Tuesday, January 25. 2011
In my semi-official role as currator of all things Christgau, I took a look at his NAJP blog last week and found two new-to-me posts, dated Dec. 17 and Dec. 31, attacking Julian Assange and Wikileaks:
The first referred to an article by Robert P. Baird, What Is Julian Assange Up To?, and the second reiterated the recommendation. I myself wrote about Baird's post back on Dec. 9 (Wikileaks), although what I got out of it was completely different than what Christgau got. I glossed over the section in the middle of Baird's piece about the "language poets of the 1970s" (whoever they be) thinking it irrelevant and possibly nonsensical, but it seems to mean something for Christgau. Still, I doubt that one needs a theory of poetic language here. The real issues are more basic than that.
In other words, Christgau continues to identify with US foreign policy (despite "its deplorable perfidies"), pledges his allegiance by reciting a cliché laundry list of more perfidious countries, and dismisses any criticism (except his own) as "reflexive anti-Americanism." He's exempt because he's ultimately loyal, as he proves by spitting on Assange and castigating all the usual devils. He continues:
His conclusion here is exactly the opposite of the one I drew: I argued that the likelihood of disclosure would eventually force (or select) diplomats to take positions in private that wouldn't be embarrassing in public, and that will tend to rein in many of the reckless and dangerous impulses we see blow up. He not only accepts the need for secrecy but imagines a tug-of-war within the US foreign policy establishment where the good guys would be less effective if their disputes were exposed to the public. This seems counterintuitive: isn't it usually the bad guys who have more to fear from public exposure?
I'm going to pick out bits from the comment stream as well as the articles. Tom Carson commented:
Two big assumptions here: one is that sub-policy-level analysts act as "an in-house check" against "misguided policies" but that is belied by the concession that the policy makers do what they want anyway; the other is the idea that secrecy lets analysts be more critical than they would be otherwise, even though it seems at least as likely that with no risk of exposure they'd just tell the policymakers what they want to hear in the first place.
Christgau reiterated his intents in the second piece:
That's the last we'll hear of whatever (1) means; all else is politics, always good for a quarrel. Christgau then reiterates his early opposition to Bush invading Iraq, adding:
I won't try to explain much less critique the next few fevered lines, but we'll return to more like them. He then endorses Carson's distinction between diplomacy and foreign policy ("terms I and everyone else in this discussion have been using too losely"), nitpicking a bit but ultimately restating Carson's thesis:
I've fought this argument several times already, so won't rerun it here. But then there's this:
We should be clear here that Baird's mumbo-jumbo about poetry is Baird talking, not Assange. Baird does point out that Assange's initial assumption about increased transparency encouraging responsibility may not work because those in power are likely to survive embarrassments here and there, even lots of them. That's actually an old problem, much hashed over since the 1950s by such varied thinkers as Marcuse, Chomsky, Neil Postman, and Chris Hedges. So the threat of leaks, and the facts revealed by leaks, might not be enough to turn American foreign policy around? That doesn't make them useless or unhelpful or unworthy.
It isn't clear to me why revealing a few internal cables should in any way alter "the language of diplomacy" -- I thought diplomatic language was, by definition, public. Even more baffling is how the leaks are "making it easier for the bad guys to kill people" -- even if I stuck to Christgau's probable designation of who the "bad guys" are. (I'd be tempted to include the US diplomats who encouraged Israel to attack Lebanon in 2006, and who arranged to arm the PLO to attack and purge Hamas -- which failed, leading to Israel's blockade and siege of Gaza. I could go on, but Christgau has already stipulated that US foreign policy has killed hundreds of thousands, and insisted that it doesn't matter; he still wants to protect them from Wikileaks.)
Tom Carson further defines foreign policy and diplomacy; asserts that Wikileaks has hurt the latter more than the former; tries to answer Caldwell by arguing that "the State Department -- along with those 1960s betes noires, the CIA and the Pentagon" did warn against the Iraq war: "So let's discredit and embarrass the people who tried to give those warnings and make sure they never get another chance to do it again! That's the practical effect of what Assange has done."
William Osborne made a long comment that I didn't find anything interesting in, but Carson jumped all over him, exclaiming "sorry, but I just can't stomach this kind of Chomskyite claptrap anymore." Osborne never mentioned Chomsky, nor referenced him in any obvious way. More of this to come.
Christgau returns, compliments Carson ("who knows more about this stuff by a factor of 50 than I do and probably more than any other practicing arts journalist, and whose personal history as regards US policy in Central America happens to be unimpeachable"), offers links to two war-related pieces he wrote in 1991 and 2001, and goes on to vent:
First, the Chomsky libel is utterly uncalled for. There is absolutely no basis for linking Chomsky and jihadism. All it does it parade one's ignorance, raising it to the level of a rhetorical parlor-trick. Carson did it above, and Christgau previously did it in his warmongering 2001 piece (linked above), where in order to wage war on the "far enemy" in Afghanistan one first had to demolish anyone harboring antiwar doubts or sentiments in the US, and Chomsky seems to be the favorite whipping boy for leftists eager to enlist Dick Cheney as their lesser evil. To do so requires several profound leaps of faith; in particular, belief that Al-Qaeda is so evil and immediately threatening as to require a drastic, morally compromising assault, and faith that the US government and military wasn't so morally compromised and wouldn't fuck it up too bad. I can see where someone living less than two miles from WTC could be so shook. (In fact, I was in New York on 9/11, and did see it.) But I couldn't buy the latter point, and frankly never for one minute saw the US invading Afghanistan as solving anything. And Chomsky had very little to do with my feelings.
As for the rest of the relative moralizing, I could nitpick but quite frankly I'd trade US foreign policy for any other nation's. No other country meddles more promiscuously or perversely in other nations' internal affairs. (The blow-up in Lebanon is this week's latest such disaster, and I'd love to see the leaks on it. Even more, I'd love to be assured that US machinations over the next few weeks and months will be exposed. Otherwise it seems almost certain that the US will green light another Israeli misadventure.) But even if you're right that the US is (or could be, with a decent president and a little tlc) a more benign world force than those named above, would that even be a good thing? Americans are vastly ignorant of what US foreign policy does to us -- and I'm not just talking about the war crimes, or the tyranny and corruption we support. In particular, few of us have any sense of how we bleed our economy to curry foreign favor for global capital that in turn bleeds our economy.
I'm boxing myself into a lose-lose position here. If I argue that Wikileaks is a good thing because it undercuts and circumscribes US foreign policy, Christgau and Carson will feel vindicated because they support that policy -- sure, not that exact policy, but some possible version of it in their dreams. On the other hand, if I fall back and doubt that Wikileaks will have any real effect, they will still hate Assange as a nihilist pissing on their dreams because they imagine his revelations harming the good guys they hypothesize must exist in the diplomacy ranks because, well, they're Americans, there's gotta be decent people in the ranks somewhere.
Christgau continues by explaining "I continue to be a fairly staunch supporter of Barack Obama" -- despite Larry Summers ("by far his worst appointment"; actually Ben Bernanke was, although some missing leaks could tilt the honor to Richard Holbrooke; there's still a vast amount we don't know about how US foreign policy works) -- then:
When Osborne tries to steer the discussion back to "the symbiotic relationship between rock, journalism, and corporate America," Christgau slaps him down:
Some more comments of minor relevance, including one by Joe Levy on indie rock. I find this all rather depressing. I regard Christgau and Carson as friends and most often allies -- don't know Carson nearly as well as I know Christgau, but he's edited me and done me various favors. I doubt that there are many areas where we'd actually disagree, but they evidently have two genes that I lack: one is the willingness to compromise on nonviolence; the other is an excessive desire to identify with their government and political system. They are not in any sense enemies of peace, justice, or equality. But they are not being helpful in throwing out these silly, irrational attacks on Wikileaks -- a force which, regardless of whether it is optimal or even well-intentioned, is something we desperately need and should be very grateful for.
UPDATE: One more line I wanted to say something about -- actually one of the most important ones -- but somehow missed when I was assembling the outline above. From Christgau (part of his Obama point):
I don't care to get into whether Obama's Afghanistan decisions were excusable or tolerable or what not. What bothers me here is the suggestion that Afghanistan would have been solved successfully if only Bush hadn't diverted all those resources to Iraq. I maintain that both wars were doomed from the start to fail, and mostly due to the nature of the occupation -- the way the US armed forces think and act, and the way US foreign policy thinks and acts. That Iraq failed more quickly was mostly because Bush put more effort there. If you want an analogy, think of the World Trade Center. The second tower collapsed first, mostly because it had been struck off-center, the plane at an angle which directly impacted more floors, and a bit lower down so there was more dead weight on top. Nonetheless, the first tower fell eventually, and not because firefighters were distracted by the second. The first tower held up longer, but was subject to the same basic flaw.
The US had more options and chances in Afghanistan than in Iraq, but still made the worst of them. Karzai was recruited precisely because he was corrupt: we knew he'd be our man because he was already on the payroll, and had been for decades. Same for the warlords. Maybe if we had paid more attention to where the money was going; maybe if we better understood Pakistan's interest in the Taliban; maybe if we hadn't incidentally killed so many pure bystanders; maybe . . . well, none of these things could really be maybes because we are who we are, and at least when it comes to running an empire we're not aware and sensitive to things like that. Certainly Bush wasn't the ideal leader for the job, but how much better is Obama? He's still, as Rumsfeld put it, stuck with the army he's got, and the country he's got.
There have been a lot of lame excuses for the US failure in Afghanistan, but the one that Iraq diverted our attention at some critical point is the lamest of all.
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