Tag Archives: George W. Bush

The "Anarchist" and the Literary Agent: Julian Assange’s Book Deal

Sarah Palin may find common ground with Julian Assange after all. The founder of WikiLeaks is now officially trading on his celebrity: he has landed a 1.5 million dollar book deal.

The trouble is, now Assange will have to go from disrupting history to revising it. The man widely reviled as an “anarchist”, a terrorist, an enemy of the state, will have to enter the world of Palin and W., where messy lives merge into books and phony interviews and reality television programs, where serious flaws are glossed over, peccadilloes forgiven, legal expenses met by admirers and detractors alike. In this world, being a governor, a president, or a leaker of state secrets amounts to nothing more than a protracted publicity stunt, the ramp up to a non-stop book tour, the dues you have to pay to trade on your celebrity in the marketplace.

Whether Julian Assange will make this transition successfully remains to be seen, and that is already one part of his story playing into the pre-launch of his book. Everything is grist for the publicity mill. So, we are told, Assange is a reluctant author: as has been widely reported, he told the Sunday Times, “I don’t want to write this book, but I have to. I have already spent £200,000 for legal costs and I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat.”

Unlike Sarah Palin, Assange is not comfortable turning himself into a commodity — at least that is what we are to believe. And unlike Palin, he is probably capable of writing a book all by himself, but with the delivery of a manuscript rumored to be scheduled for March, there is no reason to expect anything very polished or any great new insights.

But it sure will sell.

Who can blame him for striking a deal? With mounting legal expenses and a book about WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg due out at the end of January (Inside WikiLeaks: My Time at the World’s Most Dangerous Website), “a memoir from Assange is a logical step,” says Sarah Weinman. Pardon me, however, if I react with less than unbridled enthusiasm. Really, what is there to tell? Why is Assange’s short-lived publishing venture worthy of a memoir? Yes, there is the matter of setting the record straight, but given his present legal circumstances Assange will have to be very circumspect about how he or WikiLeaks worked with sources and how they received leaks. He will have to be on message, and everything he says will have to be vetted and cleared by his legal team.

This isn’t going to be a candid, tell-all account (or even a polished celebrity memoir, like the books put out this year by Patti Smith or Keith Richards). But why quibble over the truth when truthiness sells best? There will no doubt be a WikiLeaks movie coming very soon to a theater near you, right after The Social Network finishes its run.

It remains to be seen whether this book deal will rescue Julian Assange or WikiLeaks, whether the publicity machine behind it (Knopf in the U.S., Canongate in the UK) will help Assange win more of the world to his side, and whether it will magically put him beyond the reach of the law, as it seems to have done with Sarah Palin and George W. Bush.

Balancing Innovation with Orientation – An Airport Postscript

Today I was at a business conference in Las Vegas where Bill Clinton and George W. Bush appeared, together, for a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion about the economy, regulation, taxes and education. At one point in the conversation, the two former presidents were asked to talk about how America can do more to encourage innovation. Clinton and W. both agreed that making the research and experimentation tax credit permanent would be a good first step.

This wasn’t terribly surprising, since both presidents had tried (but failed) to make the credit permanent; nor was it surprising that a business audience would greet their comments on this subject with polite applause. I, too, managed to put my hands together and restrained myself from jumping to my feet and exclaiming to the assembly that before we start giving tax credits for research, we need to revisit the idea of “research” embedded in the tax code.

So I did not end up having to explain to the secret service detail or my hosts that I had been agitated on this subject ever since I read Amar Bhidé’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal, and had just yesterday published a blog post on this very subject, where I wondered whether research into the human condition and the social world might not also deserve credit, provide much-needed checks and balances to the scientific and technical research the credit already covers, and yield new ideas of what constitutes true prosperity, real wealth, or sustainable growth.

Now, at the airport, waiting for a redeye back to New York, I am still in the grip of this idea, which, as I admitted in my previous post, probably sounds a little far-fetched. But there is a line of inquiry here I don’t want to lose: that research into culture and society, into language and history, into how people learn and how things change, will balance innovation with – I guess this is the word I would use – orientation: a sense of the right direction, an understanding of limits and where propriety and restraint should be shown, of where judgment needs to be exercised or informed choices need to be made.

Think, to take just a small example, of the concern within business organizations around social media. This goes far beyond the fact that many organizations don’t know what to do about Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn; that barely scratches the itch.

The conversation has turned from the occasional remark on the role of business in society to anxious chatter about the transformational role that society, or the social, can play in business. There is a growing realization that the social matters enormously to the way people collaborate, the way organizations develop and change, the way business goes to market, and to the bottom line. If, as I might put it, every enterprise is already a social enterprise, why would organizations be reluctant to devote some small portion of their R & D dollars to original research into how peering works, or how social networks function, or how individuals surrender, or refuse to surrender, autonomy in exchange for belonging, or how trust is built or won.

Still sound far-fetched? Maybe. I realize I am talking here in very broad terms, off the top of my head, and I’m also aware that some organizations are already taking these matters seriously, even if they don’t, or can’t officially consider them R & D. Still, it’s fair to say the vast majority are not dedicating resources or sufficient resources to these topics, primarily because, unlike scientific and technical research, they don’t promise to yield new wares, and because they seem soft, mushy, hard to define and pin down.

I realize, too, that the broad trend I am describing here may be a manifestation of a much greater anxiety. It may be that we are trying to harness the constructive power of the social now only because we sense a loss, a lack of social cohesion, the demise of traditional social values and the disintegration of traditional human groups, the atomization of social life and the erosion of trust.

Be that as it may, it is undeniable that how seriously organizations deal with these issues will bear on their performance, on their ability to innovate – broadly, as Bhidé would say — and to orient themselves in an increasingly disorienting world.

A Kinder, Gentler Disaster Capitalism

I suppose comparisons between the situation in Haiti after the earthquake and the situation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were inevitable. The weird and almost comical arrival of George W. Bush on the scene of the Haiti relief efforts was sure to invite the comparison. But you wouldn’t expect it from people who have been to Haiti, or worked there; and that’s why I was surprised to find the comparison in an opinion piece by Eve Blossom on The Huffington Post.

Blossom is a “social entrepreneur,” a textile importer with a social conscience, and her for-profit company, Lulan Artisans, has done business in Haiti. Or, more precisely: Lulan had started “initial partnerships with a few cooperatives” to bring artisanal goods from Haiti to “a prominent U.S. retailer,” but those plans were interrupted by the earthquake, and many of the artisans who would have benefited from these partnerships are missing and among the dead; their workshops are, as Blossom puts it, “decimated.”

For Blossom, there is another side to the disaster in Haiti: an opportunity to get the country on a more sustainable economic path and to rebuild infrastructure. She is not the only one so far to advance this line of argument. Former Bush administration official Stephen Johnson made a similar call last week in a Wall Street Journal piece advocating “Haitianization of the recovery” and a role for the Haitian American middle class (which would not be without political consequences in Haiti). Blossom would no doubt reject the comparison; but in this article, at least, she advocates what can only be called a kinder, gentler disaster capitalism. Which brings me to the passage that tripped me up:

At Lulan, we find by going into communities, celebrating local skills in the culture, partnering with men and women artisans, paying fair wage and connecting them to a larger marketplace, the artisans become more than self-sufficient. They become savvy marketers who run successful businesses. Such people are more equipped to recover from natural disasters.

With stable incomes, access to savings and credit, marketable job skills, job training and control of resources, people can better withstand disaster interruptions.

Is this disaster not reminiscent of a previous disaster? New Orleans also lacked sufficient infrastructure and a strong economic foundation.

The passage starts out reading like a Lulan press release (and I am surprised the Huffington Post editors let it stand; on second thought, given what the Huffington Post has become, I am not so surprised), with plenty of social-entrepreneurial pixie dust to go around: there is talk of “celebrating” and “partnering,” keeping things “local” and “fair,” and (of course) of “connecting.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I distrust people who talk this way, and I can’t help but see through all this sunshine a mixture of condescension, pious self-regard, and enchantment with the ways of the Third World: a benevolent maternalism, as it were, our own 21st century, politically correct, post-colonial variant of the benevolent paternalism of 19th century anthropologists and industrialists. Ask the Haitians how that worked out for them.

Be that as it may — Ms. Blossom has a business to run, and if Huffington Post won’t prevent her from delivering a sales pitch in the midst of an article about Haitian relief, then why should I? — the real rub for me in all this comes with the comparison to New Orleans.

Blossom’s comparison of the infrastructure of New Orleans to that of Haiti might lead one to wonder whether she has actually been to either place (but she has); and it raises the more serious question what “sufficient” infrastructure really is. New Orleans’ infrastructure had fallen into disrepair; Haiti’s telecommunications infrastructure, to take just one example, is the least developed in all Latin America.

Comparing the economic conditions of an American city — any American city, New Orleans or Detroit or the South Bronx — with those of the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, where 80% of the population live under the poverty line, and 54% in abject poverty, is to make nonsense of economics, of history and of the world.

To take exception to Blossom’s line of argument is not to deny her main point. Savvy economic actors who run “successful businesses” and people with stable incomes and access to credit are, no doubt, better equipped than less fortunate or — dare I say it? — less entrepreneurial people to recover from natural disasters; and it’s important that as Haitians rebuild their economy and infrastructure, they also acquire new economic competencies and new skills for the local and global marketplace. There is no future in depending on foreign aid or on the kindness of strangers — even strangers who claim they are working on your behalf or for your own good.

Beyond the Axis of Evil

Not too long ago President Bush was calling Iran part of the Axis of Evil. Now Iran stands for the hope of the whole world. This stunning reversal is not due to any new formulation of policy or act of diplomacy. It is a tribute to the Iranian people and – no matter what may happen in the course of the next few days — we already owe them an enormous debt for reminding us what a precious and powerful thing human liberty is.

The Axis of Evil was a way of mapping the world, or of making the world conform to a very particular agenda. It implied and entailed a grand Theory of The World, and it relied on distortions that still inform the political debate and frame perceptions.

It’s part of a tangled web of lies and deceit we still need to undo.

Delivered on January 26, 2002, Bush’s Axis of Evil speech was one of the first loud drumbeats for the war in Iraq. David Frum came up with the phrase after being ordered by head White House speechwriter Mike Gerson to find some pithy way to make the case for toppling Saddam Hussein in the first State of the Union Bush would deliver after September 11th. In his speech, Bush described an alliance of rogue states and terrorists who threatened world peace and were intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction. That, we now know, was meant to scare us into war and stifle dissent. And it was the start of a terrible campaign.

Frum claims the phrase “Axis of Evil” was meant to recall Roosevelt’s urgent summons to action against the Axis powers. But it was clearly also an attempt to give Bush the Younger some of the historical stature and moral gravitas of Ronald Reagan, who drew a hard line against the Soviet Union in his “Evil Empire” speech. And yet for all his talk of liberating the Middle East, Bush never found his “tear down that wall” moment, perhaps because by 2002 the world had so changed from the time of Reagan that we were the only imperial power left standing.

Now, ironically, the Supreme Leader Ayotollah Khamenei claims this is a battle between good and evil, between “old friends and brothers” and “hungry wolves in ambush.” Western style diplomacy, says the Supreme Leader, is and always has been a charade: now the powers of the West “are showing their enmity against the Islamic Republic system and the most evil of them is the British government.” The Foreign Office lodged an official complaint; but Khamenei knows that right now his best chance is to tap into old resentments against the imperialists.

That requires another bizarre distortion of political realities on the ground, and a denial of the horrors perpetrated against ordinary Iranians. Maybe that makes those men evil, and maybe theocracy is one of the great evils the world has known. But that’s not really the urgent point and it’s not really time to debate it. This isn’t a morality play or a moot.

Bush’s Manichean rhetoric and its accompanying narrative of good, exceptional America fighting the evil masterminds who plot our destruction and that of the entire world was a Cheneyesque cartoon, a vast oversimplification. Even Peggy Noonan (no raving liberal, but a Reagan speechwriter) pointed out in her column today that what’s happening in Iran right now doesn’t conform to any images or preconceptions we have of Iran. History is being made before our eyes; but it certainly isn’t happening along any axis that George Bush or David Frum were capable of delineating, let alone seeing.

The scenes from the streets of Iran – of ordinary people out in the street, grappling with security forces, coming out against all odds to demonstrate, a young girl killed, people beaten and slashed and shot by the Basijis – should make us grope for new words, or leave us speechless. They defy neat descriptions and pat phrases. In Iran, right now, people are out in the streets, redrawing the map of the world.