Entry from June 6, 2008

Here’s a headline I noticed in the Daily Telegraph the other day. “Writer in legal fight to protect terror notes.” The story attached to it was of a journalist, one Shiv Malik, who had collaborated with a former terrorist named Hassan Butt on a book to be called Leaving al-Qaeda: Inside The Mind Of A British Jihadist. Now the British security services were knocking on his door and demanding access to his notes as a matter of national security, and he was going to law to prevent them from having it. “Terrorism is probably the pressing issue of the age,” argued Mr Malik’s barrister, James Eadie, QC, before a three-judge panel in London. “What makes those who take part in it do so is a subject of the widest public interest, and so is an insight into the reality of what goes on. Serious journalism directed at shedding light on those features, drawing on experiences of an individual who has been there, is of the highest public importance.”

But if what makes those who take part in terrorism a matter of public interest, so is what makes those who take part in the journalism that purports to find this out. And, though not mentioned by Mr Eadie, what this is is pretty obvious to all concerned. It is money. And status, of course, though this is hard to separate from money. In other words, the story of Mr Butt’s terrorist career was now Mr Malik’s intellectual property, and he had a right to profit from his proprietary claim and not to have to share it with anybody, national security or no national security, for no reward. Besides, national security would be better served — such was the implication of Mr Eadie’s argument — by allowing Mr Malik his intellectual property rights, since his profiting from it would encourage other journalistic entrepreneurs to go and do likewise and so bring still more information about terrorism and terrorists to light.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Not, of course, that that means he’s wrong. But right or wrong, he does have a larger point that is worth paying attention to. The 19th century had the Gold Rush in California and the Yukon and the land rush in Oklahoma. The pre-World War I era in Europe had the “scramble for Africa.” You could even say that the late 20th century era of migrations from Third World countries to the developed world to obtain a piece of what used to be called The American Dream — which is now also the European dream, as the millions of Turks in Germany, or Moroccans in France or Pakistanis in Britain can attest — is a similar race to claim a proprietary interest in an economic opportunity — or what seemed like one — that was going begging. But today, while Third Worlders are struggling for the chance to make our fire, fetch in our wood and serve in offices that profit us, we entrepreneurs of the first-tier economy are dashing to the unplowed virgin lands of the Internet to stake our claims to some small acreage of our own which we may hope to parlay into a more or less precarious living — perhaps through publishing a book, like Mr Malik’s, or by setting up a website that will obtain enough visitors to make it attractive to advertisers.

Terrorism must qualify as a pretty fertile bit of bottom-land in the informational land rush, though it can be difficult and dangerous to cultivate it. More promising, perhaps, are going intellectual concerns like global warming or the energy crisis or the health-care crisis or the unprecedented iniquities of the Bush administration or other well-established journalistic properties. Not, of course, that these are virgin lands. Far from it. They are more like those areas of economic growth in a developed intellectual economy which demand for their continued growth the import of labor from the pool of the willing but intellectually dispossessed. Writing about terrorism with the help of a tamed terrorist is not, probably, going to make Mr Malik’s fortune but it might make him a decent living if he can keep the t.t. all to himself.

Who — besides the security services — would begrudge him? But it is well for the rest of us to remember that all these subjects and a great many more represent vast vested interests. There is probably no way to calculate with any precision the number of journalistic and academic jobs that are owed to popular perceptions of the dangers either of terrorism or of global warming but it is bound to be considerable. Therefore, anything that anyone says about them is pretty certain to be colored by this fact. In other words, it is possible to make a living by saying almost anything about the terrorist threat, or the global warming threat, or any of a multitude of other threats, real or imagined, except that they don’t exist. Of course, if you’re a global warming employee, you don’t lose anything by pooh poohing the terrorist threat, or vice versa. But in that case, your own economic interest is as much engaged in denying the threat as it is in promoting the one that pays the bills. Don’t buy the other guy’s alarmism. Buy mine!

There used to be a word, disinterested, that expressed an idea which, today, is almost inconceivable. It is the idea of inquiry for the sake of inquiry alone. Truth for truth’s sake, we might call it. People actually assumed, when they read an academic or journalistic book or article that the writer had had no other interest in his subject than coming to know, and therefore leading his reader to know, the truth. How na ve that now seems! The truth has to build a constituency, just like any other political candidate or issue. Without a constituency, it is no longer truth; with a constituency, any plausible falsehood is. Perhaps only the security services can still claim to have a disinterested approach to information, at least in the economic sense. But their prospects of fighting off the new enclosure-movement are not looking very rosy at the moment.

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