Anthony Burgess, the brilliant British novelist remembered for the misunderstood A Clockwork Orange, also wrote a spy novel. It was the height of the Bond era, and he couldn’t resist satirizing the genre while banging out a crackling yarn at the same time. His publishers no doubt groaned when he presented the title: “Tremor of Intent: An Eschatological Spy Novel.” Yeah, Tony, that’ll sell. There’s a title that tells people to expect underwater lairs stocked with Swedish models in bikinis and poison lipstick. At one point the agent is cornered by an assassin who works for Panleth, an international assassination consortium happy to kill anyone, East or West, for a price. The agent is saved by a small boy who shoots the killer, mutters “Bloody neutrals,” staggers to a corner, and throws up.
Oddly enough, there was no movie version.
“Bloody neutrals” — the phrase leaped out when I read the book in college, because neutrals were the wise ones, weren’t they? Unmoved by the rhetoric of either side, incorruptible. Why, what was history but a crimson parade of dupable fools who took sides? The Neutral floated above it all with a slight sad smile, amused at the archaic notions to which these mortals cling. When you grow up you realize it was just a pose; the Neutral has convictions, and they’re predictably progressive. Which brings us to something I read in my Twitter feed:
“I don’t know if I’m anti-WikiLeaks but I’m anti-anti-WikiLeaks.”
This was retweeted with great vigor, because Yes! That’s it exactly! That just solved everything! For some on the left, there must have been unease over WikiLeaks’ de-pantsing of the diplomatic corps; diplomacy is their preferred mode of keeping the world safe and stable. Oh, everyone knows that when diplomats say “There was a frank and open exchange of views,” they mean someone pounded the table hard enough to set off car alarms and used enough profanity to make the wallpaper peel. But if there’s a handshake and everyone signs a piece of paper at the end of the day, that’s better than shooting things, right? Perhaps WikiLeaks hurts us — and of course they mean “us” in that amusing old tribal sense — but maybe this will improve diplomacy, y’know? There’s something wrong when we don’t have full and total access to everything said behind closed doors, especially if it entails hypocrisy. As everyone whose worldview was formed in twelfth grade by The Catcher in the Rye knows, hypocrisy is like the worst thing ever, because you’re a phony.
Of course, if WikiLeaks dumped ten gigabytes of data about how China is force-feeding cadmium to dissidents and marching them into coal-plant furnaces, there wouldn’t be a peep, because they’re like super into trains over there, okay, and we’re fat and drive too much, and maybe Tom Friedman can have a word with them. No, the real thrill was seeing America exposed, and any discomfort over the effects can be displaced on those who are really bothered about the leaks. They’re bad people who want bad things and hate transparency and freedom and pictures on the Internet of cats saying funny things. “Anti-WikiLeaks” is a difficult call. “Anti-anti-WikiLeaks” is easy, just as “anti-anti-Communist” was the preferred stance of those who might not have approved of the gulag but thought Reagan was a dunderheaded lunatic who went around the White House stabbing red buttons in the hopes he’d start a war. Well, the one in the elevator doesn’t do it.
Anti-anti-ism was echoed by another Twitter author the same day: The mirroring of WikiLeaks documents on servers all over the world reminded him of slaves standing up and shouting “I am Spartacus!” Ah, for the good old days of civil rebellion, distributed anonymity, and master-stabbin’. It’s the sort of curdled idealism that results when you confuse typing with thinking, and believe it’s a brave act of civil disobedience to choose “Guy Fawkes” as your chatroom name. When the side of the information superhighway is lined with crucified bloggers, let me know.
Burgess’s spy novel flopped for many reasons, but he was right about neutrals. You have to stand for something. Burgess stood for free will and the rights of the individual, and made his case through the distasteful but charismatic protagonist of Clockwork. The original version of the book concludes with the hero growing up and reconsidering his horrid ways, but director Stanley Kubrick filmed a truncated version that celebrated the hero’s return to the old ultra-violence. He also did Spartacus, you know. Good movies. Me, I’m anti-anti-anti-Stanley, but if pressed, I’d have to say: I’m pro-Kubrick.
There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.