Vol. 33 No. 3 · 3 February 2011

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To leak or not to leak

The WikiLeaks revelations, like the attacks of 11 September, were one of those spectacular assaults on the symbols of power anarchists used to call the ‘propaganda of the deed’. But, also like 9/11, WikiLeaks’s info-guerrilla raid has unleashed such a complex chain of effects that it’s no longer clear what the organisation intended to achieve – or whether those intentions even matter. Slavoj Žižek argues that its aim was ‘to lead us to mobilise ourselves to bring about a different functioning of power that might reach beyond the limits of representative democracy’ (LRB, 20 January). An intriguing speculation, but can one speak of a single ‘aim’ when hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables are released, revealing the dirty laundry of most of the world’s governments, not just those of the ‘US empire’? And who is meant by ‘we’?

Even if Julian Assange hoped to strike at the hegemon, it’s worth noting that the Americans don’t always come off so badly: US diplomatic cables certainly reveal a fair measure of hypocrisy, but they also show a highly competent foreign service, informed, insightful and capable of the occasional flash of humour. Might this be one reason why some autocrats – Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, for example – see WikiLeaks as a sinister American (or Israeli) conspiracy? Perhaps not surprisingly, the most dramatic effects of the WikiLeaks revelations have been felt not in the ‘representative democracies’ beyond whose ‘limits’ Žižek urges us to act, but in those countries where people would be grateful to enjoy a bit of democratic representation. One of the most fateful memos was written by the US ambassador in Tunis, describing the beachfront villa of former President Ben Ali’s son-in-law, who decorated his home with Roman columns and frescoes, kept a pet tiger called Pasha and served his guests ice cream flown in from Saint-Tropez. The Tunisian uprising wasn’t detonated by WikiLeaks, of course, but it didn’t hurt, and the uprising is, at its core, an old-fashioned struggle for representative democracy and transparency in a country that, for the last 50 years, has known only secrecy and dictatorship.

Laurie Edmundson

Slavoj Žižek’s article on Wikileaks provided a welcome counterpoint to the lionisation, in some sections of the press, of Julian Assange as some sort of champion of free speech. In fact he is endangering free speech. According to the terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to which almost every country in the world adheres, diplomats meeting in private, or communicating with their ministries during foreign postings, rely absolutely on recipients’ respect for the security classification they have given their missives. If they suspect that their words will shortly be trumpeted in public by the likes of Assange, the whole machinery of international diplomacy will break down. Žižek’s examples of the overthrow of the Salazar regime in Portugal in 1974 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 vividly show what dire consequences were avoided at those times by the use of diplomatic tact.

Gillian de Veras
London SE25

George gets an A

George W. Bush may never have met Foucault at Yale (LRB, 6 January). But he did meet Margaret Mead there. He took an anthropology course with her, and even got an A, reputedly the only such grade he received in his undergraduate years. But in an interview Mead gave the campus paper at the time she said she awarded all the students A’s, assuming they must be smart or they wouldn’t be at Yale.

Lawrence Rosen

Congo Explained

Mahmood Mamdani is right to point out that the persistence of a discourse of ‘nativism’ or ‘indigeneity’ is a serious problem for contemporary Congolese society which the peace process has never properly confronted (LRB, 20 January). However, he has neglected crucial aspects of the region’s recent politics by insisting on the legacy of the native authority. Between 1998 and 2003, the eastern Kivu region was a battleground fought over by the Rwandan army and its local RCD allies on one side, the FDLR Rwandan rebels, Mai-Mai militia and Kabila’s government on the other. The violence was not fuelled only by a discourse of indigeneity, but also by geopolitical considerations: the continuation of the Rwandan civil war on Congolese territory and struggles by local and regional elites over resources and power.

Nor, when the peace deal was implemented in 2003, was it just the persistence of the native authority that caused fighting to continue in Kivu. Days after the transitional government began its work, Laurent Nkunda and two other high-ranking RCD officers defected from the newly integrated national army. They were worried that their Tutsi community would go unprotected, but they defected in large part because the elites in Goma and Kigali stood to lose political and economic control of the region: in 2006, the RCD was reduced from controlling over a quarter of the country to just a small per cent of seats in elected institutions. Since these elections different groups have fought for different reasons: unemployed youth have sought money and status, businessmen have tried to secure their assets and politicians have sought to extend their power. The persistence of native authority can explain only a modest part of this complex dynamic; insisting on it will cause us to neglect these other important aspects.

Mamdani’s piece raises more questions than it provides answers. If it is true that the problem lies with the native authority, how do we reform it? On paper, the state has long tried to get rid of customary chiefs. In 1966 the Bakajika law gave the state legal ownership of all land, in theory stripping it from chiefs. In reality the state’s weakness has allowed customary rule to continue in many rural areas, though often in a mangled and militarised form. Should the Congolese get rid of these chiefs, depriving villagers of the little moral and judicial authority there is in these areas? While state weakness – perhaps Congo’s greatest scourge – is deeply rooted in the colonial past, the capture of the state by various elites has as much to do with its persistence as the influence of native authority. Reforming the state – something donors and Congolese alike have failed at – will require an understanding and balancing of these disparate interest groups.

Jason Stearns

The Raging Peloton

Iain Sinclair suggests that the new urban cyclist is a phenomenon of the last decade but the move from the kind of bicycle culture figured in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning may have occurred much earlier (LRB, 20 January). The design historian Reyner Banham argued that in Britain there had been a shift from the proletarian cyclist to a new type of urban middle-class rider, symbolised by the Moulton, a bicycle with small wheels, an innovative design and a progressive cultural image. The Moulton appealed to the socially mobile, according to Banham, partly because of an ingenious technical specification in the form of a polythene ring on the chain wheel, designed to keep clothing free from oil and constituting ‘a minor cultural revolution’, liberating the rider from ‘that badge of social shame: trouser clips’. Banham rode a Moulton himself and considered it to signify his own transition from working-class ‘scholarship boy’ to metropolitan intellectual. For ‘Central London and the West End’, it was the ‘thinking man’s vehicle’.

Chris Goldie
Sheffield Hallam University

In his article on Boris bikes and North London canalside activity, Iain Sinclair claims that ‘tight T-shirts’ are obligatory for the self-punishing joggers of Hackney. Let the record show that I favour a looser fit.

Phil Rhys Thomas
London N1

How to deal with a boar

The boar is hardier than Lawrence Norfolk thinks (LRB, 6 January). Wild boars are to be found in Estonia and Finland (well above the 60th parallel), and Sweden is estimated to have more boars (some 300,000 in the fall of 2010) than moose. Driving along the coastal roads north of Stockholm you’ll see frequent triangular warning signs showing the silhouette of a boar.

Last fall a Lutheran minister (and thus, presumably, credible) was attacked by a boar in Skåne but managed to hold the beast at bay by kicking and flailing with his arms while lying on his back until it gave up and ran away.

Robert Hammarberg
Arlington, Virginia

Endorsed by Gove

Any writer endorsed by Michael Gove is clearly a monster and needs to be resisted, but Robert Hanks is unfair to Dennis Wheatley even so (LRB, 20 January). Writing as if the idea of poor old Wheatley reading Proust were self-evidently absurd (‘acquaintance with Proust seems out of the question’), Hanks reminds readers that Proust wasn’t translated when Wheatley first met Eric Gordon Tombe, the pretentious friend who encouraged him to read widely and to frequent a bookshop on Langham Place called the London Foreign Book Company. Scott-Moncrieff’s translations only began to appear in 1922, the year Tombe was murdered, but even if Tombe introduced Wheatley to Proust as little more than a name, Wheatley then proceeded to acquire 11 volumes and a couple of bits of Proustiana (Léon Pierre-Quint’s Marcel Proust: His Life and Work and Scott-Moncrieff’s Marcel Proust: An English Tribute).

Phil Baker
London SW1

Ornament and Safeguard

Jonathan Rée restricts his interpretation of the device engraved on the rim of the fresh milled coins of 1662, decus et tutamen (‘ornament and safeguard’), to that of a ‘defiant legend’ warning against defiling the new money (LRB, 20 January). He could go further than that. It is the difficult to imitate, elaborate lettering in which these words were inscribed that presents the challenge. The lettering, a version of which is commemoratively engraved on the edge of current pound coins, is performing a speech act, but of a particular kind. Not just the classical Austinian sort perfectly exemplified in an exchange in the film Pump Up the Volume (1990): Headteacher: ‘You’re fired.’ Teacher: ‘You can’t do that.’ Headteacher: ‘I already have.’ The speech act performed by decus et tutamen is ‘informative’ or ‘significant for the receiver’ as well as simply ‘communicative’ or ‘significant for the transmitter’.

Robert Veltman

Let us pay

It would help if David Elstein (Letters, 20 January) compared like with like when singing the praises of BSkyB and damning the BBC. Sky invests in sport because it’s a commercial company and sport is massively profitable. The BBC invests across the whole range of TV, radio and online content because it’s a public service broadcaster charged with a set of public service obligations. The BBC and Sky exist for different purposes, have different funding models, different legal status, different relationships to national politics and culture.

Martin Spence
BECTU, London SW9

Katharine Tynan Hinkson

I am intending a collection of the letters of the Irish novelist and poet Katharine Tynan Hinkson (1859-1931), but so far I have failed to find out who holds her literary copyright. Can anyone help? I should like, also, to contact any private holders of Hinkson’s letters.

Damian Atkinson
74 Langdale Gate, Witney, OX28 6EY

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