracy thing to work, the content has to matter to some fairly large mass of people. I address it briefly and indirectly in the post I'm working on now, but if you don't mind waiting a bit I think I'll take it on more directly and at length in a later one.

Justin, ah, yes. I understand now. Thank you! I see you posted lengthily last night, I'm excited to read it. The anti-cult of personality stuff disturbs me, too.

davidly, to a certain extent I think that's a good point, but if nothing else I think it argues against us all saying "this is nothing new" ourselves. Why help provide cover for your hypothetical Nixon?

Basically, I just think that Wikileaks as a gathering and disseminating structure serves the conspiracy as much as the conspiracies themselves. I single this statement out because it seems a bit extreme compared with the rest of your post, and at odds with your other stated uncertainty. Are you sure about this?

davidly said...

Why help provide cover for your hypothetical Nixon? I just mean that it seems easier to press on with impunity today than then. I daresay that in today's environment, Tricky's misdeeds might not have garnered any more interest than the previous two Wikileaks, which should be at least as prosecutable. So this much appears new.

But, no, I'm not sure about anything. And I do think that once you start talking about conspiracies, all bets are off. Still, buttloads of information in the form of memos with copious snippets of indirect speech isn't likely to accomplish much more than having Hills give hangover calls for a few days and all is well again.

It's a catch-22. I think we just may have evolved to the point where if we walked in on all the world's supposed leaders engaging in the ritual abuse of children under the approving eye of Thoth, it'd get the highest tv ratings ever, the rest would change the channel in horror, and nothing more would come of it. Other than our discussions.

Don't get me wrong. I look forward to your next post. I wouldn't be here otherwise. And I am one to change my mind.

Randal Graves said...

davidly's got it so wrong. If you want high ratings, the children are going to have to be eaten alive as well.

Being a giant cynic, and because you all are much smarter than I, my short take on this is that the WikiLeaks gig is a mere blip, throwing a few landmines in front of a column of tanks. Still doesn't mean one shouldn't bury those landmines.

Ethan said...

davidly, I hope I didn't just come off more hostile than I meant to--which is to say, hostile at all, because that's not how I'm feeling. I'm just as interested, and just as open to changing my mind, as you.

Randal, I'm just glad you're admitting how much smarter than you everyone else is. I hope it's not a blip, it quite likely will be, I can see it potentially not being.

davidly said...

I hope I didn't just come off more hostile than I meant to--which is to say, hostile at all, because that's not how I'm feeling.
Not in the least.

Randal Graves: Well, yeah. Of course it'll include pedocannibalism. That's ratings majik.