Wikileaks: a war of words against Johnny Foreigner
In leaking US diplomats’ bitchy gossip about foreign leaders, Julian Assange has helped make national chauvinism respectable once again.
Time magazine’s 2010 person of the year? Julian Assange, Wikleaks data-dump impresario, might have his work cut out winning that one, what with the rape allegations. Still, he needn’t be too upset though, because there is one field of achievement in which no one can rival this redoubtable enemy of closed doors. That’s right – and I hope I’m not being premature in announcing this – no one deserves a Special Award for Services to National Chauvinism more than Assange.
Ever since the drip-tedious-drip of cabled gossip began last week, the esteem of beleaguered Western liberals has gradually been building. For too long, PC-ness had kept their prejudices in check. For too long, the opportunities for a bit of foreigner-bashing, were just too damned infrequent. For too long, Guardian-reading, New York Times-approving types had been left with little more than attacks on China’s human rights record to go on. As a Westerner, as an American, as a Brit, there just wasn’t that much to feel good about. Then, with the release of loads and loads of confidential diplomatic cables, all their petty, prejudice-heavy Christmases came at once.
Suddenly long-held prejudices about countries and their governments have been able to come out into the open. And all because, in the form of a bunch of second- and third-hand diplomatic reports, these prejudices now have official credence. It’s like a pent-up national chauvinism has now been given the official okay. We can laugh at the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the ‘vain, feckless, weak’ head of vain, feckless, weak Italy. We can enjoy the portrait of ‘thin-skinned and authoritarian’ president Sarkozy. And, we can titter at Kim Jong-il, dastardly head of the evil North Korea, ‘a flabby old chap’.
Everywhere one looks, there’s a case of laughing at the failings of others. There’s the mad Arabs bickering amongst themselves. There’s the unfathomable Chinese doing something Amnesty wouldn’t like with Google. On and on it goes. No prejudice about the rest of the world has gone unconfirmed.
This is probably why the contents of the cables, far from exposing the dark workings of the US imperialist machine, have been greeted with something like approval. For example, Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic seems quite chuffed with the whole exposure: ‘Overall, I have to say that this brief glimpse into how the government actually works is actually reassuring. The cable extracts are often sharp, smart, candid and penetrating. Who knew the US government had so many talented diplomats?’
Elsewhere a Bloomberg report concludes: ‘Rather than exposing ineptitude, a reading of a fair portion of the documents suggests that they actually reflect well on US policy and diplomacy.’ And Daniel Drezner in Foreign Policy sees nothing but good, clean international relations: ‘I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but it strikes me that these leaks show other governments engaged in far more hypocritical behaviour.’
The depiction of Russia as a ‘virtual mafia state’ in which ‘one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC [organised crime] groups’ has been particularly well received in the US and the UK. According to the Guardian’s gleeful portrait, the Russian state is dominated by ‘arms trafficking, money laundering, personal enrichment, protection for gangsters, extortion and kickbacks, suitcases full of money and secret offshore bank accounts in Cyprus’. All of which came as a mighty relief to a columnist at the Daily Telegraph: ‘If any good is to come from the WikiLeaks about Russia, it is that we can finally drop the pretence that we are dealing with a responsible, democratic government that poses no threat to our welfare.’ Of course, the spleen-venting against Russia was not without motivation – it had after all just won the right to host the 2018 World Cup. Or as the Sun put it ‘And the 2018 World Cup is awarded to… MAFIA STATE’.
So well done Wikileaks and Julian Assange. Well done for fuelling the fires of respectable national chauvinism. Well done for giving the broadsheet commentariat the official, telegrammed voices with which to ventriloquise their self-affirming distaste for Johnny Foreigner. We might not be perfect in the UK – after all we still have Prince Andrew – but at least we’re not like them over there with their bad leaders and, in the case of Colonel Gadaffi, bad botox. That seems to be the result of Wikileaks’ latest data evacuation.
Of course, none of this was what Assange wanted, apparently. Remember, this is a man vehemently opposed to governments/baddies. What Assange wanted was to ‘humiliate the US’. He wanted to ‘reveal the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors’. This was his intention: to make transparent, to expose.
But to expose what, exactly? Exposing everything in general seems to have come at the expense of exposing something in particular. That’s why it is nothing like Lenin’s decision in 1917 to reveal the Allies’ secret treaties in which they effectively divided up the world. Lenin’s aim was specific – to reveal the imperial motives of state combatants. Assange’s aim is general – to reveal, er, everything.
But then the whole modus operandi of Wikileaks has nothing to do with revealing the truth in any intentional or methodological sense. Rather, it’s fundamentally (and simply) conspiratorial. Hence in a 2006 blog posting, Assange admitted that he has no interest in the politics of left and right. The political battle lines today, he said, are between the individual and institutions. And the problem as he sees it is that institutions tend to be inexorably corrupt – a product of ‘functionaries working in collaborative secrecy, to the detriment of the population.’ So, if the problem – the real political problem – is secrecy and the conspiracies it protects, it’s not surprising that he sees the solution as complete transparency. Nothing should be secret. Everything should be public.
Given that that’s the extremely limited objective, little wonder that what he wants – ‘the humiliation of the US’ – is so different to what he gets. You release everything in this way and the interpretation is entirely up for grabs. That’s why these cables have not let daylight in upon magic. They’ve not enlightened the darkest recesses of international diplomacy. They’ve merely reinforced the prejudices of interpreters cherry-picking gossipy tidbits. And it’s not just been those fans of Assange’s conspiratorial posing that have been pleased. Those with a national superiority complex have also found plenty of opportunity to vent their chauvinist spleen.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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