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December 31, 2010

Ideas Have Consequences 2

Since it's a working assumption around here that if you want to be read you post rather than comment, I would like to call readers' attention in this second post to the long, garbled in-comments debate that my brief post on Julian Assange and Robert P. Baird has inspired. Let me begin by explaining that I wrote the post for two basic reasons. 1) I admired Baird's essay and was struck by how decisively it connected Assange to our putative topic, arts journalism--in fact rather highbrow arts criticism, but that's close enough. 2) I believed and believe that Assange's heroism has been vastly overrated by the left-liberal community most of us here are part of, and wanted to suggest that possibility in solidarity with anyone who'd been having doubts about that heroism.
Because brevity was a goal, I left many things unspecified. One regards my own attitude toward the Iraq war. Since you don't have to be very far left to oppose that war--was there ever a time except around our fraudulent 2003 "victory" when a majority of Americans supported it?--I thought my note that my objections to Assange's tactics didn't surface during his earlier Iraq dump would suffice. That it did not is a depressing measure of the emotionalism that surrounds the entire WikiLeaks affair. (The example that sums up so much of the outrage any criticism of Assange seems to inspire comes from commenter Alex Wilson: " 200,000 people are dead and Wikileaks is against that. That's all I need.") So let me be explicit: my opposition to the Iraq war began around 9:10 a.m. on September 11, 2001, approximately 45 seconds after I realized that two planes rather than one had struck the WTC (I was about a mile from the site at the time) and foresaw that Bush II would use the Al Qaeda connection I assumed would soon come to light as an excuse to attack Iraq. I attended several rallies warning against an Iraq war before 2001 was over and more after. I've railed against the war in my own journalistic context. I consider the enormous disparity between Iraqi and American casualties in the war morally reprehensible and strove never to paper that disparity over when I referred to our war dead in print. I also believe that the Iraq war contributed substantially to the financial crisis by impoverishing the federal government, and that this impoverishment--yet another transfer of your taxes and mine to corporations like Citibank and Bank of America, Blackwater and Halliburton--was intended by its architects in the Bush regime, Cheney in particular.

I loathe the war so much, in fact, that the policy implications of Assange's Iraq dump simply didn't concern me--any discrediting of the war was OK with me. In retrospect, I'm not sure I didn't therefore succumb to my own emotionalism. But I cannot for the life of me understand why the fact of those hundreds of thousands of deaths in any way affects what Baird or I have to say about the efficacy of the current WikiLeaks dump. The deaths have happened. Does punishing or embarrassing the U.S. as regards those deaths reduce the likelihood of other deaths and injustices resulting from the Islamist jihad and the Christianist-capitalist crusade? Quite the contrary, I believe. That's what I'm maddest about.

Here Tom Carson's distinction between diplomacy and foreign policy, terms I and everyone else in this discussion have been using too loosely, becomes essential. What Carson in his own need for brevity fails to address is the possibility that while diplomats may not determine foreign policy, they implement it, and are therefore equally culpable. I can only assume that this is the underlying assumption of commenters Herman, Osborne, and Wilson, and wouldn't be surprised to learn that Carson and I disagree as to how plausible that assumption might be. But in the end his comment and my original post make essentially the same point: no government--and definitely not a government as vast and, compared to most, democratic as ours--works with a single purpose. Even our foreign policy isn't monolithic. And our diplomatic service and spy networks are full of people whose job, to emphasize Carson's chosen term, is to gather facts capable of changing foreign policy for the better (Valerie Plame, ever hear of her?)--and also of civil servants who disapprove of the policies they're stuck with, especially when they're as stupid, cruel, and destructive as the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-etc. Iraq policy. One thing the WikiLeaks dump does is make it much harder for this corrective process to take place. It assumes that everybody who works for the State Department--not to mention the C.I.A., the Pentagon, and so forth--is a colluder. By gumming up the conduits of intra-governmental candor, it leaves those with the worst motives and information freer of contradiction and even outside review.

Baird's essay is both brilliant and well-written, but that's hardly to say it's easy to understand. So I really suggest that anyone who's been following this internal debate read it if they haven't already and reread it if they have. It's better than anything I can write on the subject, and I'm in basic agreement (as I am with Carson). But I want to clarify one more thing: my title, Ideas Have Consequences. The idea I meant is, to quote Baird, "the politically charged theory that saw ordinary language as an ally of capitalist oppression." He connects it to the so-called Language Poets, about whom I know next to nothing; I connect it to the entire edifice of critical theory, about which I know more than I want to and much less than I could, since people every bit as smart as I am (as well as many who aren't) are still devoting their lives to this once dominant and still healthy approach to the humanities in academia. Essentially, when Assange spouts his theories about what WikiLeaks can accomplish, theories whose inadequacies Baird explains quite thoroughly, he is putting what he learned in the university into action. Rather than one more tenure-track wanker striving to further obfuscate his or her bad ideas with worse jargon, he is out in the world undermining the ordinary language of diplomacy because he believes it is oppressive a priori and ipso facto. And thus he is making it easier for the bad guys to kill people. Me, I've predicated my lifework on my faith in the liberating potential of ordinary language. So this makes me especially sad and angry.

There's much more to be said about all of this--reams, books. For instance, Assange's supposed source Bradley Manning is being tortured right now. Bullshit he's a "terrorist" (neither is Assange, though there the metaphor makes a little more sense), and even if he was, his treatment by the army is unconscionable, a scandal barely mentioned in the mainstream press. For instance, I'm not so sure we want to see a major bank fail next week, but I also have trouble seeing how anything Assange has on one of them would make that happen, so maybe he should stop being such a tease about the bank info he keeps threatening. But here at ARTicles, leave it at this: WikiLeaks proves that bad ideas about art are bad for the world. So don't mess around with yours.
December 31, 2010 1:53 PM | | Comments (29)

29 Comments

In addition to repeating the untruth that 250,000,000 cables have been published (as NPR was recently forced to acknowledge, the actual number is fewer than 2,000, with none of those on offer at the Wikileaks site different from what’s available via the Times, the Guardian, et al), Baird’s piece seems unduly preoccupied with what is ultimately an academic question—i.e., what ideas inform Wikileaks’ practices. Indeed, this question would seem to be as open as that of what damage the leaks will do to diplomacy, the assertions of Mrs. Christgau and Carson notwithstanding. (I would, by the way, be interested to know how the “informed professionalism” of diplomats was instrumental in thwarting excesses of US policy in, say, the last ten years. Are we to believe that Cheney would have gone that much further but for their counsel?)

Towards the end of his post, Baird suggests that Assange’s secrecy=power formulation is naïve, but also that Assange himself might now have different notions.

Given that any “ideal” can be reduced to terms that make it sound untenable or even wicked, and given also that any organization’s ostensible reason for being is apt to evolve over time, we might instead consider how the good effects of the leaks themselves might outweigh the bad, as well as acknowledge that we can’t presume to know definitively either way.

As it stands, newspapers around the world have collaborated with Wikileaks (however indirectly) in disseminating information that radically shames the practices of both news organizations (in terms of negligence) and governments (in terms malfeasance and mendacity), if only in the ideal world where such things matter. And if nothing else, the occasion of the leaks has re-invigorated the terms of what ought to be permanent debates, about secrecy, the deference of journalists to power, and whose interests are served by the everyday practices of governments.

In closing, I’d like to recommend perusal of this, from the radical nihilist post-structuralist outfit that is CBS News:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503543_162-20026591-503543.html

First off, just so no one will be vague about the distinction I had in mind, two definitions:

-- a nation's foreign policy is a set of decisions about that nation's role in the world, implemented with greater or lesser success. Those decisions can be benign or vile, short-sighted or wise. I deeply regret that so much (not all) of my own country's foreign policy in recent years has been neither wise nor benign, but compared to what? There is no Platonic ideal here.

-- diplomacy, on the other hand, is primarilly a method, a skill set, an instrument whose great advantage is that even the most benighted nations (e.g., North Korea) feel obliged to at least pay lip service to its conventions. Its primary function is to prevent wars and other open collisions, and it has prevented many. Anyone who calls its methodology or language humbug -- which they are, duh -- is announcing his or her regret at all those missed chances when the Cold War didn't turn into World War 3.

My contention is that WikiLeaks has done more damage to the latter than the former. Assange's info dump will not prevent a single innocent death. Very indirectly (and I'm trying hard not to be inflammatory here), it may even cause some, now that the candid analysis the pros provide to their governments to try to get them to see reason has become a public embarrassment. That gives the yahoos more leverage to intimidate, curtail and shut down in-house warnings and criticism -- and they will do it.

Felix Caldwell's criticism is as follows: " I would, by the way, be interested to know how the “informed professionalism” of diplomats was instrumental in thwarting excesses of US policy in, say, the last ten years. Are we to believe that Cheney would have gone that much further but for their counsel?" Right you are, Mr. Caldwell: the warnings that our Iraq adventure was a folly from the State Department -- along with those 1960s betes noires, the CIA and the Pentagon -- did indeed go unheeded. 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.

Christgau's concern is somewhat different: "What Carson in his own need for brevity fails to address is the possibility that while diplomats may not determine foreign policy, they implement it, and are therefore equally culpable." Yes, indeed, and that is the moral dilemma for any professional diplomat. They serve the nation, not the administration of the moment, and just where you draw the line between hoping you're ameliorating the worst and worrying that you're abetting it is an individual crucible. I respect the Foreign Service officers who resigned over Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, Reagan's Central American adventures or W.'s post-9/11 stupidities. I also respect the ones who stuck it out in the belief that maybe, with their knowledge and persuasiveness, they could and can make a tiny difference here and there.


I hope Mr. Christgau will continue this discussion and explore not only the relationships between wikileaks and language poetry, but even more, between wikileaks and rock music. I think wikileaks and rock have some very interesting correlations. They both, for example, purport to challenge power and authority. They both claim to reach for a massive audience in the spirit of democracy. And they both claim to subvert language (whether verbal or musical) for the purposes of liberation, and the expansion of our consciousness.

This discussion has been difficult because language poetry is still evolving as a genre, so it is difficult to even define. For our purposes, lets look at two of its possible characteristics that might be helpful: 1) Language poetry emphasizes the reader's role in bringing meaning out of a work. 2) In some cases, language poetry suggests that language itself is an artificial construct created by the arbiters of power.

So yes, we see that people are: 1) Reading into the leaked cables and Assange’s essays what they want based on their political biases. 2) That US “diplomacy” is a language used for the strategic assertion of US power. (We also see that US “diplomacy” and US “foreign policy” are inseparable parts of a single complex system of hegemony. If foreign policy is an M-16, diplomacy is the bullets it fires – even if the cartridges are loaded in secret.)

Diplomatic language is not merely a means of asserting power, it is the system of power itself. This is where I would agree with Assange, and not with Tom Carson. After a point, a system can become so corrupted that you cannot in good conscience work within it. There have been too many millions of deaths to any longer take the diplomatic system in good faith.

So where does rock music fit into this? I have lived abroad for 31 years, and spent a lot of time listening to the Armed Forces Network and the old Voice of America (as a civilian expat.) Through AFN, one can see how deeply the military embraces rock. This led me to question rock’s traditional role as a genre of art that challenges power (in the same way language poetry might examine the structures of power inherent in language.)

For the most part, rock no longer seems to challenge power, but has become the system of power itself. With few exceptions, rock has become a manifestation of American economic and cultural hegemony. (The ironic imagery, for example, rings even louder when we see the military using rock music as part of a system of torture on hooded prisoners, or to pound Noriega out of the Panamanian embassy.) Just like the language of our diplomacy disguises foreign policy that is brutally exploitative and hegemonistic, rock is the libertarian mask on an economic system that is in reality culturally totalizing and oppressive.

And like language poetry, this also raises the question of the listener’s role in bringing meaning out of rock music. Is rock a democratic genre that allows us to search for its meanings? Do the few genuinely rebellious alt-rock bands in any way balance the hegemonistic and conformist power of mainstream rock? Or has rock, for the most part, become a system so deeply embedded in totalizing corporate structures that its meanings are largely narrowed to represent and reinforce a system of economic power that ultimately serves a financial elite – even if the connections to that elite are obscured?

In short, is wikileaks the John Lennon of our time, while rock has become the Barry Manilow? Is it time for a new genre to appear in popular music that is truly revolutionary? What would that music be? From where would it come?

Anyway, I can see why Mr. Christgau might have a problem with language poets, but this all applies to rock too, so I hope he will talk about this, even if I doubt I will agree with what he says.

I corrected grammatical errors on a few business studies essays for a flatmate in university (Spanish, his grasp of the English language wasn’t all that), something about selling fridges in Ireland, which, as you might guess, were extremely tedious reads. Now here’s is a relatively tenuous linking to Assange “putting what he learned in the university into action,” but I swear, when he writes "if we view IEDs as a rebel investment, to which the US must pay dividends in defensive equipment costs, then every insurgent dollar spent has a return on investment of somewhere around thousand fold" he really manages to convey the severed-from-humanity calculation of a business head scrupulously deciding how he will increase this year’s profit margin. Tell me, who else, “insurgents” (and students of business theory) notwithstanding, finds a prospective leak (frequencies included!) on “12,097 “Warlock” radio frequency jammers (US$1,100 million for the first 7,530), which prevent radio signals, such as from mobile phones, from triggering explosives” inherently appealing?

Lest I mislead, the leak was a couple of years back.

For Christgau: When and why did you first question the moral and ethical legitimacy of the leaks, and Assange’s intentions for them, might I ask?

To Mr. Osborne: sorry, but I just can't stomach this kind of Chomskyite claptrap anymore. What a fine declaration: "There have been too many millions of deaths to any longer take the diplomatic system in good faith." It must be lovely to say that and feel you've wiped the slate clean, certainly so far as your own involvement goes.

Even so, I do have some questions:

1) In what sense is "the diplomatic system" -- as opposed to hideous decisions by individual governments -- to blame for "millions of deaths"?

2) Whose "good faith" is in play here? Most diplomatic negotiations are triumphs of bad faith. The point is that all parties still have to pretend otherwise - often, though not always, to useful effect.

3) If "the diplomatic system" is too tainted to satisfy you, what on earth do you propose to replace it with? Or is asking that just too squalid?

"Assange's info dump will not prevent a single innocent death."

Now, we don't know that, do we? If the first place, the statement is a flat-out prediction based on no hard--or even soft--evidence whatsoever. In the second, and more important, place, we don't know at all--as, to the contrary, we do in the case of, say, the public information campaigns of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers--in what spheres of activities innocent deaths might be prevented. It could be by another Cheneyesque politician deciding that an inevitable diplomatic-cable trail leading back to a secret energy summit he's preparing makes it inadvisable, so he calls it off and prevents another war for oil. It could be by diplomatic cables revealing just how tight we are with some dictator's oppression of his own people, so that we're embarrassed and have to quit supporting him so intensely. It could be a lot of things. Third, the innocent deaths prevented would be by definition undocumentable, since they wouldn't happen.

In modern history, much more harm has been done by governments--even those of democratic countries--being able to keep their all their diplomatic dealings other than public pronouncements opaque, than has been done by the likes of Mr. Assange making them transparent.

Finally, diplomacy and foreign policy are not so conveniently separate (foreign policy = "a set of decisions"; diplomacy = "a skill set") as Mr. Carson would have it. The reasons should be obvious.

To Peter Plagens: I never said -- and don't believe I implied -- that foreign policy and diplomacy are unrelated. Of course not. I was just pointing out the fallacy of treating them as synonymous.

As for the rhetorical excess of "Assange's info dump will not prevent a single innocent death," point taken. Would you settle for "is supremely unlikely to"?

There seems to be an assumption, at least on Mr. Carson's part, that anyone who is, on balance, in favor of the leaks also favors the eradication of diplomacy. I, for one, do not, but nor do I see how anyone can claim to know in what ways the leaks will affect its practice. Mr. Carson is emphatic that the only effects will be bad ones, but I don’t see that he’s made his case.

And as Mr. Plagens rightly observes, the statement that the leaks “will not prevent a single death” is clearly equally arbitrary.

Again, if we examine the content of the cables that have been published, and what they confirm and reveal about everything from our special ops in Pakistan, to our secret war in Yemen, to the pressures placed on European governments not to prosecute US officials for torture, we see a catalogue of issues on which a functioning press would have done more work and placed more emphasis, as well the mendacity of a government that (still) wishes to keep its wars as unaccountable as possible.

In his posts, Mr. Christgau suggests that Baird’s linkage of Assange to the Language Poets is in turn linkable to certain aspects of French theory and, by further extension, to a strain of French anti-Americanism. While no one who cares about ideas would dispute that they have consequences, it seems unclear and even largely irrelevant what ideas (as opposed to motives) are at work in the case of Wikileaks. For one thing, though, it doesn’t seem at all plain that Assange favors “absolute external transparency,” nor that he regards diplomats as merely collusive.

Finally, I’d be interested to know what Mr. Christgau thinks of the war and secrecy policies of President Obama, of whom I know he was greatly supportive in 2008. Should we assume that the President has been guided in these policies by his reading of Niebuhr and study of constitutional law?

Hello Tom,
To briefly answer your questions:
1) I was referring specifically to the US diplomatic system which has clearly been corrupted. The build up to the second Iraq War is just one example. (Show me the WMDs and I will take back my assertion.) The Gulf of Tokin incident, the mass murder of Operation Condor (the perps were trained, equipped, funded, and often guided by the US,) and the genocide against the Mayans of Guatemala (through US proxies) are among countless example. You, however, will see none of this. As the language poets illustrate, people read into texts what they want based on their biases.
2) I do not share your cynical conviction that most diplomacy needs to be characterized by bad faith. This is simply a rationalization for exploitation and brutality along the lines of Ribbentrop and Molotov. It does, however, characterize US Foreign policy/diplomacy ranging form the Mexican American War to the Indian Wars to Vietnam, Iraq, Chile, Guatemala, and Argentina, to list a few examples.
3) The solution is simple. We need foreign policy (and diplomacy) that is honest and based on sounder moral principles. A look at most European nations since 1945 shows that foreign policy can be conducted in a decent manner (and without massive deaths.) As a rule, we see that when countries become imperial their foreign policy becomes dishonest. Under these circumstances, transparency would, for the most part, seize to be an issue.
Tom, I doubt we will ever be on the same page. Let’s just agree to disagree.
Anyway, I hope Mr. Christgau can turn to the correlations between the leaks and rock. We see how the corporate world has subsumed the mass media (including rock,) journalism, and US foreign policy. With his expertise, I think he could mine some interesting insights and ideas out of these correlations.

Well, first off, thank you for mentioning me - regardless of the nature of intent. Anyway, all that I know is that Wikileaks will not change stubborn people's minds. There are people who do not believe the government is corrupt - they believe they always do what's in our best iterests. I am not fabricating here. These frumps who choff at the idea that Wikileaks is anything more than a child poking gibing his father really have no mind. Yes - all the points about whether or not Wikileaks will make an impact, or not, are important. Yes, will it harm internal democracy? Yes. But what was there before? Again, no fabrication. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. If Wikileaks finds wires that reveal the evil intent of people within the government it should reveal said information and if the people concerned try to be more careful (as they will) then that doesn't affect the morality of Wikileaks in anyway - which is what most people are confused about. Yes, Wikileaks may dissapear in a few years - Assange may disappear a lot faster - another thing I'm not sure anyone will care about (which infuriates me). People tend to want things to carry on as normal - they don't think Wikileaks is important. I've heard people who have read their newspaper say that it's all a load of rubbish - just because their newspaper said so. I'm sure if they read a different newspaper they would think differently. Wikileaks is a force for good. End of.

Note: I appreciate your stance on the Iraq war. Sometimes you find people who call it a 'just' war - or that 200,000 is just an effect of war and no biggie. What fucking cunts! I just think that, although I agree there are many aspects of Wikleaks that lean on childish tendances, you're still focusing on the wrong points - that's all. And I apoligise if I have been a dick about it - it's just a subject that gets me riled up! :p

Thank you, Mr. Osborne, for that very pleasant and temperate reply to my rudely put questions. If the US diplomatic system has been "corrupted", that's largely because diplomacy itself has been marginalized as a foreign-policy tool. It certainly became a degraded instrument under Bush, and Obama has not done anywhere as much as I'd hoped he would to reverse this. Where we disagree is that I think Assange has thrown the baby out with the Blackwater.

Peter Plagens' hypothesis that a future Cheney might be deterred from committing enormities by worry about the exposure of a paper trail's electronic equivalent seems naive to me. Odds are the next Cheney will simply make sure that the process is even more secretive, undocumented and unaccountable -- and be even less likely to tolerate independent analysis within the government that challenges his priorities.

As for holding up Europe as a counter-model, the reason the *intramural* relations among European countries have stayed civilized and not too duplicitous in recent decades is that their interests are largely in accord. But I think looking at, for instance, French policy in the Middle East would demonstrate that guile is still very much in business at the old stand when it suits them. And when post-Cold War Europe was presented with a moral imperative to deal with a conflict in its own backyard -- Bosnia and Herzegovina -- the collective fecklessness on display was no great credit to the brand. Since I'm no fan of our self-devised role as world policeman, I was rooting for the Europeans to get it together and take action without the big-stick US wading in, but it didn't happen.

Also, Mr. Osborne, would you mind not taking it on yourself to tell me what I will or won't see? Like every other commenter -- so I presume -- on this thread, I'm wearily familiar with the long list of US foreign-policy brutalities. What we're discussing is whether the WikiLeaks info dump is likely to change anything for the better.

With the welcome but unsolicited help of my friend Tom 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 U.S policy in Central America happens to be unimpeachable, as is a matter of public record retrievable from the Village Voice archives (though not the online one, sorry) by anyone who cares--this discussion has been far more sane and civil than its predecessor. It's clear that we are all talking about probabilities here, and that Carson and I calculate those probabilities differently than, say, Plagens or Caldwell. So since I have a column to write and a life to live, I'll leave my contribution to brief answers to a few questions addressed to me personally. 1) I have been questioning and exploring the complex and often dubious truism that rock "challenges power and authority" since, as I recall, 1968, when I wrote a gratis essay challenging the cliche for the leftwing weekly The Guardian. The notion of comparing this vast art form to Assange's single political exploit is so apples-and-hacksaws as to merit no further comment. Anyone who's really interested could try cutting-and-pasting (can't do links here) to these old pieces: http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/rock/cmj-01.php and/or http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/rock/war-91.php
2) My doubts about Assange surfaced only with the current dump. Until then I thought he was one more cyberspace anarchist-libertarian doing more good than harm; exposing the underbelly of our Iraq and Guantanamo was and remains fine with me. But not the de facto embrace of the Chomskyite-jihadist notion that America is the Great Satan, which may well be an accident of what happens to have fallen into his hands but is still his responsibility. Once again, our foreign policy sucks more than it doesn't. It is imperialistic, and that's (usually) bad. But it doesn't suck as much as those of Russia (Chechnya? Georgia?), China (check into how they implement their African "aid," for instance), Saudi Arabia (anti-jihadist on the face of it, pro-jihadist in many crucial and sometimes officially non-governmental particulars), and Pakistan (of which more later). As for France, Germany, the UK, all now in the hands of economic conservatives whose main virtue is that they're not as bad as Bush II et al? My view is that they pursue their own economic interests as ruthlessly as we do while holding their delicate noses at the vulgarity of American greed.
3) I continue to be a fairly staunch supporter of Barack Obama, who in my view has done as much as what he said he wanted to do as has proven feasible given the unconscionable obstructionism and worse of Congressional conservatives, most of them Republican (though as regards Guantanamo the Democrats have been almost as bad). Economics were plainly his major weakness going in--he was not expecting the collapse. I've said from the very beginning that Larry Summers was by far his worst appointment, and am far more concerned about the consequences of his economic policies than about his foreign policy, where my biggest personal disappointment has been U.S. response to the geopolitically minor Honduras affair. Obama always said he would pursue war in Afghanistan, and while I've hoped that he's step back in view of the intractable situation Bush left him with (which wouldn't have been intractable had Bush followed through there instead of fabricating the Iraq conflict), I'm not surprised or offended that he hasn't. Here's where diplomacy vs. foreign policy comes in, as well as the dangers of the dump. Because what Afghanistan is really about is Pakistan, a nation in possession of nuclear arms continually on the verge of Islamist takeover. Should that takeover occur, the danger of nuclear war would increase, what, fivefold? We don't know. Maybe it wouldn't be directed at "us"? But me, I'd feel pretty damn bad if it was directed at the most likely target, India. And I might well blame Assange.

To Tom Carson: If this is a negotiation, then no, I certainly won't settle for the teeny-weeny compromise of scaling back the absolute "WILL not prevent a SINGLE innocent death" to "SUPREMELY unlikely." [Emphases mine.] Since the areas of human endeavor in which Assange's "info dump" might prevent innocent deaths are so vast and multifarious, no prediction, especially a negatively absolute one, is possible. I might, however, settle for something, uh, diplomatic like "Unfortunately, the originally commenter misspoke."

Also, foreign policy and diplomacy are not only not separated, they're practically melded. How many invasions, for instance, were made possible because in the runup to them the invader's diplomats successfully bullshitted the victim's diplomats? And who knows whether Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Stalin's Russia or North Korea would have behaved better or worse had they not been accorded the courtesies of diplomacy while they were plotting and committing their crimes?

To Alex Wilson: I'm not the most PC guy in the room, but I do find the use of the epithet "c**t" offensive, especially coming from a male. While the term may be thought counterintuitively hip in certain British circles, it's out-of-bounds on "ARTicles." As to the I-hope-not-inevitable question, "Why is slang for male genitals more tolerable than that for female genitals?" the answer, once again, should be obvious.

Mr. Christgau, to analyze specific cultural/political events as metaphors or even as a specific examples that represent larger cultural trends is not a false or incongruous comparison. It is often invaluable to look for the larger cultural implications in specific social or political events. And in fact, that is exactly what Baird did in the article you praised when he compared the specific event of wikileaks and Assange's essays to the general ethos of language poetry. Your inconsistent and facile dismissal of this practice so soon after praising it seems like a form of denial and evasion.

On the other hand, I can understand why you might look past the corporatization of rock and its debilitating artistic and social results. Simply stated, you are a part of that “industry” and it butters your bread. You ironically demonstrate exactly what I mentioned: the symbiotic relationship between rock, journalism, and corporate America. I strongly suspect this same “establishment” view point shapes your views of Assange. This is not some sort of anti-establishment, 1960s hippie concern. The corporatization of so many aspects of our lives goes straight to the question of artistic and journalistic integrity, which is exactly one of Assange's central points. Your silence on the subject is telling.

Mr. Osborne, I was trying to be polite. Now I won't be. Why should I write about this thorny, endlessly complex subject at your behest when it comes up all the time in my criticism? I mean, did you even manage a glance at the pieces I suggested? You apparently don't know fuckall about my work which has addressed the issues you raise for more than 40 years, and if what you know about rock is based on VOA and Armed Forces Radio, you don't know fuckall about rock as it now exists either. I'm in the process of putting together my year's-end Dean's List of worthy albums of 2010. There'll be about 80. Assuming for the moment that hip-hop and dance music aren't rock, a complex subject, no more than 20 or 25 of them will classify as "rock"--I write about lots of non-American music, with a top 10 finish this year for the Algerian singer Rachid Taha. Of those 20 or 25 "rock" albums, only one or two will have been released by a major corporation, and that via distribution deals that vary so radically I really don't know whether one qualifies. Does that end the discussion? Of course not--it barely begins it. But it's as much attention than your poorly conceived and ill-informed charges deserve.

* What's the difference between Assange's putting what might be called "primary source" material on the public record and the work of a good muckraking journalist? If one of the negative consequences of WikiLeaks is supposed to be its driving the government further into opacity, secrecy and punitive security measures, then we might as well have no exposés at all, for fear they'll do the same. (Just leave the field to the likes of Judith Miller, and the government will be voluntarily open about things, and it'll all be all right.) I.F. Stone once said, "I tried to give information which could be documented, so the reader could check it for himself..." What a 21st century Mr. Stone can do now that the info that the reader can check for him/herself includes Assange's "info dump"!

* I'm even more of just-a-guy-on-the-street-who-reads-the-newspaper in the issue of rock music speaking truth to power vs. being used by power, but credential-mongering is a little enervating. If an argument descends into who's written the most, the longest, going the farthest back in time, covering the most territory, etc., it's as eye-glazing to read as it is to watch French generals compare chestfuls of medals. I think Walt Rostow said that. Or maybe he didn't.

Mr. Christgau, yes you’ve been writing about rock for about 40 years, and much of the music you like is outside the corporate mainstream. All the more reason to write about the correlations with wikileaks since this is a striking recent development you yourself raised, and one that casts a strong light on the corporatization of journalism (and with notable correlations in rock.) And of course, I brought this all up because of the ironic contradictions your criticisms of Assange raise about your own collaborations. That the suggestion when pressed pushes you to a cussing froth while still evading the questions is once again revealing.

There are two correlations between wikileaks and rock that especially interest me:

1) Wikileaks uses the Net to challenge the mass media like alt-rock uses the Net to challenge the music industry.
2) Wikileaks challenges the primacy of the mass media like music blogs challenge the primacy of the professional music critic.

What are the long-term implications? Will this process of democratization be a fatal blow to both the pop-music-industrial-complex and its symbiotically related professional critics? Or will this democratic process be stopped as corporations learn how to control the web?

I admired the urgency and compassion with which this piece was written. Thanks for writing back.

Wow - another thing we disagree on - Barack Obama. While, at first, I agreed with you exactly that he has done a great deal considering the circumstances I now believe he is a lazy, useless man, at the very least, if not just plain dumb with the choices he makes. I LOL'd my ass off (is that acceptable Peter Plagens *rolls eyes) when the whole of America went in uproar over the whole healthcare reform (so far, one of the few things I agree with Obama on). I can't believe Americans are dumb enough to still WANT their current healthcare system. While they may have some of the best doctors in the world (losing out to Japan and places like Switzerland, Germany etc) the ammount they fork out to companies like Medicare etc is just pure insanity. They have made a business out of health which is deplorable. If you can't fork up you die. Wow. People were mad about the reform - I would have thought they were already mad..?! :S :p Xgau - I think you views of Britain are slighlty skewed (and always have been - I'm not pissed about it but it's true) - as you may believe mine of the U.S. are. I.E. you can't fully understand a country unless you live there. While British bankers, for all I know, are just as deplorable as American ones, or ones from anywhere else in the world, we do not look down our noses at American greed. We look down at the American fascist corporatism. At the federal reserve. At the ludicrous way people like Ron Paul are shunted out of power because people are payed off, voters can vote for certain runners more than five times, and whoever has the most money/friends wins. While the British can't say we do not act foolishly - at least, we can say we are not as bad as America in the way we behave. Everyone is greedy but, at least, we try our hardest to be that little bit less obnoxious/evil about it. And before anyone says this is an act of communism on America - no, while there are dicks everywhere, I am not talking about American people (execpt the way they vote - but I feel the same with the British) I am talking about the American corporation-run government. It doesn't make you un-American to admit it.

To Alex Wilson:

Instead of taking a swipe at me for being censoriously prissy (I'm not--none of Mr. Wilson's other epithets, while hardly indicating a rhetorically nuanced mind at work, are particularly offensive), Mr. Wilson could have simply manned up and issued a succinct apology for using a particularly offensive word.

Note #1: I got a few e-mails from women saying that they were glad somebody called Mr. Wilson on his coarse sexism.

Note #2: In general, I agree with Mr. Wilson's political take here, but it's embarrassing to have the likes of his rhetoric on "our" side. Mr. Wilson is obviously interested more in the satisfaction of venting than actually persuading any readers.

I believe first in the satisfaction on venting and then in the satisfaction of turning readers (if you can call it that?). I.e. you should speak your mind and if anyone changes their mind that's their business. I will apologise for anything if it offendes someone. But why does it offend you? I'm curious. There's a line for apologies - like when ELC took the pig out of a toy play set because it might offend Muslims. It's stupidity. If you were genuinely offended by my use of pop-language then I apologise - that doesn't make me any more of a man before - in fact, I believe (almost) the opposite - for bending over my opinion when it comes to words anything goes if it describes whatever it is accurately, of which my word did. To be honest the women who emailed can (jokingly) go **** themselves. Do you get my point? I'm joking - just as Xgau used 'tenure-track wanker'. So why don't you grow up and, at least, mock my lack of vocabulary.

* Yes, Mr. Wilson's crude, sexist term for female genitalia (especially invoked as an epithet) does offend me. By way of parallel, one does not have to be an African-American to be offended by the N-word.

* "If will apologize for anything if it offends someone" is a) the classic non-apology apology, and b) untrue in Mr. Wilson's case because he refuses to apologize for something that has indeed offended someone.

* The comparison of Mr. Wilson's offending word to a pig, in a toy set, that "might offend Muslims" is tenuous at best, disingenuous at worst. Straws, grapsing, etc.

* "If you were genuinely offended by my use of pop-language then I apologise - that doesn't make me any more of a man before - in fact, I believe (almost) the opposite - for bending over my opinion when it comes to words anything goes if it describes whatever it is accurately, of which my word did." I have no idea what this sentence is supposed to mean. Can any professional journalist out there diagram it for us?

* "To be honest the women who emailed can (jokingly) go **** themselves." No comment necessary. (And "jokingly" only makes it cowardly in addition to offensive.) One would really like to see the "more of a man" Mr. Wilson use his offensive word in a meeting where there are women present.

* "So why don't you grow up and, at least, mock my lack of vocabulary." I did mock Mr. Wilson's lack of vocabulary: "Mr. Wilson's other epithets, while hardly indicating a rhetorically nuanced mind at work..."

In the spirit of Mr. Christgau's getting down to brass tacks with Mr. Osborne, I'll try to make it sufficiently simple for Mr. Wilson. He can just check the box in front of, "I hereby apologize for using a completely uncalled for vulgarism for female genitalia in an 'ARTicles' comment thread. (And I'll not dig myself in any deeper by trying further to wriggle out of responsibility for my offense.)"

"Alt-rock uses the Net to challenge the music industry."

This is piffle. Hopeless, overly-romantic piffle. It attributes a challenge that was always more accidental than anything else to "alt-rock," a catch-all so vague as to be meaningless, and one that would leave out of the discussion such Internet luminaries as Taylor Swift (pop-country, and teen-pop country at that) and Das Racist (hip-hop, indie-rap if you must), both of whom brilliantly used the Net to connect with their audiences because they grew up with the Net, and neither of whom really used the Net to challenge the music industry. (Here's a shocker: They did it to make money! Swift is the biggest thing in the music industry. Das Racist, who are bohemian to the core, most certainly make a living off of their music, having used the Net to build a rep solid enough to sustain their touring business, as they explained to the only outlet who has published a remotely cogent interview with them, the New York Times. Not a music blog, BTW.)

As for alt-rock using the Net to challenge the music industry, as I said, the seismic changes in the music industry are more accidental than confrontational. And it's not alt-rock -- or musicians -- that brought them. It's the audience. So it's not: alt-rock used the Net to challenge the music industry; more: the music audience used the Net and destroyed the music industry. File trading caught on in colleges and then high schools and then middle schools. It caught on with fans who did not download MP3s because they thought property -- intellectual or physical -- was theft. They simply wanted to hear music, so they took it for free. The back handed justification that the music industry is evil (uniquely among all capitalist organizations, naturally, because Nike or American Apparel or whoever made whatever clothing you put on this morning without stealing it is not evil, not them) is by no means wholly untrue. But it is by no means the primary motivation for most file traders. Convenience is.


"Alt-rock uses the Net to challenge the music industry."

This is piffle. Hopeless, overly-romantic piffle. It attributes a challenge that was always more accidental than anything else to "alt-rock," a catch-all so vague as to be meaningless, and one that would leave out of the discussion such Internet luminaries as Taylor Swift (pop-country, and teen-pop country at that) and Das Racist (hip-hop, indie-rap if you must), both of whom brilliantly used the Net to connect with their audiences because they grew up with the Net, and neither of whom really used the Net to challenge the music industry. (Here's a shocker: They did it to make money! Swift is the biggest thing in the music industry. Das Racist, who are bohemian to the core, most certainly make a living off of their music, having used the Net to build a rep solid enough to sustain their touring business, as they explained to the only outlet who has published a remotely cogent interview with them, the New York Times. Not a music blog, BTW.)

As for alt-rock using the Net to challenge the music industry, as I said, the seismic changes in the music industry are more accidental than confrontational. And it's not alt-rock -- or musicians -- that brought them. It's the audience. So it's not: alt-rock used the Net to challenge the music industry; more: the music audience used the Net and destroyed the music industry. File trading caught on in colleges and then high schools and then middle schools. It caught on with fans who did not download MP3s because they thought property -- intellectual or physical -- was theft. They simply wanted to hear music, so they took it for free. The back handed justification that the music industry is evil (uniquely among all capitalist organizations, naturally, because Nike or American Apparel or whoever made whatever clothing you put on this morning without stealing it is not evil, not them) is by no means wholly untrue. But it is by no means the primary motivation for most file traders. Convenience is.


Hello Joey. Interesting thoughts, but even if the new public that evolved due to the Net was accidental (I’m not sure what you mean by that,) alternative music groups still used the Net to market themselves. The Internet’s public made the decisions about what to consume, but they couldn’t not have turned to alternative forms of music outside the music industry if those groups hadn’t seen the potential the Net offered and used it. I think these groups realized very early on that their use of the Net allowed them to challenge (and fragment) the music industry. They saw that they could make the consumption of their wares convenient and the public responded -- as you note.

The public also began to use the Net to publish their own "consumer reports" about the music they listened to. This democratization of opinion is changing the nature of music criticism, and in some ways, it seems related to how the Net is changing our concepts of transparency in government. I fear this trend will be destroyed when corporations (and the government that so closely serves them) develop methods to control the web. Anyway, thank you for your thoughts.

Mr. Osborne, if Joe Levy’s argument wasn’t sufficiently clear for you to at least inspect your premises I don’t know what will be, but: the point is that technology itself was far more determinative of new habits in consumption/distribution than were the intentions (rebellious or otherwise) of anyone. File-sharing did not evolve from musicians using the web to “fragment” the music industry. You have it exactly backwards.

As for bloggers undermining the status of critics, let's face it, music critics have never really had much status to undermine. To the extent that a critic is defined by her knowledge, curiosity, and care with language, most bloggers occupy a universe that has far more to do with hype and the hackery that sustains it than it does with criticism as such.

Felix, Joe didn’t say technology led the way, but rather the public (or audience as he states it.) I would agree that technology paved the path.

Just as with the terms foreign policy and diplomacy, I see performers and audience as a more or less integrated, single system. The public could not have turned to alt-rock if those groups had not realized the potential of the web and used it. Who came first is pretty much beside the point for me, so forgive me if I am not very interested in debating it. I actually like the idea that “the public” is in charge and leading the way, even if there must be artists for them to move toward.

By the same token, one could say that wikileaks isn’t pushing toward a more transparent and honest government, but rather the people’s desire to have it. And most accurately, technology is creating new forms of transparency. Christgau is probably right when he says this will force governments to become even more secretive.

The power of critics varies between genres. In theater, for example, they can sometimes shut down shows, but now the web offers more diversity of opinion. You are right though, rock critics have never had much punch. In classical music, they are a bit more influential. Perhaps there is a loose formula: the more populist the art form as a whole, the less the influence of critics.

In reference to earlier parts of this discussion, Glenn Greenwald offers an interesting analysis of wikileaks, the self-censorship of the press, and “embedded” journalists:

http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/01/04/burns/index.html

(I see I mis-typed Joe’s name. My aplogies.)

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