Yesterday, WikiLeaks began to release "more than two million emails from Syrian political figures, ministries and associated companies, dating from August 2006 to March 2012."
In light of this event, I want to revisit a conversation I had just over a month ago with some of WikiLeaks more relentless detractors on Twitter.
In the wake of the Houla massacre in Syria, WikiLeaks' official twitter account issued the following tweet, counseling against uncritical acceptance of reportage on the incident.
Immediately, the tweets were used as a pretext for attacks on WikiLeaks. One of the principal offenders was Forbes contributor Tom Watson, who has consistently demonstrated that, for him, there is no argument too flimsy or dishonest to use, if it offers him an opportunity to signal to his peers his unilateral scorn for WikiLeaks. Indeed, he seems in many cases to have been working off WikiLeaks' Smear and Enjoy list.
On the basis of a single tweet, and later, a second one, cautioning against media manipulation, Watson proceeded to infer a whole range of dubious positions, from the idea that WikiLeaks was denying that the massacre had actually occurred, to the idea that WikiLeaks was declaring support for the Assad regime.
These positions - for which there was no basis in the actual WikiLeaks statement - were then made the basis for cheap moral outrage and WikiLeaks-directed disapproval. Watson, and others, in a highly public spectacle of mutual flattery, proceeded to denounce WikiLeaks' caveat as "contemptible," "disgusting" and "repulsive."
Watson then went to work proseletysing, inviting others to join him in villainizing WikiLeaks.
An earlier smear job by Watson himself, in which he had chosen to collapse the distinction between Assange selling a self-produced television show to a Russian-funded network, and "working for the Kremlin," was repurposed here to create a conspiracy theory, wherein Assange was receiving orders from Putin as to which political positions he was entitled to take, and attempting to push them out under the radar in the form of a tweet cautioning skepticism at media exploitation of tragedies in Syria.
Very little of this rises above the level of censorious moralizing - cheap sentiment used to police debate. Challenged on it, Watson defended the idea that critical thought is morally repugnant in the aftermath of an atrocity. To Watson, the fact that children had been murdered mandated that we stop caring about the sophisticated realities of the Syrian conflict, or how the atrocity might be exploited by the various stakeholders. Instead, we must fall back to a crude Manicheanism, and ostracize anyone who will not follow us.
It is, according to such a view, insufficiently sensitive to the victims to care about the true circumstances of their death.
It is important to draw attention to the fact that Watson was exploiting public horror at the massacre of children in order to eliminate criticism - he was using the Houla massacre, and its emotional potency, in order to narrow down the range of acceptable debate.
What Tom Watson wants us to think of as "disgusting," is criticism. It is criticism that we are expected to condemn. Criticism is socially unacceptable. This video is instructive on the sort of social mechanisms at work here.
What is left, if Watson successfully marginalizes critical views as reprehensible? His own - purportedly 'neutral' - position, within which a sanguinary military intervention could only be seen as reasonable and morally required. That becomes the default position.
This is precisely what WikiLeaks' original tweet was cautioning against.
There are many layers of irony at work here. Those who counsel against being taken in by the political exploitation of tragedy, will be denounced for politically exploiting tragedy. The tragedy will be exploited in so doing, and by the very people whose political agenda is best served by so doing.
New waves of artificial outrage were provoked by a second tweet from WikiLeaks, this time quoting and linking to a Stratfor email.
Of course, that this was a quote, and not a direct expression, is something it would be necessary to miss in the rush to attack WikiLeaks.