Sunday, December 26, 2010

Half Empty

Having discovered that the Ambassador declared me a pessimist at a recent FAST* meeting, I've been trying not to brood on it. Because that would just prove his case, right? I mean, you don't think I'm a pessimist, do you, loving family?

"Um, Katie, did you see my birthday present for you?" Cue the presentation of David Rakoff's Half Empty. My eyes narrow. "Have you been talking to the Ambo?" Karyn thumbs through a few chapters. "You are kind of a pessimist -- but this book says that it's not so bad." I find this of little comfort.

I really don't like blindly upbeat people. I freely admit this. They tend to have a sort of ridiculous shininess about them that rubs me as insincere. They're the ones I picture with secret cutting addictions, drinking airplane cabin handouts of gin in a dark closet, desperate to hide their bulimia from their unsuspecting cats. I, on the other hand, feel I'm practical about life: a realist. Things aren't always rosy, but you deal with them and work to make them better. Maybe I would be more upbeat if I had a coke habit to cover up or something.

It is suddenly very important that my youngest sister appreciate this world view.

"Pessimism is only bad if you let it get the better of you, yeah? I mean, it's a planning tool. You have to constantly work to keep the worst case scenario from happening; things don't naturally turn out well." Optimism is merely reflective of a lack of imagination -- or an abdication of responsibility. Or brain trauma. One of those three.

She purses her lips in a funny Karyn way and nods. "I'll give you the book just as soon as I'm done with it."

*'First And Second Tour' officers. Every time you think you've escaped the grip of junior-hood ("Look, I'm tenured now!"), State broadens the definition.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010


I have often stopped myself from writing things on my blog because I was uncertain of the potential impact. That's been true from the beginning of my foreign service career, but more true since I've been stationed here. It's one thing to talk about funny visa stories; how can I talk about human rights issues in my host country? How can I talk about Jordanian politics? Or our policy approach to the region? It's frustrating, because they are things I WANT people to discuss -- things people SHOULD discuss. I tell myself that I'm protecting other people by being quiet. In truthful moments, I worry that I am mainly just protecting myself.

With all that in mind, it's been hard to watch the wikileaks story. On the surface of it, what officer hasn't wanted to run screaming down a hallway with a cable in hand demanding that people consider an issue she or he thinks is being overlooked or lightly treated? I'm sure there are no small number of people secretly wishing that their cables DO get a mention -- that finally that particular issue they had championed and worked on and cried over would be exposed and people would take action. It's a hopeful viewpoint -- or maybe a frustrated viewpoint. We want our work to bring about change. Not later, not gradually, not patiently, but now.

But the rest of the world is not America or Australia or Britain or Canada, or any other country whose inhabitants are calling out about wikileaks having a right to information. Civil liberties, legal protections, the right to defend yourself and your actions: these don't exist in so many places. So many places that you wouldn't guess. So many places that you might take a nice vacation to and look around and think "this seems like a pleasant enough country" and never give another thought to what's beneath the surface. Places where, to mention certain things, you have to do it in private. Where information is not a tool, but rather a weapon to be turned against people.

It is heart-wrenching to hear wikileaks demand to know who they have put in danger, and it's astounding to me that they can't get past the thrill of 'embarrassing' the United States to see that what they are doing is dangerous -- and that they will never hear about the people who are punished for it. The person who is whisked away in the night for "questioning" won't be mentioned online or in the papers... and now, might not even be mentioned in cables meant to inform our government and help stop abuses. Are all the Western observers so gleeful about the U.S. being compromised going to take action to fix the issues wikileaks exposes? Are they even in a position to do so? No. No, they are not. Diplomats are. Or we were. Maybe less so, now.

I feel sick every time I see someone call wikileaks a "whistle-blowing" website. This is not whistle-blowing. It's just voyeurism. At best, I thought it might lead to the sort of informed discussion on the issues that cable writers so fervently dream of inspiring. It seems that people just aren't interested. More fun to poke at the American straw man you've constructed than to to think critically about the ramification of things.

And for the record, wikileaks isn't embarrassing the United States. None of us are embarrassed about doing our job.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010