Scientific journalism un-redax

I’ve been a bit remiss on my “WikiLeaks beat” duties, as like much of the rest of the world I have only recently discovered the revelation of the entire unredacted cache of American diplomatic cables. In trying to figure out the situation — first and foremost ethically — I basically follow the version of events by Nigel Parry, who asserts that he was among the first people outside of the Guardian-WikiLeaks agreement to crack the cache, as well as the views of his more astute readers in the comments section. It’s clear that the snaffu emerges from a critical oversight on the part of Assange, an outright blunder on the part of Leigh (which was what made Assange’s oversight critical), and Lord only knows what game some ex-WikiLeakers and online snoopers are playing.

Immediately, my first instinct is that this has been a terrible development, as it runs the risk of putting careers and lives in danger, from the many State Department in-country human intelligence assets to the well-intentioned and often empathetic embassy employees whose inner worlds were revealed by the cables. Now, I’m familiar with all the ins and outs of the “blood on hands” debate/dispute, but I do not agree with most of the argumentation either way. My own experience as a journalist working in Central Asia, an informationally unfriendly region to put it nicely, teaches me some very fundamental, if complex facts: informants’ motivations are vastly varied, which means that there will always be someone around willing to talk, but also that authorities’ motivations are equally varied, which means that talking always carries with it an inherent scale of danger depending on the Who and What factors.

In other words, Assange et al cannot shirk responsibility for any one who will be hurt as a result of WikiLeaks’ actions — but then again, they should not have gotten into this business if they are not willing to bear this responsibility — nor can the State Department hide from the light under the veil of security and safety — because again, they should not have gotten into this business if they are not willing to bear certain culpabilities. WikiLeaks can be responsible if authorities track down informants using the leaks and the State Department knows full well that in most cases it can re-generate lost intelligence assets. These two parties are facilitating certain processes and realities, wanting to reap the positives but heap the negatives onto the other (at least in terms of their public relations; privately, I suspect they are more regretful, for the State Department is not so “imperial” nor Assange so “cavalier” as their mutual detractors would have us all believe).

By the same token, a debate that’s been missing has been the one regarding the moral culpability of the informants themselves. That’s because for every informant who is motivated by high ideals and the desire to improve his or her society, there is another who is seeking narrow personal gain. What I find striking is that, although discussing the motivations of informants and the morality of working with them is routine for journalists, diplomatic officers, and intelligence officers, the public discourse about these cables, almost from the get-go, seems to have presumed the innocence of the informants as a whole. If my assessment here is correct, then this is a huge lacunae in the ethical analysis of WikiLeaks — much less the State Department, who is working directly with these informants — about which simple rationalizations like “they’re traitors who deserve what they get” or “sometimes the good guys have to work with bad guys” I feel are unsatisfactory.

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Inside Belgium’s heart of darkness

Yesterday Liza and I biked to Tervuren to visit the Musee Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, otherwise known more simply as the Africa Museum. In terms of sheer aesthetic creepiness, this museum is second only to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, but in moral terms it may be far worse because of what it says about the history of Belgium, colonialism, and science. Briefly, for those of my readers who don’t know, the Africa Museum was established by King Leopold II to showcase the Congo Free State, but which was in reality an active act of apologetic for, if not even deception about, the horrible brutalization of the Congo’s native peoples. Much of the Africa Museum today remains relatively unchanged since its start, revealing much about the mindset that constituted it.

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Working the WikiLeaks beat (updated)

The old round-up of my WikiLeaks coverage was starting to get unruly, so here’s a new, chronological index, which I will update regularly. I must say, it’s kind of weird being a “WikiLeaks observer,” because not only is this an incredibly fast-moving story, but the learning curve is quite steep, as it entwines simultaneously the most theoretical and most lived parts of biography, ethics, history, international diplomacy, war, journalism, and cryptography. It’s very exciting and meaningful material, and in all due seriousness, I thank God, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and neweurasia.net (not to mention Julian Assange!) for the opportunity to cover it in such an in-depth manner.

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The other diplomatic cables leak…

At the same time that WikiLeaks began making diplomatic history this past Sunday, November 28, another piece of diplomatic history was being made—or, to be more precise, being revealed—in a less noisy corner of the Web.

The historian blogger known as “History Punk” published on his blog a large collection of declassified State Department cables from the period immediately after September 11. The cables’ primary focus is logging global reactions, journalistic, diplomatic, and anecdotal, to the earthshattering terrorist attacks.

“These cables, largely unredacted, provide an inside look into how the world, foreign governments, and the staff at American embassy reacted to the horrors of that day,” History Punk wrote in his blog on Sunday.

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The Prophet’s dialectic

I co-authored the following paper, “The Dialectic of Islam: an historiographical interpretation of Islamist political violence”, with my friend Mamed Askerov.  It was published in the United Nations University for Peace’s student journal, The Peace and Conflict Monitor. Typical of both our styles of thinking, the paper is a sweeping overview of Islamic history that seeks to give a new direction to the debate on Muslim spirituality and radicalism.  We ultimately argue that the very same forces which compel many Muslims to violence are also the same means by which the world can bring about inter-religious dialogue and peace.

Mamed’s contribution is the notion of the Muslim dialectic itself and the original skeleton draft, as well as the embryonic thoughts that eventually comprised the first post-script.  I added the section on the Golden Age and the second post-script, as well as fleshed out the entire paper.   It was an especially fun paper to write and we’re hoping to expand it further into something peer-reviewable.

Abstract

This paper aims to analyze the debate over political violence in contemporary Islam from the viewpoint of its historical roots. At the heart of the matter are two currents that have existed in the Muslim community since its very beginning: a dialectic between the intellectual and the martial, and competing interpretations of an idyllic patristic era, with several practical and ideological consequences. This paper will demonstrate how today’s debate can be framed within this vision of Islamic history.

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Cylonic dreams of the eternal return

youwillknowthetruth1Wow. Well, I’ve got to hand it to the writers.  I heard rumors swirling for a while, but didn’t believe them.  Her? Nah, get real; what a lame choice.  But after watching the episode I now agree with the blogger at Galactica Variants: not only does the choice work, but it’s powerful.  And I think it’s only the beginning, since the LA Times reports that we should expect to see this character, somehow, some way, over the course of the final story arc.

In light of the revelation, I am further awe-filled by the sheer time scale in which Galactica as a story operates, especially the way in which it is conveyed so intimately, personalizing the effect.  There is truly something mysterious, terrifying, and enticing about the concept of eternal return, and the show manages to connect it to identity, history, and mortality in ways that never cease to evoke wonder and reflection.  Truly, this is more than masterful television: it’s nigh philosophy.

(If you feareth not the spectre of spoilers, click on the image above to see the big revelation, and “read more” for some more thoughts.)

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The Historian’s Theodicy

“The problem of evil.” Theologians and philosophers couldn’t have found a staler term to categorize the spiritual and intellectual catastrophe that is the question, “Where was God…?”

Where was God during Deir ez-Zor, Auschwitz, Darfur, and September 11th? Where is God when everyday people suffer and die from the most banal of causes. A non-stick frying pan, when scratched and heated, releases brain-damaging lethal fumes — where the hell is God in that? Imagine! The creator of the universe’s very existence challenged by kitchenware, and the best response Mankind’s thinkers can conjure is the crossword puzzle-sounding “problem of evil.”

The term I prefer is “theodicy”; the word’s Greek origin has an appropriately menacing sound. Yet, when I take a moment to examine the word’s etymology I find it nearly as insufficient as “the problem of evil.” It comes from the Greek θεός (theós, “god”) and δίκη (díkē, “justice”), meaning literally “the justice of God,” but more accurately rendered as “to justify God” or “the justification of God.” It was coined in 1710 by the German polymath Gottfried Leibniz. You may recall him as the fellow who believed ours is “the best of all possible worlds.”

The problems with theodicy are immediately apparent, loaded as it is with innumerable assumptions. One assumption is the very goodness of God; another is whether it is the divine, not humanity, who is in need of justification. And of course the most fundamental assumption is that God even exists (but that’s a topic for another reflection — for the sake of this essay, and out of respect for my own spiritual experiences, I’m going with the belief that some kind of divinity does exist). However, the most problematic assumptions are (a) that there’s a flawless divine plan, much less total divine mastery over events, and (b) that events are assailable as either “good” or “evil.” At the root of both these assumptions are the ideas of certainty and necessity, and the question of the relation between suffering and divine intention.

For these reasons I propose that the entire concept of theodicy be gutted and rebooted. How? By dropping talk of “good” and “evil,” eviscerating the gibberish of what we mean when we say “God,” and then asking a new question, one about the relation of chance and divine decisions. In other words, let’s be historians about our faith, and ask: how do we reconcile belief in God with contingency and change? The answer I propose: God is a storywriter, and we are partners in the plot. This is the core analogy of what I call “post-monotheist theodicy.”

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