In Other Words

Anatomy of a Honey Trap

What if the hidden messages in the WikiLeaks cables were less about Tunisia and Russia, more about Winnie the Pooh?


Supporters of WikiLeaks proprietor Julian Assange have protested his arrest in Sweden on sexual charges as a classic "honey trap" — a sting operation in which an attractive person is used to entrap or coerce a target. In this case the claim is that two Swedish women used sex as a way of trapping Assange. Even though the sex was reportedly consensual, the prosecutor allowed a claim of rape because it was unprotected — that is, either Assange did not use a condom (alleged by one of the women) or the condom broke (alleged by the other woman).

It won’t have eluded the percipient reader of this first paragraph that words like consensual and unprotected have some resonance in the world of international diplomacy — nor that the "leaks" in WikiLeaks are in this accusation made vividly, and disconcertingly, literal. As for "honey trap," a phrase more familiar in Britain than the United States, its connection with "sting" seems more than coincidental. The honeybee has long been associated in literature and political philosophy with a model of human society — from Virgil’s Georgics to Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees to Tolstoy and Marx. Was this "honey trap" baited to protect human society from the unprotected leaking of classified documents? Was the sting set up to prevent what, in apiary culture, has been dubbed "colony collapse disorder"? Or were the (former) colonies in fact themselves collapsing under the weight of government dissimulation?

One of the stories that circulated widely last year via WikiLeaks was the saga of Bruno the bear. The two-year old Bruno was the first wild bear seen in Germany since 1835. Initially greeted as a welcome visitor to Bavaria, Bruno soon attracted negative attention by doing what came naturally — killing sheep, chickens, and a child’s pet rabbit. The Wikileaks cable even described him sitting on the steps of a police station, eating a guinea pig. Clearly this was, as the minister-president of Bavaria dubbed him, a Problem Bear. Calls for his assassination went out, despite the protests of schoolchildren, and after a group of Finnish bear-hunters with dogs failed to corner and capture him, Bruno was shot by "an unnamed hunter." All has not been lost however, since Bruno the Problem Bear was subsequently stuffed and put on display at the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. The official title of the museum is the Museum of Man and Nature. In this case, as more than one commentator noticed, Man seems to have won over Nature.

Bruno’s sad tale provoked a good bit of international press, as well as deep mourning within parts of Germany. In June 2006, the high point of the Bruno story, the Guardian published a piece on the bear’s formerly "idyllic existence." What were his pastoral delights, according to this source? "Swimming in lakes, eating honey and killing the odd sheep." A pattern thus begins to emerge. For Bruno, too, it now seems clear, was caught in a honey trap. Groomed as a national hero, at first expected to bring honor and glory back to Bavaria, he was shot dead within three weeks of his arrival. Was it completely an accident that calls began to be heard for the resignation of the Environment Minister, Werner Schnappauf? Or was Bruno a plant, and his end foreordained: suicide by honey? In some European languages, the Wikipedia article on honey notes, "even the word for ‘bear’ (e.g., in Russian, ‘medvéd,’ in Czech, ‘medv?d,’ in Croatian, ‘medvjed") is coined from the noun that means ‘honey’ and the verb which means ‘to eat.’" When Wiki calls to Wiki, who can fail to hear the echo?

The most famous honey-eating bear in Western literature is of course Winnie the Pooh, whose chronicler consistently spells the substance "hunny." Once again, no acute reader alerted by the WikiLeaks cables can fail to spot the "hun" hidden in this apparently harmless substance. The first of the Pooh books was published in 1926, and the term "Hun" had been associated with the modern German state since 1900, when Kaiser Wilhelm II used it in an exhortation to his troops during the Boxer Rebellion in China. "Hun" was used by the Allies throughout World War I to describe the Germans and their rapacity (derived from Attila the Hun), and was again omnipresent in the political language of World War II. In a broadcast on the Soviet-German war in June 1941, Winston Churchill spoke dismissively (and alliteratively) of "the dull, drilled, docile brutish masses of the Hun soldiery, plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts." How short a line can be drawn between this Winnie and A.A. Milne’s hun(ny)-eating bear? If we add to this imposing list of "coincidences" (worthy of leaking to any embassy or consulate) the fact that, according to the outlier historian David Irving, some of Winston Churchill’s most famous speeches during World War II were subsequently recorded for broadcast by the English radio actor Norman Shelley — who supplied the voice for Winnie-the-Pooh on the Children’s Hour throughout the ’30s and ’40s — we can begin to see the pervasiveness with which the theme of the honey-trap has seeped into the political culture of the West.

And in case we are in any doubt about the interconnectedness of these themes, we have only to consult Frederick Crews’s Postmodern Pooh, in which a discussion of the symbolism of "the amply proportioned Winnie-the-Pooh tiptoeing on a chair to reach a honey-pot in his larder" dismisses as trivial the allegorical readings of this image as Aspiration, Commodity Fetishism, or Male Rapacity. "Translation itself," we are told, "the escape from literary presence to packaged significance — is precisely the error here. What you ought to be registering is a teddy bear stretching for a honey pot. To insist on further portent is to take a step backward in sophistication." The author of this timely selection signs his name Orpheus Bruno. Could there be any more convincing evidence of the honey-trap/Bruno/Winnie axis we have been tracing? Indeed, it requires no translation.  

In 1974 the great master of spy stories, John Le Carré, wrote in his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, "I made a mistake and walked into a ‘honey trap.’" But although honey trap was originally associated with espionage, the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is now a term found "especially in journalism." Since WikiLeaks itself sits at the confluence of espionage and journalism, it should perhaps come as no surprise that its founder has been stung. Yet even in this sticky situation, the documents continue to flow.

Marjorie Garber is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of English and visual and environmental studies at Harvard University. Her latest book, The Use and Abuse of Literature, comes out in March.