“All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.” (I. F. Stone)
In many ways, Julian Assange is the “Izzy” of new journalism. Like Stone, Assange has not flinched from sharing uncomfortable truths that can embolden the people to fight the power. Stone used to prove why reporters were not supposed to be glorified stenographers; Assange likewise demonstrates how journalists are not meant to be subsumed under patriotic obligations. And like Izzy Stone, since Assange knows the hashish whereabouts, he must meet the shared fate: just as the former was decried as the unAmerican scribe spying for the Soviets, Assange must gracefully accept his disrepute, of being the principal abuser of the Western espionage principles.
The need to analyze Assange vis-a-vis Stone is to pose at least two critical questions. First, are these instances of two brilliant minds serving public causes that of the journalists-turned-spies; or must journalists fundamentally emerge as spies in order to serve the public well? Secondly, are the news not in what is transmitted, but in what is hidden, as the WikiLeaks experience so cleverly substantiates?
“The Harm That Good Men Do”:
Bertrand Russell in his essay by the above title suggested that while good folks attend church regularly, trust the authorities to safeguard the society against the rebels, encourage patriotism and military training; the bad ones skip rituals, hold subversive opinions, and think that to desire peace is to prepare for peace, and not for war. The bad ones maintain “that what is called ‘wrong thinking’ is simply thinking, and what is called ‘right thinking’ is repeating words like a parrot.”
In the sense that journalists are supposed to think, and not to parrot; that they are meant to represent the oppressed and not the elites; that they are to champion the causes of the people for peace and liberty, and not that of the whims of ruling estates to conceal and deceive; journalists are condemned to be the bad people. They cannot help but be bad. Be bad to the ruling structures comprising well-mannered diplomats, bad to the religious preachers and the moralist police, to the smooth politicians and their criminal cronies. Journalists better be as bad as Julian Assange if they must not forget the basic canons: to investigate for objectivity and truth.
Assange and WikiLeaks were always in the quest to investigate. And as part of their journalistic calls, neither soaked in advertising revenues nor submitted to corporate hierarchies, and they never forgot what reporting was all about. As journalists on behalf of the underdogs, they planned to unravel the privileged secrets, and to emerge as the conscientious objectors to the traditions of militarism.
Contrary to widespread claims, there was no news in the headlines they leaked. Yemen’s collaborations with the US were already reported in December 2009 by Barbara Starr in CNN. Iraqi civilian deaths exceeding 150,000 were already reported by Deborah Haynes of The Sunday Times in January 2008. News about “Extraordinary Rendition” by the United States were in the public domain since early 2005. Julian Borger of The Guardian had already reported about the American sanctioning of torture during April 2004. Most of the findings by Assange were already in the print long before his website released the cables. So, what exactly distinguished Assange from the rest of the journalists?
To grasp the breadth of Assange’s activism, it is necessary to go beyond WikiLeaks. It is his lesser known social manifesto that describes his methods, and more importantly, his purposes. For him, investigative journalism as a method is not to interview state secretaries and attend the White House press meets. Because his purpose is not to report to the friendly corporate press about skepticisms and sensational bafflements surrounding individual presidents dazzling their masses with “will he, won’t he” acts of diplomatic overtures. Assange’s motive is to dismantle the present global superstructure, to destroy the invisible governments, to question and uproot the very foundations of the so-called free society of the western world. His purpose is not to produce reports that aim for a Pulitzer Prize or two, and certainly not to syndicate overpaid columns with exclusive contracts as a televised expert on fancy CNN and Fox channels.
Assange’s purpose is to record the scale of injustice and to challenge its fundamental roots: “Everytime we witness an act that we feel to be unjust and do not act we become a party to injustice. Those who are repeatedly passive in the face of injustice soon find their character corroded into servility. Most witnessed acts of injustice are associated with bad governance, since when governance is good, unanswered injustice is rare. By the progressive diminution of a people’s character, the impact of reported, but unanswered injustice is far greater than it may initially seem. Modern communications states through their scale, homogeneity and excesses provide their populace with an unprecedented deluge of witnessed, but seemingly unanswerable injustices.”
Status Quo Rhetoric: Why Iconized Assange Must Be Demonized
In the prioritized rush to judge Assange on official charges ranging from espionage to sexual abuse, the privileged minority across North America and Europe, which boasts of nationalist prides at war conquests has been wishing for the ruling class status-quo to prosper. It is Assange that must be purged, the minority is growing convinced, for in his victory lies the death of the western democracy. In his vindication is the demise of collective faith in revered institutions of politics and law.
No wonder then Sen. Joe Liberman says WikiLeaks has violated the Espionage Act and Democrat Bob Beckel who has previously worked with such pro-peace statesmen as Robert F Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter demands murder of Assange (“A dead man can’t leak stuff … there’s only one way to do it: illegally shoot the son of a bitch.”). Sarah Palin claims Assange has blood on his hands. Politicians across the parties in America want him finished. Quite predictably, they are as myopic in understanding of war as an instrument of foreign policy as they are in assuming that in eliminating Assange, they would have eliminated the power of information in the age of WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks is the Che Guevara of our times. In its death, the icon inspires more. For most people in the world, WikiLeaks continues to remain blocked, restricted and censored. And yet, never before in the world history have so many people come together to express great solidarity with a single entity, a virtually arrested weapon and a grand topical philosophy. Like never before, the most powerful imperialists of the world and the militarist nations they represent have united together merely to shoot down one person on a mission.
Like Che, Assange has a grand vision for the humanity. His is not a protest against a single president or a party. Contrary to popular media claims, Assange is not pitting himself against American power or venting his anti-Americanism. Indeed, he is as hated by the European ruling classes as by the American counterparts. And if his leaks are to be thoroughly analyzed he is likely to be hated by leaders world over. Assange stands for more than what he stands against. He calls for revolutionary shifts in power structure. His tools are the new media. His potential recruits are just about anyone who believes in free flow of information, irrespective of national identities.
Thus, Assange thunders in an essay he wrote for his personal blog, “To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly, for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.”
Assange’s Canons of Politics and Media: Redefinitions or Reminders?
Assange demands the use of available technologies to dismantle the status quo with an aim for social justice to prevail in this rather unequal world order. What sets him apart from the compromised journalists in corporate boardrooms today is his commitment to the cause of social revolutions and his theorizations of those using available expertise: “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance. Only revealed injustice can be answered; for man to do anything intelligent he has to know what’s actually going on.”
Indeed as history clearly corroborates, terrible tragedies have been carried out because secrets were maintained by the respective territories. Wars are invariably reinforced with secretive agendas. Inversely, no secrecy always implies no wars. To this extent, WikiLeaks has emerged as a paragon of global peace. The consolidated attacks on WikiLeaks and what it stands for should not come as a surprise, because for the power elites of the world, war is the primary source of political sustenance.
However, it is not sufficient to condemn war. It is critical to expose the manners and ways of those that we trust who then lead us into wars. It is not sufficient to report about speculations and official denials as the conventional journalists have been doing for years now. It is pivotal to supply the audience with the authentic documents and unfiltered communications so that people can make sense of their representatives. In the old societies where segregation and lynching, colonialism and slavery were the norms, the ruling class defined the need for certain documents to remain “classified” and “top secret”. In the new world we wish to materialize, our enslaved mentalities no longer should resurface to limit imaginations when it comes to ensure international peace and human dignity.
World leaderships claim that Assange has broken the laws. That might be. Perhaps it is time to reassess these laws. John F Kennedy has been immortalized for claiming that people should ask what they can do for the country. Perhaps it is time to ask instead what the country can do for the people. No country that glories itself through dirty military secrets is worth celebrations, let alone defense. WikiLeaks cables even expose the communal nature of the Hindu-ized Indian military handbooks. In the past, military conducts, secret propaganda handbooks and unaudited budgets were the holy cow topics for journalists, and mediapersons in India were routinely being “trained” by defense personnels about ways to report military behavior. Perhaps, as WikiLeaks ably reminds us, it is time to demystify the holiness elements, following Tehelka investigations, Kashmir curfews and growing militarist presence in the subcontinent.
For the Future: Yet More Assanges!
Assange and WikiLeaks have taken great personal risks to facilitate the process of a worldwide revolution that empowers the citizens hitherto considered ordinary, and the methods of transparency and truth-seeking, hitherto considered criminal in the eyes of the ruling structures. Assange reminds journalists how investigations for the sake of larger good must involve what traditional legal structures considered as “spying”. Because, more importantly he reminds the public sphere that the news is in actively seeking out the truth, not in being presented with one, thereby necessitating leaks which must shame the authorities and empower the subjects.
Jeremy Bentham defined morals as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. Aiming to end international suspicions and wars based on diplomatic doublespeak, Assange is thus a man of great morals. Going back to Russell, the philosopher wrote, “A man who acts upon Bentham’s principle will have a much more arduous life than a man who merely obeys conventional precepts. He will necessarily make himself the champion of the oppressed, and so incur the enmity of the great. He will proclaim facts which the powers that be wish to conceal; he will deny falsehoods designed to alienate sympathy from those who need it.”
In a published interview, Julian Assange’s mother Christine who is a progressive activist herself understands the harm the society does by remaining silent in the face of oppression, “What mother wouldn’t fear for her son against the US authorities? I am very concerned. I don’t trust the FBI….My son wants people to know the truth. People have a right to know what is going on, especially if a war is being fought in their name. The people who have committed atrocities should be the ones called to account, not my son.”
As the world unfolds yet another day for us, we must witness how the ruling class systems shield the atrocious and provide protections to the militarist killers in the name of state secrecies. Yet the better news is that for sure, we shall also witness countless Assanges who shall fight the powers, expose the truths and liberate the world from the labyrinth of complicit despair wrought upon by judgmental power brokers who define good people as obedient voters for war-mongering systems.
Julian has an advice for the future Assanges: Do not be concerned about when one is to do good, who defines good, etc. Act in the way you do because to do otherwise would to be at odds with yourself. Being on a path true to your character carries with it a state of flow, where the thoughts about your next step come upon waking, unbidden, but welcome.
Beyond Hope: Audience Reception Realities
Despite the attached hopes, I am also convinced that the most important lesson WikiLeaks provides is that we as a people love reality television shows. And we want our televised heroes to become celebrities who must serve us juicy bits in shiny platters. For free.
Most of us really want Julian Assange to become free. We want his female bedmates to lose their cases. We want all the companies that withdrew support to WikiLeaks to close business. 260,000 cables were not enough. And now 400,000 cables are not enough. We really want WikiLeaks get back in shape and go on providing us billions of more cables. We want it all. For free.
We want the world leaders naked. We wish to see them squabble and fight and kill each other. Those sons of bitches. Those greedy monsters. We want Assange to roll out their graves. All power to WikiLeaks. We want to watch the complete season of WL: Reality Show. For free.
We want the world to transform radically, now that WikiLeaks is our tool. We demand Time Magazine to feature Julian Assange on its cover now that he looks so cool. We want the wars to end, America be shamed, miracles to happen. For free.
Revolution, the Chevrolet Way:
Julian Assange has done his bits. He has been an investigative journalist par excellence. Like I.F. Stone, he has legitimized spying, and for a noble purpose. In many ways he has reminded us where the news does not exist. White House press meets, for instance.
And he is right. The news is in the secrets. But what is even more important to remember is that the secrets should not become the sources of news. Had there been no “classified” documents, there would not have been so much news in this recent uproar. In other words, the current global focus is not about American war-crimes. It is about the sensational disclosure of documents that were supposed to be top secret.
Continuing with iconization of Assange also trivializes what constitutes radical struggles. Revolutions are products of peoples struggles, not of ruling class goofiness. It is crucial to recognize the contributions of Assange in utilization of modern technologies to enable top secret leaks. But to consider this act as revolutionary would be to miss the revolution altogether.
Revolutionary preparations entail thorough and critical analysis of history and its systematic, process-based progressive interpretations. Those who get impressed by event-based flow of anarchic information live with (as Gil-Scot Heron would attest) illusions that revolutions will be broadcast live on television with their chosen corporate sponsors presenting the show.
Vicious is the craving for hobnobbing with the rich linens. Sure, diplomats talk cheap and heads of states excel at doublespeak. But if we did not know of this already so as to be so shocked at WikiLeaks, we must have been truly asleep in the train of history. Where was the degree of our current indignation when Apartheid was continuing in full public light in South Africa, audaciously aided by the western free world? Even after the War that was supposed to end all Wars, we witnessed countries fucking up the Korean War so bad that we could not remain satisfied until we started controlling one part of the country and made a nightmare for the other till this date. Even after the great debacle at Korea and major diplomatic tragedies in Cuba, criminally offensive conducts in Chile, professing aloofness towards Algeria, we marched on to cause irreparable damage to Vietnam for year after year.
Even after Daniel Ellsberg and Pentagon Papers, Watergate scandal and Reaganomics, the leaked documents did not shake us up well enough. Even after McCarthy was mocked and Edgar Hoover was exposed to be a thug, we still remained stoic as ever. Even after Soviet Union died and another artificial enemy in the name of Islam was manufactured, we continued to buy the dope our media officials sold. Even after all the underground press of the 60’s and 70’s were purged to the last bit and all the black panther activists eliminated from functioning by the 80’s, all the peaceniks and war groups rendered powerless by 90’s, we still continued to switch on the television sets to hear President Bush tell us stories about WMD. Where has our collective anger been? Where has been our hatred for the system that is so sickening that it leads us with no free healthcare or education or maternity leave or equal pay across genders and races?
More than Assange’s audacity, what should alert us more is the manner in which the mainstream publications are appropriating him. Corporate media have never hesitated from depicting our heroic nature at Abu Gharib. Likewise, they have been making advertising revenues from WikiLeaks leaks this time around. Just the way they make money from Che Guevara’s legacies and Bob Dylan’s blowing wind. By its very nature, WikiLeaks is sensational, and since it draws the amount of mass interest as witnessed, everyone seems to be happy revenue-wise, so long as information overload helps neutralizing the impacts quite a bit. As a result, New York Times carried front page exclusive section on WikiLeaks release for weeks. CNN carried special slots exclusively devoted to WikiLeaks. Time Magazine logged unto Skype to interview Julian Assange. As if the leaks were not enough, his torn condom also made headlines and earned revenues for the media organizations that don’t devote a single column to highlight how Haiti is now just a garbage dump. Why should the world care about sexual positions Assange prefers, if not only because the media have to make an icon out of the man and feed off his lifestyle?
As I stated earlier, to understand Julian Assange, it is necessary to go beyond WikiLeaks. This man is a courageous hacktivist, a notable conspiracy theorist and almost fearless as a journalist. He must be praised for what he is and all the relentless works he puts in. But that is where the adulation must end. Iconizing him will only work towards Obamazing him. Problem with this approach is failing to realize that individuals fail all the time due to various factors. He, too, shall fail. His attempts at becoming Time Magazine Person of the Year was a failed stunt. Even a mild Bob Dylan before the peak of his career had famously refused interview to Time Magazine denouncing that publication as a bourgeois trash. Assange must realize his organized efforts must not be confused with moments of fame. His activism must not be confused with attaining celebrity status. His social manifesto about conspiracies must not be confused with hackers’ guide to world revolution.
Assange has claimed that it is important to understand from the radicals who came before us. One major lesson from yesteryears is that we need less of cult figures and more of organized movements. This is what Zapatista Revolutions have been all about, when no one claims to have seen Subcommandante Marcos. Why Che Guevara was an obvious target is not too difficult to guess. Why Soviet experience got confused with Stalin’s eccentricities is not too tough a puzzle. To enable mass movements, it is critical to impart historical contexts and lessons. WikiLeaks and Assange must stop clamoring for support from mainstream press and corporations.
Co-opting of Assange is already taking place. He is already being “approved” as a genius by those very agencies that he apparently is at odds with. If progressive outcome must be expected from WikiLeaks, it shall be necessary to dissociate it from the mainstream fame. It needs to be disapproved by the corporations at the very least. Those who spiritually support WikiLeaks must expect, and not be shocked at Amazon or Ebay or Apple or Visa or Mastercard withdrawing collaborations. Assenge must not find in New York Times and CNN his active partners or in Time Magazine a natural ally. More importantly, WikiLeaks must release the names of corporations and entities that are financially supporting it. An idea that promotes transparency must itself remain transparent, if it needs more support from principled loyalists, potential and existing.
WikiLeaks must bring itself to context. For Daniel Ellsberg to become a hero, it was Randy Kehler who proved to be the inspiration. For Assange to adorn cover pages globally, it took a young Bradley Manning to stand up for truth. WikiLeaks must campaign for Manning and ensure him the best of legal helps. Once WikiLeaks has declared its financial sources and expressed solidarity with its core contributors, the anarchy must stop and organized efforts towards global solidarity against war and poverty should begin.
Contrary to popular opinion, information is not power. It is the biggest cause of powerlessness. Mere information promotes dangerous opinions. Leaking reports and making them available to the public is not enough. And remaining only at that stage is even less useful. The audience is so swamped with political information on a daily basis that it is virtually impossible to help them prioritize. Progressive interpretations of the available information is crucial in providing emancipatory education to the people. In order to trace the true history of people’s struggles that can empower them towards the path of social justice, it is necessary to contextualize the WikiLeaks Papers.
Most released documents pertain to military expansionist trends and manipulative stances taken by ruling elites throughout the world. None of that is unexpected or surprising, and yet as popular polls suggest people appear to be deeply shocked at the WikiLeaks findings. This proves less about the significance of WikiLeaks and more about the status of mass intelligence/intellectual levels in the world today. Most of the impressed population perhaps have no clue about the consistent patterns of colonialism and imperialism since last two centuries. Those who express surprise at WikiLeaks findings perhaps never knew about American military interference in two thirds of the world. Those who express surprise over torture tactics employed by Britain and America perhaps were not keeping in touch with the ways militarist nations function.
Massive brutality and inhuman treatments go together with the progresses of so-called “free” world and those that are suddenly outraged at the WikiLeaks findings perhaps never believed in thousands of progressive publications and protest songs and radical movies over the years. It is fundamentally crucial to interpret WikiLeaks along with necessary historical documents being circulated and published by progressives world over. WikiLeaks must not encourage an Eurocentric tendency among the readers and authenticity of revolutionary needs must not base on corporate media approvals.
There is also a need to imagine Assange as an overweight bearded black Muslim. Would the press have covered him as kindly as now? Would people have really believed in his released cables and expressed outrage at various nations? In all likelihood, he would have been branded a terrorist and turned over to serve without representation at the renowned Guantanamo Bay. If two white women from Sweden would have claimed being even touched, he would have been convicted of rape charges already. Like Tookie Williams and Mumia Abu Jamal, he would have been sentenced a life, if not a lethal injection. Such is the irony about investigative truths in our world.
WikiLeaks should not have outraged any more than have the speeches of Frederick Douglass, the sociological researches by WEB DuBois, the first-hand accounts of war machinations by Paul Robeson, the fundamentally radical exposure of police brutality as a ruling class tool by Malcolm X, Huey Newton and Angela Davis. All of them and countless more have exposed sinister ways in which American imperialism has functioned over the years through suppressions of press freedom. What is so novel and outrageous about the WikiLeaks discovery that diplomats tell lies? Isn’t telling lies the reason why diplomats are paid, to begin with?
Assange must be acknowledged for his great courage in his role as a journalist. But any illusions regarding the paramount roles any amount of diplomatic cables can cause must be shattered. Like our misplaced faith in Obama, we should not once again now end up nowhere with WikiLeaks as our perceived savior. Informational anarchies devoid of socio-economic histories of oppressed people do not form sufficient conditions for organized revolutionary movements and a lot of online noise does not make a good revolutionary substitute.
(Saswat Pattanayak 2010)