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Saturday, December 4

The Wikileaks School for Scandal

UPDATE December 12
Given the news that Assange is likely to be indicted under the U.S. 1917 Espionage Act, the situation is far more serious than my original take on it in this post.
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"The School for Scandal is the quintessential creation about people blabbering about people. Here is sham, snobbery and betrayal in full regalia. . . . It is wrongheaded, though an obvious temptation, to connect a play that is so stylish with dish, spin and whatever buzzwords define the yakety-yak of the moment. No one needs to be told that not minding your own business is an old irresistible pastime. Or that gossip didn't start with tabloids and television, and that technology is pushing the sleaze factor to new lows. Dish is now. The School for Scandal is forever."
Alvin Klein's review of a 2001 stage production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's timeless 1777 play is perhaps the best starting point from which to examine the Wikileaks trove of leaked U.S. Department of State cables. Julian Assange and the hackers that contribute to his site have, I suspect, seriously misjudged human nature given their intention to sow horror and outrage at governments and unleash chaos. There hasn't been so much fun here in Washington since I can't remember when, with everyone saying to everyone else, 'Terrible! Shocking! Must be a law!' while gobbling up the gossip, the intrigues, and just plain cattiness of the world's movers and shakers revealed in State Department dispatches.

There are still no shattering revelations in the State cable leaks for anyone who closely follows defense/foreign relations issues but the devil, and the delight, of the cables is in the wealth of juicy details they provide.

Not to insult America's professional entertainers but what Kanye West or Linsday Lohan think and do is so inconsequential outside the entertainment industry that the Wikileaks State cables are like a huge gulp of oxygen for a drowning swimmer. The swimmer, in this case, is the hapless public -- force fed on news about absolute bores by media organizations that prefer not to dig up and report on the kind of meaty gossip found in the State cables.

And, it turns out, the stars of the Wikileaks School for Scandal are not Assange and his roster of hackers but the shrewdly observant authors of the cables, who in the manner of the servants in Upstairs Downstairs strive to keep their bearings while caught in the intrigues of host governments. So while I register the obligatory outrage with Assange & Company's theft of documents, to be perfectly frank they have given the world a great gift by showing that the workings of foreign policy are a thousand times more titillating than the bump and grind of the entertainment industry.

And I think that instead of leading the world to the brink of chaos by leaking the State cables Wikileaks has done just the opposite. Much of the sense of disorder, the feeling that the world is spinning out of control, has come from the perception that a very remote ruling class is making critical decisions that the public knows nothing about. The Upstairs Downstairs viewpoint from which the leaked State cables are written has taken the public inside the workings of the highest levels of governments to reveal -- lo and behold -- that the ruling class is peopled with the same types that the world's working stiffs encounter every day in the office. I venture that the majority in the public will find the revelation more a reassurance than a cause for alarm if (and this is a big "if") they actually read the cables. My concern is that in lieu of reading, many in the public, at least in the United States, will take their understanding of the cables from political commentators, whose interpretation of the leaks break along partisan lines.

As to the charge that the State leaks will make foreign officials reluctant in future to speak candidly to the United States -- I refer to Lady Sneerwell's observation in The School for Scandal: If her reputation is injured by gossip she will "go and plot mischief" using the very same weapon against her enemies that they turned against her.

In other words, any member of government who makes a truly candid utterance in the presence of a diplomat from another country is too addle-headed to last long in the halls of power. While the leaked State cables give a good airing of what everyone thinks of everyone else, one shouldn't assume the utterances they record are artless or not intended to be passed along. Learning that their remarks might have a much bigger audience than the intended one will only inspire the actors in the real-life School for Scandal to make even more interesting off-the-record comments.

So is Julian Assange this era's Richard Sheridan? Hardly. Sheridan's gifts for language and wit find no echo in Assange, who has all the wit of a block of cement and whose style of language is a ceaseless grating whine. That Assange's attempt to wreak havoc unexpectedly regaled the world is yet another demonstration of the great efficiency of Nature, which finds ways to put even a dolt to good use.

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