Monday, July 26, 2010

WikiLeaks and the Divided Line

We Chipsters haven’t paid much attention to the brouha over Wikileaks, except to take note that the leak and the official freak-out over it occurred. The whole affair has, for us, the air of non-news. Did anyone think the Afghan War was going well? Did anyone anywhere believe that the Taliban was on the verge of being totally routed and imminently defeated for the past 9 years? And if they were still putting up a fight that kept the US and NATO at bay they were doing it with blow darts?

Apparently there were people who did believe everything officialdom had to say on the matter and for whom the leaks were something akin to those forced ice-water showers lunatic asylums used to use to “cure” various fits and dementias. This caused us to wonder why some people see things while others remain in the dark; and, this in turn, led us to ponder the application of Plato’s Divided Line to the practical world and the matter of practical wisdom.


Years ago, while reading law, I fell into a project. I fell so completely that I cut all my other classes and, eventually, stopped going to school altogether. Instead, I read every case there was to read on Double Jeopardy.

For months I poured over and pondered holdings and rules on double jeopardy. I compiled lists of those excuses judges make which comprise what we call caselaw. I traced recurring dicta through strings of cases, taking note of how a phrase could subtly permute while being intoned without much thought. I compared, analyzed, schematized; and, in the end, knew everything there was to know about double jeopardy. I even acquired a certain sense of the mind and character of one Justice Grey of the Supreme Judicial Council of Massachussetts, long since departed but of obvious influence in his day. I didn’t like him much.

It was now mid-March of my final year and, after handing in my Opus, I returned to class where I was greeted in the hallways like some long lost traveller.

Conflicts.” Conflicts is to law school what Kant is to Heidleberg or what the Parmenides is to Plato. It is the last hurdle in that grim initiation known as “reading law”. Conflicts deals with harmonizing a heap of contradictory and antagonistic state laws as to which each state is constitutionally bound to give full faith and credit. Perhaps no more than five percent of lawyers will ever have to deal with such conflicts in real life but, in our federal system, it is something every lawyer is required to know. Alas, that something is nothing very pelucid or self evident.

“So...what’s it like?” I asked my friend Shell, as we walked into the auditorium. “Grim.” “How much was the book?” I asked, as I flipped through two and a half inches of paper. “I got it for fifty bucks,” Shell replied. “I suppose, it’s pointless at this point,” I said. Shell kept quiet, the way one would keep quiet in the shadow of an impending judgement of death. Conflicts is a credit weighted course. Flunk conflicts, flunk third year, flunk law school, life ruined, become pizza delivery boy. Damn stupid double jeopardy.

I almost turned heel to take the bus back to Mill Valley where I could contemplate alternative modes of sustainability. But, I was there, at the door, and figured I might as well face the grimness. So I sat in the stalls, next to Shell, glancing stealthily at the chapter headings in his book while feeling consciousness of guilt and hoping I wouldn’t be noticed.

First Conundrum of the morning. In Such a Case, the court extended the rationale of the So and So Rule and held Thus and So; but suppose....... And there followed a “fact scenario” somewhere in the haystack of which was the golden needle of distinction or applicability.

“Oh that’s easy!” I thought to myself as the answer lept to mind. Obviously, I did not raise my hand. But to my astonishment, what had lept to my mind was in fact the correct answer.

Second Conundrum of the morning. Once again, Principal and Paradox. Once again, the answer seemed obvious to me as I sat on my hand. And once again, I had got it right.

Third Conundrum.... And so it went; for the full fifty minutes I correctly anticipated the answers to the professor’s devilish questions. The bell rang, and as we walked out the doors, I burst into laughter. Shell looked at me quizzically. “What’s up?”

“I’ve just beheld the Inner Essence of the Law!”

It had, indeed, been a Platonic Moment. In the course of any study or endeavour, we begin with unfounded and arbitrary beliefs. We then progress to faulty and haphazardly valid opinions. From there we move onto that discipline of acquisition, analysis, synthesis and judgement which we call “knowledge”. But this knowledge, while it may fill our heads with many interesting and useful things, can only bring us up to a line, usually in a state akin to exhaustion and often in despair of ever really knowing anything at all. It is then -- and in that suspended posture of receptivity -- that our eyes are opened to the true nature of things and we are given Understanding.

This understanding can be acted upon as if it were known, but it cannot be described or diagrammed as if it were one of those things we call “knowable”. It just is. I was able to anticipate the answers in my Conflicts class because I had become so thoroughly imbued with “the judicial mind” -- as such and in general -- that I had come into contact with “how The Law thinks.” It is this “imbuedness” that makes for great lawyers, great martial artists, great meistersingers, great carpenters, great anything.

In Plato’s philosophy this intuitive nous consists in seeing the true forms of all things under the sun. I had not attained such enlightenment but only an momentary insight into the tao of a particular practical art of cobbling words.

There is another kind of understanding which arises almost at the other end of Plato’s divided line -- the starting “low” point of arbitrary belief, rumour, scuttlebutt.

As everyone now knows, during 1969-1970, Nixon & Kissinger undertook a secret bombing campaign against Cambodia. The bombing was so secret, the runs were made on a “split” path of orders and even then the paperwork was incinerated after each mission. For four years the missions remained unknown to Congress, the media, and (or so they said) the American public. In fact, during the Watergate Era hearings into the Secret Bombing, some top echelon general testified that he himself had no idea that the bombing was taking place.

I was incredulous. How could he not know when even I knew? Of course, I did not know much. In fact, I didn’t really “know” anything at all. But I, along with many other kids in and around university towns or seedy servicemen bars, understood that we were striking and bombing in Cambodia. We understood this because someone had a brother or cousin who worked with someone who loaded the bombs; or, because someone had gotten hold of some “enemy” leaflet or because someone was bragging over his beer. We understood this because we were plugged into what might be called the Private Wintergreen Network.

It then made complete sense to me that Brig. Gen. So and So would not have had any inkling that the bombing was going on. He existed in the world of demonstrable knowledge -- a world where what was known came in official packets of briefings based on officially sanctioned analyses and evaluations. For him, what was outside that ambit did not exist. Gen. So and So was far above the grimy, undisciplined world of scuttlebutt and far below the realm of intuitive nous. He was confined by what he knew. As a result he was ignorant where I and others excluded from the Holy Grail of Top Secret Knowledge, knew.

Another person who no doubt knew about the Secret Bombing was Izzy Stone. I say this because Izzy Stone had a habit of knowing all sorts of things official Washington preferred were not known. He published his disclosures in a four or six page pamphlet known as I.F. Stone’s Weekly. Not only was I.F. Stone’s Weekly eagerly grabbed up by all of us on the “outside;" if truth be known, it was read by those on the inside who wanted to find out what they were up to.

Izzy’s way of knowing was not simply intutive nous or informed scuttlebutt. Nor, obviously, was it that kind of official and cartesian knowledge based on debriefings, data mining and analysis. Stone simply had an opinion about things and his opinion was almost always right.

It seems to me now that Stone’s opinions were based on what could perhaps be called inferential imagination. Stone could spot the connection between two seemingly distant and unrelated things -- how the implication in “A” was the same thing (or something connected to) an inference from “B”. The intersection “C” was the news or the fact that the Government didn’t want you to know or perhaps didn’t even know itself.

Feeding our cynicism and mirth, Stone was always pulling some fluffy rabbit from the hat which left some government spokesman with egg on his face. It was a kind of informative Vaudeville. Stone gave up his weekly in 1971 and has never been replaced by anything half as adequate or delightful.


The official academic interpretation of Plato’s Divided Line is that it describes an ascending scale of knowing: one that progresses from dumb and mute belief, to quasi informed opinions which are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, to disciplined mathematical or logical knowledge up to intuitive understanding. I have my doubts.

At least in the non-metaphysical world, things would appear to be more mixed up than that. How was it that I.F. Stone was able to be so inferentially imaginative? Was he just born that way like some Dalai Lama of News Clippings? I suspect not.

My hunch is that, in addition to having a clear and logical mind, I.F. Stone had read a lot of history -- what Gibbon called the sorry chronicle of the “crimes vices and follies of mankind” But this chronicle is actually a mish-mash of rumours and slanders, official reports & denials, mystery who-done-its, statistical and forensic data as well as patterns of behaviour and responses - in a word, themes - which, like dicta in caselaw, recur like bad habits. History,in short, is a kaleidoscope of tumbling bits and pieces of all sorts. After a while the beholder of this revolving criminal farce intuits the Inner Essence of History and comes to "know" the missing and unseen pieces. Thus, although it is correct to describe I.F. Stone 's publication as consisting of "informed opinion" it is not quite accurate to conclude that he operated at “level two” of ascending knowledge. He operated at all levels simultaneously informed by history, with an ear to the ground and an eye for the missing piece or hidden link. Izzy no doubt knew about the secret bombing precisely because the government said nothing about it.

"View Is Bleaker Than Official Portrayal of War in Afghanistan"

Duh. People who read the New York Times “for the news” will never know anything until some WikiLeak perchance hands them the smoking gun they need before they can know anything. Those who follow Izzy Stone will have understood the news before it happens.


1 comment:

ellin barret said...

this is a great post! Thank you!