The Tobermory Effect

by Henry Farrell on November 29, 2010

My small addition to the piles of verbiage on the newest Wikileaks revelations is to suggest that Saki’s classic short story “Tobermory”: tells you most of what you need to know. Tobermory – the story of a cat that learns to talk, is really about how a small group of people deal with the collapse of the polite fictions through which they paper over individual self-interest and mutual dislike. No-one guards what they say in front of a cat, leading to consternation when Tobermory suddenly learns the English language.

“What do you think of human intelligence?” asked Mavis Pellington lamely.

“Of whose intelligence in particular?” asked Tobermory coldly.

“Oh, well, mine for instance,” said Mavis with a feeble laugh.

“You put me in an embarrassing position,” said Tobermory, whose tone and attitude certainly did not suggest a shred of embarrassment. “When your inclusion in this house-party was suggested Sir Wilfrid protested that you were the most brainless woman of his acquaintance, and that there was a wide distinction between hospitality and the care of the feeble-minded. Lady Blemley replied that your lack of brain-power was the precise quality which had earned you your invitation, as you were the only person she could think of who might be idiotic enough to buy their old car. You know, the one they call ‘The Envy of Sisyphus,’ because it goes quite nicely up-hill if you push it.”

Lady Blemley’s protestations would have had greater effect if she had not casually suggested to Mavis only that morning that the car in question would be just the thing for her down at her Devonshire home.

Diplomacy, even more than early twentieth century English house-parties, requires hypocrisy. Both diplomats and leaders pretend respect and even affection for regimes that they dislike and leaders whom they despise. When a source can definitively give the lie to these public remonstrations, it is obviously likely to lead to considerable friction (not necessarily because the target did not know he, she or it was detested – but because _public expression_ of this detestation becomes an insult that cannot easily be discounted or ignored. If a number of prominent states had been hit by these revelations, there might be sufficient collective incentive to sweep the embarrassing bits under the Axminster. But that’s not the case here. I imagine that there are some very interesting conversations happening in State (a few blocks from my regular office) right about now.



derrida derider 11.29.10 at 2:50 am

I think sensible diplomats/ politicans will simply politely ignore any insults directed at them amongst the Wikileaks release. There are much worse things that can go wrong in diplomacy than a little personal embarrassment.


terence 11.29.10 at 2:54 am

I know it’s wrong, but my first instinctive response was simply to feel sorry for Obama. I mean, what with the two un-winnable wars, the oil spill, the global financial crisis, the Tea Party insanity…quite possibly the last thing he needed right now was the rest of the world to be confronted with irrefutable evidence of just what the US thinks of it.

Sure he’s got his limitations and all that but, shesssh, what an unenviable job…


Glen Tomkins 11.29.10 at 5:13 am

Oh, please!

Embarrassment over such revelations of what one side or the other really meant, was really saying in private, would only be possible if the diplomatic world still ran on the basis of formality.

But if there’s one thing that the Coalition of the Billing has done, it’s been to make it undeniably clear that diplomacy has gone radically informal. It’s been a long time coming to this final end of formality in inter-state relations, a change driven partly by the changes in manners in the wider world, but mostly by the progressive asymmetry of first a bipolar, Cold War, world, and now a unipolar world in which there really is only one power. Nations have, of course, never been the equals that the fundamental polite fiction of diplomacy makes them. But the polite fiction is so strained in a world dominated by one sole hyperpower as to be meaningless.


maidhc 11.29.10 at 6:11 am

I think that “Tobermory” would make a much better name for this event than “—-gate”. Maybe it should have an accompanying adjective so we can tell one Tobermory from another in future years.

Most politicians in democratic countries have been called much worse by their opponents. Most dictators are probably paranoid, so they imagine themselves being called worse anyway.

I really doubt that modern diplomacy follows the model of Groucho Marx in “Duck Soup”–“Upstart! This means war!”

Reading histories of periods like the Cold War, where a lot of secret documents have now become available, I think that in many cases it would have been better if those secrets which were kept so diligently had been out in the open at the time.


Henri Vieuxtemps 11.29.10 at 9:29 am

Perhaps there’s more to it, though. If there’s any truth to this:

260,000 diplomatic cables “explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective.”


Ian 11.29.10 at 10:13 am

Most comments seem to be based on assumptions that the countries being talked about did not know what was being said about them in private. If a private enterprise can access this material, do people really think that the states in question did not have the capabilities to do so and did not exercise those capabilities?

Potentially a very real question for the well loved diplomats and others involved is, why were we not informed of these issues by our own people at the time so we could adapt to them. If they were candidly informed, why all the furore in the public also being made officially aware of what they were probably already privately aware of or suspected.


a. y. mous 11.29.10 at 11:11 am

The interesting (this will now be milked by Hollywood) and uninteresting contents apart, what is to be expected as governmental responses to the following issues? Less interaction between agencies? Less electronic communication? What should they be?


“Sir Christopher Meyer, who was British ambassador to the US in the Blair years, thought the leaks would have little impact on diplomatic behaviour. “This won’t restrain dips’ [diplomats’] candour,” he said. “But people will be looking at the security of electronic communications and archives. Paper would have been impossible to steal in these quantities.”

Asked why such sensitive material was posted on a network accessible to thousands of government employees, the state department spokesman told the Guardian: “The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath revealed gaps in intra-governmental information sharing. Since the attacks of 9/11, the US government has taken significant steps to facilitate information sharing. These efforts were focused on giving diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to more data to more effectively do their jobs.”

He added: “We have been taking aggressive action in recent weeks and months to enhance the security of our systems and to prevent the leak of information.”


a. y. mous 11.29.10 at 11:12 am

Sorry. Incorrect formatting. The last para is part of the second quoted text.


a. y. mous 11.29.10 at 11:16 am

Sorry for the multiple posts, but this is much too close to the Saki extract to give it a miss, though not from the Wikileaks leak.,1518,728482,00.html

“We noticed that the intellectual level of the (US president) was exceedingly limited,” Uwe-Karsten Heye, Schröder’s former government spokesman, told the television news station N24 on Wednesday in reference to Bush. “As such, it was difficult for us to communicate with him


Doug 11.29.10 at 11:38 am

Yes, but do the leaks tell us whether “a vigorous discussion” means that something was thrown, or is that what leads to the designation “a full and frank exchange of views”?


I repeat myself 11.29.10 at 12:46 pm

“You may steady your arms, I will go without a struggle.”
“Your decision is a wise one, yet perhaps you would have
been better off had you forced death,” the soldier’s mouth
wrinkled to a sadistic grin of knowing mirth as he prodded his
prisoner on with his sword point.
After an indiscriminate period of marching through slinking
alleyways and dim moonlighted streets the procession confronted a
massive seraglio. The palace area was surrounded by an iron
grating, with a lush garden upon all sides.


I repeat myself 11.29.10 at 12:49 pm


hilzoy 11.29.10 at 4:08 pm

Diderot’s Les Bijoux Indiscrets does the same trick as Tobermory, only with genitalia instead of cats …


skidmarx 11.29.10 at 4:11 pm

Didn’t the Bolsheviks have an answer to this?


Talleyrand 11.29.10 at 5:43 pm

I’d like to take Henry’s point and distinguish it from a similar one, i.e. that “lying” is important to diplomats. Henry makes the good point that telling someone you don’t like to f* off to their face, or worse, in public, is a bad idea and doesn’t make for stable social relations. However, if we define the term “lying” to mean the active propagation of falsehoods on matters of fact, then diplomats and statespersons have little incentive in the long run to lie. See Anne Sartori’s article on the Might of the Pen in IO 2002. A generalized reputation for honesty is a very valuable asset and, separately, a crucial component of trust in relationships.


ejh 11.29.10 at 6:33 pm

No-one guards what they say in front of a cat

Whyever not? I’m very careful what I say in front of cats. People, less so.


kent 11.29.10 at 7:51 pm

Henry: Thank you thank you thank you for the link. I read the complete Saki short stories at one point but somehow this one escaped my memory. Simply a delightful story.


Daragh McDowell 11.29.10 at 7:54 pm

Just as an aside, as someone who spends quite a bit of time studying unsavoury authoritarian regimes (Nick Clegg joke in 5…4…3…) its genuinely disappointing to see Wikileaks a) transparently engaging in some sort of one-sided vendetta against the USA, b) doing so with unbelievably overhyped trivia. Turkmen, Uzbeks, Burmese etc. citizens have indicated that their repressive dictatorships have great big encrypted databanks full of information whose leaking would do the world a great deal of good. Instead Assange is picking fights with the State dept.


Jake 11.29.10 at 8:00 pm

Presumably because no one with access to the Burmese databases is willing to give copies to Assange for fear that they’ll be imprisoned or killed.


Daragh McDowell 11.29.10 at 8:03 pm

@Jake Apparently they also have a team of super-awesome hackers or somesuch. In any case they guarantee anonymity, or try to.


Barry 11.29.10 at 8:22 pm


“A generalized reputation for honesty is a very valuable asset and, separately, a crucial component of trust in relationships.”

In the USA at least, we’ve seen a substantial comeback by the party most to blame for our current mess, mainly by means of blaming it on others. Trust can be built quite solidly on a foundation of lies.


Substance McGravitas 11.29.10 at 8:28 pm

its genuinely disappointing to see Wikileaks a) transparently engaging in some sort of one-sided vendetta against the USA, b) doing so with unbelievably overhyped trivia. Turkmen, Uzbeks, Burmese etc. citizens have indicated that their repressive dictatorships have great big encrypted databanks full of information whose leaking would do the world a great deal of good. Instead Assange is picking fights with the State dept.

Please list the countries Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Burma have invaded recently. I’d rather the leaks be substantive too, but pretending the US hasn’t distributed it’s fair share of death and mayhem around the world – what’s the body-count differential between the aforementioned three hellholes and The Greatest Country on Earth? – is awfully silly.


Daragh McDowell 11.29.10 at 8:39 pm

I’d be delighted to give you a full accounting of how many people Niyazov, Karimov and Than Shwe have murdered during their rule once those countries stop being information black holes (the latter is likely to be a very high number given that the Tatmadaw is effectively waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing within its borders.)

C’mon – no-one’s saying the USA are angels, and the Bush years were god awful. But there’s also a world of difference between Obama, or for that matter Bush, and the Burmese junta. More to the point those regimes get a good deal of survival mileage out of the fact that THEY ARE BLACK HOLES! The more information is confirmed, the more pressure they come under.


Substance McGravitas 11.29.10 at 8:51 pm

C’mon – no-one’s saying the USA are angels, and the Bush years were god awful. But there’s also a world of difference between Obama, or for that matter Bush, and the Burmese junta.

The “look over there” school of moral measurement gets a hell of a workout no matter who’s in power.


Daragh McDowell 11.29.10 at 8:54 pm

Oh C’mon McG. If its a choice between devoting time and resources to the ‘liberation’ (or whatever) of information that could deal a potentially crippling blow to Than Shwe and the junta, or devoting time and resources to the mass publicisation of information that is embarassing and irritating to the USA, but already widely known and not likely to significantly effect its material interests, where do you spend?


Substance McGravitas 11.29.10 at 8:56 pm

Well obviously I wave my wand and do the magical thing that YOU want done as opposed to the actual thing I CAN get done.


Daragh McDowell 11.29.10 at 9:17 pm

No McG, I was talking about how Wikileaks directs its resources. It used to focus its ire on third world dictatorships, and did a lot of good in the process. Now its all USA, all the time. I think there’ a question of mismatched priorities here.


Substance McGravitas 11.29.10 at 9:24 pm

No McG, I was talking about how Wikileaks directs its resources. It used to focus its ire on third world dictatorships, and did a lot of good in the process. Now its all USA, all the time. I think there’ a question of mismatched priorities here.

It just seems to me that you have an inflated idea of what its resources are. But yes, I don’t see its wiki on the main page anymore, where it used to have slight information on Burma (as Myanmar) and Uzbekistan. Still, it doesn’t mean that a focus on a country that invades other countries is a bad thing.


ajay 11.29.10 at 9:28 pm

I would suspect that the reason Wikileaks hasn’t published lots of stuff from Burma this month is that no one from the Burmese government has leaked lots of stuff to them.

Apparently they also have a team of super-awesome hackers or somesuch.



john b 11.30.10 at 12:25 am


There is nothing that could be published on Wikileaks that could conceivably change anyone’s opinion of the Burmese junta – everyone either knows that they’re scumbags and therefore doesn’t deal with them, or knows that they’re scumbags but deals with them anyway because mmm, money. An account of the specific ways in which they’re scumbags would be of academic interest only.

There are, on the other hand, plenty of people who believe that America is a force for good, that it has an ethical foreign policy, that the war on Iraq was fought for the right reasons, and so on. So publishing information which highlights that this is not the case is directly beneficial to the world, if it helps change the minds of people who hold these beliefs…


Glen Tomkins 11.30.10 at 3:14 am

Daragh McDowell,

It really isn’t a question of which regime is more evil in its intentions, it’s a question of which regime has the power to be the most destructive as it carries out its intentions, however benign, unchecked and ungoverned.

I see no point in publicizing, among people in Coalition of the Willing type countries, the evils, however real, of regimes like those now in power in Burma or Turkmenistan, except as an incitement for that Coalition to use its military might to invade these countries and depose these evil regimes. However good the intention of such intervention, the results would be predictably quite one-sidedly evil. Look at the evil we are doing, with the best of intentions, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US poses the greatest threat of evil in the world today, not because its intentions are evil, but because it is so disproportionally powerful. There is no power to balance it, and it has therefore lost the powerful incentive of the prospect of military defeat that has made most nations through most of their histories perspicuous and parsimonious in their use of force. The peace of the world is threatened, not by evil designs of conquest on the part of the US, but by foolish designs of liberation on the part of the US. If the result is a war of conquest and occupation, mere folly is a quite evil enough evil — evil on a scale that a Than Shwe could never aspire to, even if it actually were his desire to wreak the maximum evil in his power.

In the absence of any military force to balance the US, to compel it to consider its application of force with a reasonable amount of sense and caution, the only balance available, the only way to try to get some force of reason into US decisions, is to try to shine the light of public scrutiny on the US decision-making process. The overall picture that emerges from these revelations of documents that were, characteristically for a security state, obviously classified to protect the undeserved reputation for competence of the US’s foreign policy initiatives rather than to protect US security, is indeed one of folly and incompetence rather than evil intent.

Now, it may be beyond the realm of the possible to transform the US electorate into angels who would forebear the use of their great military might if its use would serve their vital interests, however unjust or selfish protecting those interests might be. But surely we should be able to do something to prevent the US from using force when it is not faced with a choice between doing violence or suffering harm, when the use of force actually is foolish on any terms, and actually does us harm as it harms other nations. That’s what I see the Wikilieaks project as at least possibly being effective at doing. I see no point at a Wikileaks type action against the Burmese regime except as a move in the wrong direction, in the direction of tending to convince the US electorate to indulge in yet another foolish, ill-considered, war of occupation. We already have Fox News and Fred Hiatt busy at that task. There ought to be some counter-balance.


La Riposte 11.30.10 at 4:43 am

This is simply the latest manifestation of the transition to an “Age of Transparency” where governments (along with corporations and individual citizens) will find it much more difficult to maintain a veil of “polite society” behind which they regularly perform actions that strain the bounds of legality, morality, or other social expectations. This article goes into more detail about several aspects of the Cablegate debate, including the idea that Mr. Farrell appears to be suggesting here – that a certain degree of deception is required for the maintenance of polite society (and diplomacy). This is an idea with which I disagree; but feel free to read the linked post for a more in-depth discussion of why…


a. y. mous 11.30.10 at 7:57 am

Bah! Burma and God-forsaken-istan – who wants that shit? Scare the crap out of Citi. Now, you’re talking.


Chris 11.30.10 at 2:19 pm

The US poses the greatest threat of evil in the world today, not because its intentions are evil, but because it is so disproportionally powerful.

But also because some of its intentions are evil. We are, right now, attempting to buy our national security with the blood of Pakistanis, mostly civilians, including children, killed by our killer robots — and that’s not even counting the two quasi-declared wars. If this works, the absolute best you could say about it is that it’s a Faustian bargain. If it fails it’s a catastrophic blunder whose risks we deliberately pushed onto someone else. If it’s actually a sham carried on for the profiteering of defense contractors and to prop up the political fortunes of the warmongers — I can’t come up with anything adequately scathing, but “evil” barely begins to cover it.

Shedding more light on the actual outcome of the human hecatomb we have performed on the altar of national security might make us more aware of the real consequences of our decisions, which is something we deserve to know, even (perhaps especially) if it makes us recoil in horror. A national “oh my god, what have we done?” moment might be the best thing that could happen to the world right now. So if Assange or anyone else can provoke that, I say, bring it on.


ejh 11.30.10 at 2:57 pm

Is there a better argument against what Wikileaks have been doing than the transparently desperate complaint that they’ve not been doing it to somebody else?


polyorchnid octopunch 12.03.10 at 6:17 am

I’d like to make a comment here. Personally, I think it’s very useful to me (and my fellow citizens of Canada) to know that the person who ran CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) apparently seems to think that the legal restrictions imposed on its actions on the basis of civil and human rights (based on the desires of my fellow citizens) are contemptible and indicative of an “Alice in Wonderland” view of such small things as the right to security of the person, the right to a fair trial, habeous corpus, and the rights of children not to be tortured. Furthermore, it helps us to know that the people running the current government apparently seem to think that the citizens they govern are weak and ineffectual, that they have an inferiority complex and carry a big chip on their shoulder. Along the way they’ve tried to slip out the piece of documentation showing that the current minister of defence was not only lying this past summer when he said he didn’t know of any body handed over for torture to the NDS in Kandahar by our military forces, but that he knew that they’d handed over children to them that had in fact gone on to be tortured by the NDS, including beatings, electric shock, and rape.

We’re in the middle of a major policing scandal here that is nationwide, and is indicative of a major major problem with the culture around policing (rather than any specific policy promulgated by any specific departments). The cable in question helps indicate to me and my fellow Canadians that the problem reaches into the very highest reaches of the police echelons (as CSIS is a civilian agency empowered to act within the country) as well as government. It helps lend insight into what can only be called the persecution of people like Maher Arar (CSIS, the RCMP, as well as of course the US DHS), Adil Charkaoui (held for nearly a decade without trial, finally let out to house arrest, and eventually had charges withdrawn when the judge asked for, you know, the actual evidence against him), and Abousfian Abdul Razik, who was literally living in a Kafkaesque nightmare camping out in the front lobby of the Canadian embassy, not permitted to return to Canada (unconstitutional on the face of it) but not able to leave because the security forces in the Sudan would capture and torture him some more. All of these people were put into nightmarish situations that lasted for years, two of them included direct torture, and all thanks to super secret evidence handed to other governments by CSIS and the RCMP… and two of them were eventually completely exonerated (one /might/ be able to say that Adil hasn’t been completely exonerated, but given that the crown eventually withdrew the charges when asked for the evidence (stating “national security concerns should the evidence be given to the judge”), I don’t really buy that).

Given what happened here at the G20, and the ongoing revelations since then about just how widespread police abuse of the disadvantaged has been (leading former crown attorneys to suggest to their still-working colleagues that maybe just maybe they should start being a little more sceptical about police claims) this just helps show Canadians that the problems are widespread and deep and will require serious changes to fix.

So yeah, this is kind of a big deal. I’m sorry that the fee-fees of the US security establishment have been hurt, but personally afaic they can go piss up a rope. Thank You Wikileaks!


David 12.04.10 at 4:24 pm

This post bears a curious likeness to a column in today’s FT. Or vice versa.

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