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WikiLeaks (and a kiss stolen in the 13th century)

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — Assange, WikiLeaks, Google Ngrams, impact assessment — and a digression ]

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Charles, duc d’Orleans

1.

Let’s start with Julian Assange; we’ll get to Charles d’Orleans later.

In the movie Julian Assange: a Modern Day Hero? Assange claims for WikiLeaks‘ massive Afghan / ISAF leak

It’s the most detailed history of any war that has been made, ever. It’s significant.

I don’t think there’s much doubt that WikiLeaks has had some impact in many areas of our complex world — but as I was watching the film the other day, I found myself wondering just how small its cumulative impact is, in comparison to that immense complexity.

2.

Assange makes various claims for WikiLeaks in the movie, but perhaps the most instructive one comes at the tail end of his statement describing the WL project as a whole:

WikiLeaks is a project of Sunshine Press; Sunshine Press is a collaboration between journalists, technical people, cyberpunks, some anti-corruption people, and some fairly famous civil rights activists, to try and get as many documents as possible out onto the internet that have never been released before that will produce positive political reform.

Let’s take Assange’s expressed hope that WL will “produce positive political reform” as the benchmark here.

Has it done that? Are there any signs that it will? What positive political reform, precisely?

Have, for instance, the Afghan WikiLeaks influenced the outcome of the war in Afghanistan?

3.

Or – to put the same question slightly differently – is or was WikiLeaks all a bit of a nine-days-wonder?

Google’s Ngram Viewer allows users to search for the frequency of uses of specific terms across a large volume of books over a specific time frame. It cannot have escaped the attention of folks at Google (or no such agency) that an Ngram-style timeline of mentions of names and terms of one sort or another in news articles from the leading news sources would be of similar interest.

A promo page on the movie notes that “WikiLeaks and Assange have been one of THE news stories of 2010″ and suggests “There is a new WikiLeaks story in the media every week and the next wave involves the big banks in 2011″ – not to mention “Julian Assange will remain in the news all year as his controversial sex crime charges come to a head later in 2011″ – no doubt a popular selling point…

Is there a new WikiLeaks story in the media every week? I’m wondering what a Ngram of news mentions of WikiLeaks across the last two or three years would show.

4.

What’s a “nine days wonder”?

I had to use Google myself to verify that “a nine days wonder” (as opposed to “a seven days wonder”) was the phrase I should be using.

I was delighted to find that an old hero of mine – the poet Charles d’Orleans – was among the first to use it:

For this a wondir last but dayes nyne, An oold proverbe is seid.

I have always liked d’Orleans since I first ran across his poetic “confession” to God and his priest:

My ghostly father! I me confess,
First to God, and then to you,
That at a window, wot you how,
I stole a kiss of great sweetness!

To steal is sinful, to be sure, and kisses carry their own moral burden – but confession and penitence purifies the soul.

The thing is, reparation must also be made — and so it is that d’Orleans continues by vowing to God:

But I restore it shall, doubtless…

— the stolen kiss, that is.

He’s willing to give it back — always assuming that particular “window of opportunity” is still open…

5.

But I digress.  Which raises the question: is there a purpose to digression, do you suppose?

Elkus on Wikileaks and Sovereignty

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

Adam Elkus has a smart piece up at Rethinking Security that deserves wider readership:

WikiLeaks and Sovereignty

….WikiLeaks represents the idea that states have no inherent authority to hold onto vital national secrets. Because information is fundamentally boundless and unlimited by the “oldthink” of national borders and politics, state control over proprietary information is irrelevant. WikiLeaks and other radical transparency advocates believe that they-an unelected, transnational elite-can pick and choose which states are good and bad and whose secrets deserve exposure. And if information deserves to be free-and the only people who would keep it from being so are those with something to hide-then it is fine for non-state networks to arrogate themselves the right to receive and expose state secrets.

….While WikiLeaks is often positioned as a champion of digital democracy, it is actually wholly anti-democratic. It transfers power and security from national governments and their publics to unelected international activist organizations and bureaucrats. While this may seem like a harsh interpretation, there is no check on the likes of Julian Assange. Governments-even autocratic ones-still must contend on a day-to-day basis with the people. Even China had to face a reckoning after the Wenzhou train crash. WikiLeaks and other radical transparency organizations mean to replace one group of elites-which at least nominally can be called to court-with another who are accountable only to their own consciences.

Read the whole thing here.

Let me add a few comments to Adam’s excellent analysis.

Wikileaks and Julian Assange were not and have never been, lone wolves or information-must-be-free martyrs. They are allied with important institutions and individuals within the Western progressive elite, not least major media heavyweights like The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel, but also sympathizers within Western governments. Unless you think that Pvt. Bradley Manning was a hacker wunderkind with an intuitive grasp of which files that could be swept up to further a sophisticated political agenda, the man had some inside help from further up the food chain.

Adam is correct to describe these political factions as anti-democratic because they are and while leaking has been going on as long as there have been governments, we now have the emergence of a transnational generational clique that see themselves as entitled to rule and impose policies that comport with their social prejudices, economic self-aggrandizement and ideological fetishes, whether the people support them or not. A vanguard attitude, if not an organizational vanguard.

Wikileaks and other devices operating in shadowy undercurrents are their form of liberum veto against the rest of us in the instances where they are not completely in control, thus migrating political power from responsible state institutions to the social class that currently fills most of the offices and appointments. So far, their actions have been largely cost-free because their peers in government, however irritated they may be at the effects of Wikileaks, are loath to cross the Rubicon and hammer these influential conspirators with whom they went to school, intermarry, do business, live amongst and look out for the careers of each other’s children the way they have hammered Bradley Manning.

The same oligarchical class indulgence is seen in the financial crisis where almost none of the people responsible for massive criminal fraud in the banking and investment  sectors that melted the global economy have faced prosecution, unlike previous financial scandals like the S&L crisis or BCCI where even iconic figures faced grand juries. Instead of indictments, the new class received subsidies, bonuses and sweetheart, secret deals from their alumni chums running central banks and national governments. 

Carl Prinecommenting on a much narrower and wholly American slice of this corrupt camarilla, described this new class very well:

Let me be blunt.  A late Baby Boomer generation of politicians, bankers, reporters and generals has formed into a cancer inside this democracy, and their tumorous leadership won’t be kind to your future.

Unfortunately, this cancer is not limited to our democracy, it is the root of the decline of the West.

Viewdle is a Two-Edged App

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Saw this on Shlok’s site:

Viewdle – Photo and Video Face Tagging from Viewdle on Vimeo.

This kind of app is a required step for making augmented reality devices part of the social media ecology. Therefore, this tech will become a standard for all mobile devices – merchants and advertisers want us as an army of data collectors on each other.

OTOH, automatic face-recognition and social media aggregation raises serious concerns about the potential dangers of living under a panopticon state if an app is aggregating and bundling all your online data in real time, while giving out your GPS and home address. A godsend to stalkers, oppo researchers, con men, disgruntled spouses or employees, autocratic governments and other creepy malefactors. Expect businesses, which are already attempting to illegally pry and spy into all areas of employee’s lives, to make surreptitious use of apps of this nature

Puts the protests to revolution in Egypt and Tunisia in perspective, doesn’t it?

If the FCC wanted to do something useful and promoting of liberty, they might consider regs to let individuals exercise greater control the use third parties would have to their collective online IDs – then you could be “out there” or not or to the degree you liked. Some people, do want to be “out there” professional or social reasons. While you cannot control pictures of yourself in a public space, I’m not sure the Supreme Court thought that your presence in public meant that random strangers and government officials should be able to run your credit history as you sit at a table in a restaurant or bar or take in a movie or ball game by taking your photo. A similar logic underlies state laws prohibiting wiretapping or making auditory recording individuals without their knowledge and consent (Illinois being one such state where Chicago aldermen and state legislators have acquired a healthy fear of recording devices).

Speaking of government, I have been told by an authoritative source that the USG rsearch is far advanced in this area. Probably a lot further along than is Viewdle, but perhaps not.

Follow-up: Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange

Friday, December 24th, 2010

[ by Charles Cameron ]

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on Zenpundit and ChicagoBoyz, picking up on some comments made on both sites, explaining my own interests, and taking the inquiry a little further.

On Zenpundit, Larry said, “Your need to destroy Assange is getting embarrassing. Why not make lemonaid?” and JN Kish, “The real story here should be about the data – and who is helping Assange – not Assange himself.” Meanwhile on ChicagoBoyz, a certain Gerald Attrick commented, “Ah, but as we say in in art crit: Deal with the Art and not the Man…”

To Larry I would say, I think that my post WikiLeaks: Counterpoint at the State Department? — in which I point up the irony inherent in the same State Department spokesman celebrating World Press Freedom Day and chiding Assange for “providing a targeting list to a group like al-Qaida” on the same day — could as easily be read as pro-Assange as today’s post, Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange can be read as calling for his destruction.

More generally, it seems to me that there are a whole lot of stories to be told here: the ones I wish to tell are those where I have a reasonably informed “nose” for relevant detail, and which tend to be overlooked by others — and thus have the potential to blindside us.

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My own main interest is in tracking religious, mythic and apocalyptic themes in contemporary affairs, where they are all too easily overlooked, misunderstood or dismissed. Thus I have posted on Tracking the Mahdi on WikiLeaks, and added related material in section 1 of my post today.

I am also interested in concept mapping, games and creative thinking — interests which led me to post WikiLeaks: Critical Foreign Dependencies and The WikiLeaks paradox, and more lightheartedly to take an amused sideways glance at WikiLeaks in The power of network visualization.

And I certainly find Assange himself an interesting figure, and have done what I can to illuminate his background in mythology, religion and games in Wikileaks and the Search for a Cryptographic Mythology, again in Update: Wikileaks and Cryptographic Mythology and (again light-heartedly) in A DoubleQuote for Anders.

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Let me be more explicit: I have no wish to lionize Assange, nor to feed him to the lions — I would like to understand him a little better.

I come from a scholarly tradition that doesn’t favor the demonization of new religious movements, and believes (for instance) that it is entirely plausible that the Waco inferno could have been avoided if the religious beliefs of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians had been taken seriously as such, and not dismissed out of hand as “bible babble”.

James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher in Why Waco for instance, write:

The Waco situation could have been handled differently and possibly resolved peacefully. This is not unfounded speculation or wishful thinking. It is the considered opinion of the lawyers who spent the most time with the Davidians during the siege and of various scholars of religion who understand biblical apocalyptic belief systems such as that of the Branch Davidians. There was a way to communicate with these biblically oriented people, but it had nothing to do with hostage rescue or counterterrorist tactics. Indeed, such a strategy was being pursued, with FBI cooperation, by Phillip Arnold of the Reunion Institute in Houston and James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, one of the authors of this book. Arnold and Tabor worked in concert with the lawyers Dick DeGuerin and Jack Zimmerman, who spent a total of twenty hours inside the Mount Carmel center between March 29 and April 4, communicating directly with Koresh and his main spokesperson, Steve Schneider. Unfortunately, these attempts came too late. By the time they began to bear positive results, decisions had already been made in Washington to convince Attorney General Janet Reno to end the siege by force.

Jane Seminaire Docherty’s Learning Lessons from Waco, similarly, “offers a fresh perspective on the activities of law enforcement agents. She shows how the Waco conflict resulted from a collision of two distinct worldviews-the FBI’s and the Davidians’—and their divergent notions of reality. By exploring the failures of the negotiations, she also urges a better understanding of encounters between rising religious movements and dominant social institutions.” [Syracuse UP]

I’d therefore be hesitant to drag Assange into a somewhat murky association with the “cult milieu” – but Assange himself was quite open in talking with Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker about the man his mother lived with and had a child by, then ran away from, after her marriage to Assange’s father broke up. Khatchadourian writes:

When I asked him about the experience, he told me that there was evidence that the man belonged to a powerful cult called the Family—its motto was “Unseen, Unknown, and Unheard.” Some members were doctors who persuaded mothers to give up their newborn children to the cult’s leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The cult had moles in government, Assange suspected, who provided the musician with leads on Claire’s whereabouts.

Wikipedia’ has an account of that group, also known as the Santiniketan Park Association.

And as you might expect, there’s a bizarre and frankly conspiracist take on this connection already out and about on the web.

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For a more detailed and indeed harrowing view of the Santiniketan Park Association from a member who left, see this excerpt from Sarah Moore’s book, Unseen, Unheard, Unknown.

A couple of odd remarks here strike me:

Some of us had multiple birth certificates and passports, and citizenship of more than one country. Only she knows why thus was and why we were also all dressed alike, why most of us even had our hair dyed identically blond.

The motto of the sect is ‘Unseen, Unheard and Unknown’, and even now the thought of the consequences of betraying that motto still worries me sometimes.

We weren’t often allowed to see newspapers, in fact that happened only after we were quite a bit older and even then they’d been censored .

and:

Looking back, I can see that any game or hobby that we started we would get hooked on, playing it over and over again in our limited spare time. If we got into a game or fantasy we tended to want to keep on with it and it assumed the utmost importance in our lives.

It might have appeared that we were obsessive kids but it was understandable considering the malevolent reality we faced outside our games. Usually Anne and the Aunties saw to it that as soon as we started enjoying ourselves, it was stopped, and a new rule would be made, forbidding us from playing that particular game. We would thus be forced to try and make up a new one within the boundaries of the rules that governed our lives, still knowing that eventually this new one would be banned also.

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Speaking of “cults” – there are several WL cables that make reference to a cult or cults, generally in the context of a “cult of personality” (Mao, eg), and in one case with reference to Scientology. There’s also – and this where things get interesting from my POV — one intriguing reference to a cult in Iran:

Though stressing that he is not an opponent of the Islamic system, he warned that the Revolutionary Guard-based faction which “stole the election,” and is now seeking total control is “extremely dangerous to both us and you.” He repeatedly characterized this group as “a criminal cult,” motivated by its fanaticism, ignorance, and the monetary self-interest of its members. He added that the group is intent on exporting revolution. According to source, both Ahmedinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi are affiliates rather than “leaders” of this group, and neither will likely end up with significant power if the group successfully consolidates control over the state and its economy (see reftel).

A religious group of which “both Ahmedinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi are affiliates” sounds suspiciously like the Hojjatiyeh.

But that’s the topic for another upcoming post, I promise.

Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

[ by Charles Cameron ]

Martyr and messiah are two of the more intense “roles” in the religious vocabulary, and unlike mystics and saints, both martyrs and messiahs tend to have an impact, not just within their own religious circles but in the wider context of the times.

Martyr and messiah are also words that can be bandied about fairly loosely — so a simple word-search on “messiah” will reveal references to a third-person platform game with some gunplay and the white messiah fable in Avatar, while a search on “martyr” might tell you how to become a martyr for affiliate networks, just as a search on “crusade” will turn up crusades for justice or mental health – my search today even pointed me to a crusade for cloth diapers.

1. Martyrdom and messianism in WikiLeaks

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, both terms crop up occasionally in WikiLeaks, with the Government of Iraq, for instance, banning use of the word “martyr” for soldiers who died in the war with Iran, and US diplomats wiring home a report by an opposition psychiatrist to the effect that “Morally, Chavez [of Venezuela] combines a sense of tragedy and romanticism (a desire for an idyllic world) to project a messianic image.” Indeed, the whole paragraph is choc-a-bloc with that kind of imagery, and worth quoting in full:

Ideologically, Chavez wants to project an image of a “utopian socialist,” which de Vries described as someone who is revolutionary, collectivist, and dogmatic. In reality, de Vries argues, Chavez is an absolute pragmatist when it comes to maintaining power, which makes him a conservative. Coupled with Chavez’ self-love (narcissism), sense of destiny, and obsession with Venezuelan symbolism, this pragmatism makes Chavez look more like fascist, however, rather than a socialist. Morally, Chavez combines a sense of tragedy and romanticism (a desire for an idyllic world) to project a messianic image. De Vries, however, said Chavez is a realist who uses morals and ethics to fit the situation.

PM Netanyahu of Israel was using the term “messianic” with a little more precision when he described the Iranian regime as “crazy, retrograde, and fanatical, with a Messianic desire to speed up a violent ‘end of days.'”

2. Julian Assange in the role of martyr

The words martyr and messiah, then, carry a symbolic freight that is at the very least comparable to that of flags and scriptures – so it is interesting that both terms crop up in the recent BBC interview with Julian Assange.

My reading of the interview suggests that it is Assange himself who introduces the meme of martyrdom, though not the word itself, when he answers a question about the impact of the sexual accusations against him, “What impact so you think that will have on your organisation and what sort of figure do you think you, Julian Assange, cut in the face of all this. How will you be regarded? What will it do to you?” with the response, “I think it will be quite helpful for our organisation.”

In the follow up, interviewer John Humphrys twice uses the word “martyr” explicitly:

Q: Really? You see yourself as a martyr then?

JA: I think it will focus an incredible attention on the details of this case and then when the details of this case come out and people look to see what the actions are compared to the reality of the facts, other than that, it will expose a tremendous abuse of power. And that will, in fact, be helpful to this organisation. And, in fact, the extra focus that has occurred over the last two weeks has been very helpful to this organisation.

and:

Q: Just to answer that question then. You think this will be good for you and good for Wikileaks?

JA: I’ve had to suffer and we’ve had incredible disruptions.

Q: You do see yourself as a martyr here.

JA: Well, you know, in a very beneficial position, if you can be martyred without dying. And we’ve had a little bit of that over the past ten days. And if this case goes on, we will have more.

3. Julian Assange in the role of messiah

If the role of martyr implies, at mimimum, that one suffers for a cause, that of messiah implies that one leads it in a profound transformation of the world. Both terms are now found in association with the word “complex” – which applies whenever a individual views himself or herself as a martyr or messiah – but a “messianic complex” is presumably more worrisome than a “martyr complex” if only for the reason that there are many more martyrs than messiahs, many more willing to suffer for a cause than to lead it.

It is accordingly worth noting that it is the interviewer, John Humphrys, who introduces both the word “messianic” and the concept of a “messianic figure” into the interview, although Assange makes no effort to wave it away…

Q: Just a final thought. Do you see yourself… as some sort of messianic figure?

JA: Everyone would like to be a messianic figure without dying. We bringing some important change about what is perceived to be rights of people who expose abuses by powerful corporations and then to resist censorship attacks after the event. We are also changing the perception of the west.

Q: I’m talking about you personally.

JA: I’m always so focussed on my work, I don’t have time to think about how I perceive myself… I had time to perceive myself a bit more in solitary confinement. I was perfectly happy with myself. I wondered what that process would do. Would I think “my goodness, how have I got into this mess, is it all just too hard?”

The world is a very ungrateful place, why should I continue to suffer simply to try and do some good in the world. If the world is so viciously against it ,why don’t I just go off and do some mathematics or write some books? But no, actually, I felt quite at peace.

Q: You want to change the world?

JA: Absolutely. The world has a lot of problems and they need to be reformed. And we only live once. Every person who has some ability to do something about it, if they are a person of good character, has the duty to try and fix the problems in the environment which they’re in.

That is a value, that, yes, comes partly from my temperament. There is also a value that comes from my father, which is that capable, generous men don’t create victims, they try and save people from becoming victims. That is what they are tasked to do. If they do not do that they are not worthy of respect or they are not capable.

4. Julian Assange, martyr and messiah?

I think it is clear that both Assange and his interviewer are in effect reframing the religious terms “martyr” and “messiah” in non-religious, basically psychological senses — although I don’t suppose Assange is exactly claiming to have the two “complexes” I mentioned above.

Here’s what’s curious about this reframing, from a religious studies point of view:

Assange’s implicit acceptance of a “messianic” role undercuts the specific force of the role of “martyr” – one who gives his life for the cause. “Everyone” he says, “would like to be a messianic figure without dying.” Assange wouldn’t exactly object to being a martyr without dying, too.


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