09 December 2010

Down the Drain with Wikileaks

Whistleblowing is good when actual wrong has been done, but governments and businesses cannot function without privacy any more than individuals or families can. When people don't feel comfortable talking off the record, or when they fear they might be endangered by it, they stop talking, and mutual misunderstanding and suspicion ensue.

Take the revelation that Hillary Clinton had inquired of her aides whether Christina Fernandez was on medication and if so, how the meds affected her decision-making. It's a perfectly legitimate question for a secretary of state to ask before meeting the president of a foreign country. Yet Ms. Fernandez is hardly likely to be pleased to learn that it was asked, and this makes relations between Argentina and the US ever so slightly more difficult. Much worse would be the consequences of harsh words used by US diplomats (in a confidential discussion) about the chief Chinese representative at the Six-Party Talks over North Korea, and the revelation that some American diplomats think an important Turkish minister is a bit of a closet Islamic extremist. Publicizing such matters makes the going along the rough edges of international relations just that much rougher--and makes the world a slightly more dangerous place.

Back on the home front, what good purpose is served by making public the knowledge that some American diplomats in Colombo, at least, believe that President Rajapakse and his military commanders are guilty of war crimes? It is not as if the news is going to change the views people already hold. It may briefly put fresh heart into human-rights campaigners and civil-society activists, but its practical consequences are all negative: they consist mainly of increased friction, distrust and resentment between Sri Lanka and the US, and between Sri Lanka and the west in general. It will make working towards final reconciliation and accountability harder than ever. That benefits nobody.

'Freedom of information' also means freedom for information to flow. By turning itself into an obstacle to its free passage in this way, Wikileaks has made the world a shadier, more secretive place. This is nothing less than a terrorist attack on civilization. It will have a far greater impact, in the long term, than 9/11 ever did or could. And it is not just the West that is the victim here. It is everybody.

01 December 2010

Solar: Not Stellar

Ian McEwan is, in one sense at least, the best prose craftsman now working in English. That sense is finish; his writing is like a perfect cabuchon-cut jewel, slick and flawless; or like a perfectly aged brandy, so smooth you hardly feel it as it goes down.

Unfortunately, I find that the impression it leaves behind, at least with me, is also as ephemeral as the effect of fine brandy: a slight hangover the day after, and then gone for ever. I've enjoyed nearly every book of his I've read, as long as I was reading it. A month after I'd finished it, though, I could remember little of plot, character or indeed, anything else. Surely this can't be good?

Solar, however, is a book I will remember, because it is the first time Ian McEwan has completely failed with me. I think I understand the trick he's trying to pull off here: create an unsympathetic character, one deserving of nothing better than pity or contempt, and try to interest the reader in him, even feel some sympathy for him in spite of his faults. It doesn't work. Michael Beard, the Nobel-prizewinning protagonist of Solar, is a gluttonous, womanizing slob to whom essentially unbelievable things happen, and not very interestingly. We are privy to his thoughts most of the time, but these neither bring us any insight into his creepiness that would help us understand him and possibly empathize, nor do they seem to me like the workings of the mind of a physicist--unless physicists' minds work just the same way as everyone else's, which may be the case most of the time but surely not all of it. The fact is, Michael Beard doesn't seem very intelligent at all. Is that McEwan's point, then? That Nobel-prizewinning physicists are just the same as all of us, only intermittently bright and otherwise slaves to their passions and habits, not very interesting apart from their work? We knew the first already--it's a truism of the most banal sort--and as for the second, it's a lie. People like Einstein, Dirac, Feynman and Bohm were far from uninteresting as human beings. They were all, in their different ways, a little bit peculiar. There is nothing in the least peculiar about McEwan's physicist creation Michael Beard.

Somewhat to my astonishment, I actually found myself speed-reading the last third of Solar, just to see whether anything worthwhile would happen in the end (nothing did). Speed-reading Ian McEwan! Has it come to this?