Orwell, 9/11, Emmanuel Goldstein and WikiLeaks
A strikingly good piece of investigative journalism from Associated Press finds that accusations about the damage done by WikiLeaks' latest release are -- yet again -- wildly overstated and without any factual basis. These most recent warnings have centered on WikiLeaks' exposure of diplomatic sources whom the released cables indicated should be "strictly protected." While unable to examine all of the names in the cables, AP focused on the ones "the State Department seemed to categorize as most risky." It found that many of them are "comfortable with their names in the open and no one fearing death."
In particular, many of these super-secret sources were "already dead, their names cited as sensitive in the context of long-resolved conflicts or situations" while "some have publicly written or testified at hearings about the supposedly confidential information they provided the U.S. government." Like the Pentagon before them, even the State Department -- which has "been scouring the documents since last year to find examples where sources are exposed and inform them that they may be 'outed'" -- is unable to provide any substantiation for its shrill, public denunciations of WikiLeaks and its "dire" warnings about the "grave danger" caused by publication of these cables:
The total damage appears limited and the State Department has steadfastly refused to describe any situation in which they've felt a source's life was in danger. They say a handful of people had to be relocated away from danger but won't provide any details on those few cases.
None of this is to say that all criticisms of WikiLeaks are unwarranted; I criticized the accidental release of sources' names as part of the Afghan War documents and assigned them some blame for failure to secure the cables. Nor is it to say that it's implausible that, at some point, someone may be harmed by release of the unredated cables. The point here is that, yet again, the fear-mongering frenzy issued by the U.S. Government against one of its Enemies Du Jour was blindly ingested and then disseminated by the standard cadre of government-loyal "journalists" and the authority-revering pundits who listen to them. No matter how many times that happens, the lesson is never learned, because there is no desire to learn it.
For three reasons, AP's findings are anything but surprising. First, that the U.S. Government declares something Very Secret hardly means it is; this is a secrecy-obsessed government that reflexively declares even the most banal matters to be "sensitive" and off-limits to the public, as proven by the release of hundreds of thousands of "secret" documents that reveal nothing. Second, there is an established history of extremely exaggerated government and media claims about the harm done by WikiLeaks releases; that's why, when examining the events last week that prompted the release of the unredacted cables, I wrote: "Serious caution is warranted in making claims about the damage caused by publication of these cables."
Third, and most important for present purposes, this is what the U.S. government and its media-servants do; it's their modus operandi. Whomever the government wants to demonize at any given moment is subjected to this same process. On a moment's notice, the full propaganda system is activated against the New Enemy, indiscriminate accusations are unleashed, personal foibles are exposed, collective hatred among all Decent People is mandated, and it then instantly becomes heretical to question the caricature of evil that has been manufactured.
That's how dictators and other assorted miscreants with whom the U.S. was tightly allied for years or even decades are overnight converted into The Root of All Evil, The Supreme Villain who Must be Vanquished (Saddam, Osama bin Laden, Gadaffi, Mubarak). Americans who were perfectly content to have their government in bed with these individuals suddenly stand up and demand, on cue, that no expense be spared to eradicate them. Often, the demonization campaign contains some truth -- the nation's long-time-friends-converted-overnight-into-Enemies really have committed atrocious acts or, as a new innovation of Nixonian tactics aimed at Daniel Ellsberg, even harbored some creepy porn (!) -- but the ritual of collective hatred renders any facts a mere accident. Once everyone's contempt is successfully directed toward the Chosen Enemy, it matters little what they actually did or did not do: such a profound menace are they to all that is Good that exaggerations or even lies about their bad acts are ennobled, in service of a Good Cause; conversely, to question the demonization or object to what is done to them is, by definition, to side with Evil.
Directing all this passionate hatred toward the state's identified Enemy and their Evil Acts has an added benefit: the resulting mass contempt, by design, distracts all attention away from of the evil committed by those stirring that passion. Thus do we all stomp our feet in righteous fury over the potential, speculative harm caused by WikiLeaks while steadfastly ignoring the actual, massive death and destruction on the part of our own leaders which WikiLeaks reveals (just as dramatic tales and anniversary rituals about bin Laden's act a full decade ago still cause us to overlook and acquiesce to the massive amount of violence, aggression and bloodshed our own leaders continue to bring to the world). Just yell Saddam's rape rooms or display the iconic photograph of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or claim that WikiLeaks has endangered hundreds of innocents and made "diplomacy" impossible or suddenly feign outrage over Mubarak's internal repression and everything -- the past, our own actions, facts -- all fade away in a cloud of righteous collective hatred, directed outward, away from ourselves and our government.
This is nothing more than a slightly less raucous rendition of Orwell's Emmanuel Goldstein/Two-Minute-Hate ritual. In Orwell's 1984, Goldstein is the shadowy, possibly-fictitious-but-possibly-real former Party official whose betrayals of the State, ongoing treason, and array of other incomprehensibly evil acts make him, in the lore of State propaganda, the Prime Villain, the Root of all Evil, whom Good Citizens blame for all societal evils and on whom they exclusively focus their rage. His image is regularly paraded before the citizenry during a Two Minute Hate Session, accompanied by an authoritative narration of his evil, and mass, inebriating rage results (see the video version here). The ultimate benefit of this ritual is it enables the citizenry to ignore their own plight and the violence and oppression of their own government (political parties use a similar process -- endless focus on marginal, hated figures in the other party -- to keep fear levels high and party loyalty strong). Thus can the debate over whether Julian Assange should be executed or merely imprisoned for life resume among all good people.
Speaking of Emmanuel Goldstein, he was the putative "author" of the Party manual published at length in 1984 that describes the Party's means of control and manipulation, entitled "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism." In the chapter entitled "War Is Peace," one finds what is easily the best essay for the 10-year-anniversary religious observance of 9/11 upon which we are about to embark:
In one combination or another, these three super-states are permanently at war, and have been so for the past twenty-five years. War, however, is no longer the desperate, annihilating struggle that it was in the early decades of the twentieth century. . . .
This is not to say that either the conduct of war, or the prevailing attitude towards it, has become less bloodthirsty or more chivalrous. On the contrary, war hysteria is continuous and universal in all countries, and such acts as raping, looting, the slaughter of children, the reduction of whole populations to slavery, and reprisals against prisoners which extend even to boiling and burying alive, are looked upon as normal, and, when they are committed by one's own side and not by the enemy, meritorious.
But in a physical sense war involves very small numbers of people, mostly highly-trained specialists, and causes comparatively few casualties. The fighting, when there is any, takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at, or round the Floating Fortresses which guard strategic spots on the sea lanes. . . .
To understand the nature of the present war -- for in spite of the regrouping which occurs every few years, it is always the same war -- one must realize in the first place that it is impossible for it to be decisive. . . . The primary aim of modern warfare (in accordance with the principles of doublethink, this aim is simultaneously recognized and not recognized by the directing brains of the Inner Party) is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living.
What is concerned here is not the morale of masses, whose attitude is unimportant so long as they are kept steadily at work, but the morale of the Party itself. Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist.
The splitting of the intelligence which the Party requires of its members, and which is more easily achieved in an atmosphere of war, is now almost universal, but the higher up the ranks one goes, the more marked it becomes. It is precisely in the Inner Party that war hysteria and hatred of the enemy are strongest. In his capacity as an administrator, it is often necessary for a member of the Inner Party to know that this or that item of war news is untruthful, and he may often be aware that the entire war is spurious and is either not happening or is being waged for purposes quite other than the declared ones: but such knowledge is easily neutralized by the technique of doublethink. Meanwhile no Inner Party member wavers for an instant in his mystical belief that the war is real, and that it is bound to end victoriously, with Oceania the undisputed master of the entire world. . . .
War prisoners apart, the average citizen of Oceania never sets eyes on a citizen of either Eurasia or Eastasia, and he is forbidden the knowledge of foreign languages. If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate. . .
The war, therefore, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. It is like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs. War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair. . . .
In the past, the ruling groups of all countries, although they might recognize their common interest and therefore limit the destructiveness of war, did fight against one another, and the victor always plundered the vanquished. In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.
There are certainly people with genuine power who understand exactly how this process works and are conscious of the propaganda it entails, and there are many ordinary citizens, paying only casual attention to political matters, who blindly ingest it. But it is the high-ranking Inner Party members -- the D.C. cadre of think tank "scholars," government and academic functionaries, and journalists and pundits who fancy themselves sophisticated political junkies and insiders -- who are the True Believers. They cling to institutions of political power and officialdom, plant their careers, self-esteem, self-importance and social circles in its belly, and are thus the most incentivized to believe in its Rightness and Goodness and the least able to critically assess it. Intoxicated with supreme loyalty to the organs of political power and societal institutions which support it, they become its most ardent, faithful evangelizers. The more they gather together in their insular royal court realm, the more they reinforce each other's trite convictions.
These pseudo-sophisticated, pseudo-intellectual nationalists may "know that this or that item of war news is untruthful" or may even know that the entire "war is being waged for purposes quite other than the declared ones." But no matter: they are Washington's most loyal denizens and thus "never waver for an instant in their mystical belief that the war is real" or in the propaganda that sustains it. At the heart of this propaganda -- and of their worldview -- is the unquestioning conviction about the unmitigated evil of the State's designated Enemies, and of their own Good. Observe how WikiLekas is now discussed, and especially observe the waves of self-praising moralizing over this next several days, to see this dynamic in all its glory.
© 2011 Salon