Call me a cynic, but I don’t see WikiLeaks changing much — for better or worse — about the way the government both classifies information and conducts diplomacy. But until the noise subsides, it remains a fascinating curiosity. That’s why two of my favorite takes on The Great Cable Dump of 2010 haven’t been about the political fallout, but about the literary merit of the cables themselves.
The two pieces, authored respectively by Reuel Marc Gerecht and Chris Beam, are at their most interesting where they diverge. Where Gerecht sees “bland and underreported,” Beam sees, “cables read like their own literary genre, with an identifiable sensibility and set of conventions.” I’d chalk that up to their differing backgrounds: Gerecht is a veteran of the CIA, while Beam, as far as I know, has never worked for the federal government in any capacity. One has spent a significant portion of his career mired in the American foreign policy apparatus, while the other comes to the cables, as most of us do, as outside observers getting a peek behind the curtain.
That’s probably why I’m more sympathetic to Beam’s assessment of the cables. For Gerecht, this is nothing remotely alien about the culture of American foreign relations, so there’s nothing to report. But for the rest of us, even the mundanity of these cables (and many of them are staggeringly mundane) is news. The flashes of black humor or psychological insight are even more interesting news. Reading these documents is a little like reading the letters and diary entries of historical figures. They’re history and state given individual character and personality.