Culture

Ups and Downs – The one where we run over children and then talk about Wikileaks.

Assange

Up: It’s the headline of the week!: This is officially* the best tradition in America other than Thanksgiving dinner, and that bullshit only happens once a year — this is a weekly occurrence.

This week’s headline comes from Health Day magazine: “”Kids can’t accurately judge speed of approaching cars.” The article is part of a groundbreaking study originally published in the medical journal Let’s Hurt Children! According to the research, which I conducted by myself last Thursday from 4:45-5:00 p.m. in the alley behind my apartment, children are unable to accurately judge the speed of on-coming cars in the split seconds before I shattered their pelvises.

When asked after the experiment to estimate the speed of the approaching car, the children incorrectly responded: “Oww, oh god my leg. Now I’ll never play soccer or be an astronaut.”

This week’s runner-up comes from PC World: “Robots don’t need us anymore.” …Because we’re ruining their lives and we’re totally unfair and all the other robots get to stay out past midnight, GAWD.

* And by “officially,” I mean it’s government fuckin’ sanctioned, yo! …What?

Down: Well…duh: Italian doctors were hard at work this week, making large strides in the field of common sense research. According to a case study conducted on one sad-sack Italian twenty-something, viewing his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook page caused his asthma to worsen and his heartbeat to increase, leading researchers from the University of No Shit, Sherlock, to conclude that “Facebook, and social networking sites in general, could be a new source of psychological stress.”

As noted in the study, the young man was asked to log on to Facebook and view his ex’s profile page by requesting her friendship via a made-up profile for a fictitious person (no word yet on whether the doctors encouraged the man to root through her garbage or collect samples of her hair whilst she peacefully slept). When the young man noted that his former girlfriend had recently become Facebook friends with a number of unknown men — now, I’m not one to rush to judgment, but this is irrefutable evidence that, much to the man’s suspicions, she was a cheating whore who only wanted to toy with his emotions and play with his Xbox 360 — his difficulty breathing sometimes worsened by nearly 20%.

In the same landmark study, doctors concluded that the grass was green and that repeatedly slamming one’s hand in a car door is a bad idea.

Up: Wikileaks: Hey, did you know that Julian Assange, the founder and public face of the documents-sharing website Wikileaks, is a treasonous fiend? That he hates international dipolomacy? That it was actually HE who — using a time machine to traverse the space-time continuum — shot Abraham Lincoln, and that he blamed the whole thing on John Wilkes Booth, who was just a theatre lover?

I made that last one up, but it wouldn’t be entirely outside the realm of criticism lobbied at Assange this week, after Wikileaks published hundreds of thousands of illegally-obtained messages between U.S. diplomats and other foreign officials. This comes after the site previously published leaked documents about both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange has come under a significant amount of scrutiny after the leaks; Interpol has named him one of its most wanted people, sitting U.S. Congressmen have asked that he be tried under treason laws, and a number of public officials, perhaps most notable Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have suggested that the leaks can endanger the lives of many, and make diplomatic relations more tense.

What’s been more surprising, to me at least, is the way that members of the media–who have giddily reported the juiciest information in the documents that Wikileaks published–have been largely reticent to vocally support Assange and his Wikileaks project. For an institution that celebrates other such leaks of classified documents — indeed, when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, it was hailed by most journalists as an act of heroic patriotism — the hands off approach taken by so many media outlets that are benefiting from Assange’s actions is a bit startling.

To be certain, some of the criticism lobbied at Assange is fair. The leaks come as massive document dumps, with seemingly little care paid to the quality and content of every item. And leaking diplomatic cables and emails will make the job of State Department workers, ambassadors and other foreign agents more difficult, as their profession operates on the presumption of secrecy and discretion. Even the claim that it could endanger lives has some validity, as embarrassing revelations in the candid messages will no doubt hurt U.S. diplomatic relations with other countries, though to what degree really isn’t clear yet.

But there’s also a case to be made for the leakage of these documents. For one, part of the problem with State Department workers, ambassadors and diplomats is the very secrecy with which they work; they are not elected officials, and yet they operate with U.S. tax dollars, meaning that the public never has an opportunity–outside of instances such as the Wikileaks publishings–to know how its money is being spent, and to what end. Moreover, while some have suggested that publishing diplomatic messages is akin to a kind of tabloid journalism for international politics, there are some important revelations in the documents. We now know that China, publicly an ally of North Korea, is privately fed up with the rogue nation. Similarly, the messages suggest that while they cannot publicly take such a position, leaders of influential Middle Eastern nations such as Egypt have internally vocalised their disdain for Iran and its (nutty, militaristic, Holocaust-denying) leadership. Information like this abounds in the documents.

The criticism of Assange and Wikileaks needs to be taken seriously, but the whole issue begs a number of hypothetical questions. What if Assange and Wikileaks had been around to publish classified documents while then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was trying to sell the United Nations (and the U.S., still) on war in Iraq? Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking diplomats argue that the leaks could endanger lives, but as bloggers for the Economist noted on Wednesday, what they really mean is that the leaks endanger lives that government officials previously were not willing to risk. For officials who routinely deal in matters of war, arms deals and international conflict, their work, by its nature, involves the endangering of some lives.

On the whole, I’m not sure how to feel about Wikileaks, and about this specific instance of information publication. A part of me believes that transparency is always a good thing, and that like Freedom of Information Act, this is another instance of journalists and other members of the Fourth Estate keeping the powerful more honest. Another part thinks that diplomacy is often a way to avoid war and armed conflict, and that it cannot function unless diplomats can feel confident in the blanket of privacy and confidentiality they work within.

I am certain, however, that a press corp that relishes publishing the information that Wikileaks provides needs to be more active in the conversation over its value.