A man in chains knows he should have acted sooner for his ability to influence the actions of the state is near its end – Julian Assange, 2006
In 1948, the New Yorker published a short story by Shirley Jackson called ‘The lottery’. It is the story of the public stoning of a woman in a small town in Vermont. The stoning, however, is not the result of any crime committed by the woman. Two male elders are charged with the responsibility of organising a lottery in which all the citizens of the town are compulsorily entered in the full knowledge that one of them will be required to forfeit their life. Jackson infuses the conduct of this strange, democratic ritual with a perfunctory efficiency. The elders are keen to have the matter decided and executed before sunset, as if it were a bothersome town hall meeting that everyone would prefer to do without but was essential to the good governance of the town. It is clear that the townspeople do not know why these stonings take place and Jackson gives no clear indication of motive other than some oblique references to agricultural rituals that may have been observed by the community in years long gone. That one of the presiding elders is the owner of the local coal company suggests that the story is set in the industrial era but the precise time is not specified. It is clear, however, that the ritual has lost whatever meaning or function it may have had but has continued to be conducted as a matter of empty ceremony. Once the lot is drawn the assembled, which includes women and children, set upon the condemned with efficient alacrity.
The story appeared in The New Yorker on 26 June, having been written by Jackson only a month before publication, and the response to it was unprecedented and sensational. Hundreds of readers immediately cancelled their subscription to the magazine and Jackson began receiving volumes of mail, most of it castigatory and indignant but a disturbing sample of which expressed a desire to know where the correspondent could witness such an event. Many readers were befuddled and were upset with Jackson for writing a story they struggled to understand. As is so often the case with art that troubles the spirit of the times, the artist has little idea of the profound impact the work will have once it enters the public domain. Jackson later said that her motivation for writing the story was to explore a latent cruelty in people but it seems clear that the middle-class, educated readers who took offence at the publication of the story did so largely because they were outraged that a writer could depict small town America, the mythic heart of the nation, in such a way. They were deeply disturbed by Jackson’s representation of society and did not wish to hear it.
In a 1986 essay titled ‘Truth and Lies in Literature’, the Hungarian émigré writer Stephen Vizinczey examined the central premise of Herman Melville’s novel Billy Budd: that it is possible for the unjustly condemned man to love and respect his executioner. In 1797 Captain Vere, in command of the British warship HMS Indomitable, takes it upon himself to summarily court-martial and execute a young seaman, William Budd, for the murder of the malevolent master-at-arms, Claggart. Claggart had falsely accused Budd of conspiring to mutiny but when brought before the Captain to explain himself the young man’s speech impediment prevent him from mounting a coherent defence, causing him to instead lash out and kill Claggart. The surgeon and other officers on the ship have deep reservations about Captain Vere’s decision to execute Budd but Vere justifies his actions by resorting to the rhetoric of discipline and duty, arguing that if Budd were excused his fellow crewmen would doubt the authority under which they live. It is important to regard this power relation in the context of the degradations to which eighteenth-century seamen were subject to, especially given that many of them were press-ganged into service with no particular loyalty to the Crown and were, as Vere puts it, ‘long moulded by arbitrary discipline’.
Vere is convinced that once properly explained, Budd will come to understand and even appreciate the necessary sacrifice of his life for the greater good of maintaining the prevailing power structure that underpins not only British naval discipline but the very foundations of the colonial enterprise. Budd is hanged in an act of duty in which both he and Vere, master and slave, are willingly complicit. Melville’s description of the execution is chilling: ‘At the penultimate moment, his words, his only ones, words wholly unobstructed in the utterance, were these – “God bless Captain Vere!”’
In his essay, Vicenzcey scrutinised the implications for literature of this construction of power relations.
If readers will keep a lookout for it they will find that one of the most frequent lies in literature is the pretence that it hurts more to abuse, torture or kill somebody than it does to be abused, tortured or killed. The corollary of this is that the victims have no objection. On the contrary, they understand, they sympathise with their torturers; they respect and even love them…..Authority does not ill-treat its subjects out of indifference, venality, incompetence, callousness, but for the common good. However arbitrary and cruel it may seem in its actions, it is always benign at heart.
These two examples, the Jackson story and the Melville novel, illustrate the essence of the totalitarian project and can be easily and even triumphantly read into historical examples of the oppressive tactics of fascist and state communist regimes. However, when applied as part of an analysis of the western, democratic nation state the conversation becomes distinctly less comfortable. Part of the reason for this lies in the narrative of power relations inherent in the self-appointed global role model of democracy, the United States of America, which has for two centuries, and more forcefully since the end of the World War Two, constructed a story told largely in the first person. In this story, all other nations and people are subject to the authority of the narrator and exist only in a relationship of complicity in which the words and deeds of the author must be viewed as ultimately benign and for the common good. This exercise of authority is nowhere more apparent than in Australia where government after government have sat obediently enthralled like children listening to a bedtime story read by a stern but benevolent parent.
In one of those strange quirks of history, Julian Assange was born in the very same week that Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers that were published in the New York Times and led to Watergate and the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Ellsberg has recently come out very strongly in support of Assange who, he says, is being subjected to the very same threats and intimidation that he was in 1971. The most immediate distinction between the two incidents is that Ellsberg systematically removed the documents from the top secret files at the RAND Corporation where he was a senior analyst and took them to his home where, with aid of his two young children, he photocopied tranches of the files over a period of months. Wikileaks, on the other hand, receives documents from undisclosed sources and makes them available, mostly but not always in raw form, on their website and in redacted versions compiled by their publishing partners, The New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais and Le Monde. In that sense, Wikileaks has a role similar to that played by the Times in 1971 and it is on that basis that the organisation’s claim to journalistic credibility rests.
Both Ellsberg and Wikileaks revealed uncomfortable truths which unsettled the narrative of state power relations. But Assange and his associates have gone much further than the Pentagon Papers incident by exposing a deep and tragic flaw in the story of the democratic nation-state. Whereas Nixon could be held accountable for the moral and administrative failure of his administration without risking the viability of the political edifice, this is not the case with the current situation. A key distinction between the orthodox model of information leaks, of which the Pentagon Papers is the supreme example, and the new model established by organisations like Wikileaks is the privileging of process over content. Assange is not simply trying to embarrass and damage regimes by leaking sensitive information. As has been widely observed, most of the current tranche of leaks is of a rather mundane, inconsequential nature and unlikely to do any significant harm to the individuals or the organisations cited. It is not the content of the information that Assange is most interested in but the debilitating effect its leaking has on the viability of government and corporate communication systems.
As a young man he was brought up on charges in Australia for hacking into corporate computer systems. What saved him from conviction was the philosophy of ‘do no harm’. In other words, the challenge and thrill for the hacker lay in proving it can be done and the best hackers of his generation were meticulous in their treatment of the systems they compromised, inevitably leaving their integrity in place with a calling card informing the system manager that a breach had taken place. A little bit like a graffiti artist tagging some difficult to reach spot on a building. In WikiLeaks, Assange has taken this ethical strategy a step further by demonstrating that authority itself can be weakened when its secrets are not only exposed but when the communications networks that contain them can no longer be trusted by their owners. Wikileaks has ruptured the hermetic seal of power relations.
Assange makes his political intentions clear in a 2006 essay in which he quotes President Theodore Roosevelt from his 1912 Progressive Party platform:
Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of statesmanship.
The first task of statesmanship is, I think, a significant point because it points to the moral and ethical responsibilities of politicians. The essay outlines the thinking behind the WikiLeaks strategy through an interrogation of the practice of conspiracy. The etymology of the verb ‘to conspire’, Assange points out, pertains to the act of ‘breathing together’ and it is this concerted action of neocorporatist systems, encompassing public-private collaboration, that WikiLeaks, following Roosevelt, seeks to destabilise. President Eisenhower, who was himself no progressive, warned of the dangers posed by the consolidation of a military-industrial complex following World War Two. Since the 1990s a third arm has been added to achieve a military-industrial-communications complex and it is its clandestine, anti-democratic operations that WikiLeaks has compromised.
When we look at an authoritarian conspiracy as a whole, we see a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment. (Assange)
Importantly, it is the role of Western, democratic governments in this invisible conspiracy that is most troubling for those nation-states that have sought to position themselves, in the light of small-town American mythology, as moral and ethical superiors. Like the readers of Shirley Jackson’s story, these regimes have taken offence at the depiction of their world exposed by WikiLeaks and, as a result, some among them wish to cancel their subscription to the rule of law and set upon the author. But it is abundantly clear that in attempts to expose the profligacy, corruption and political dysfunction of democratic nation-states, Assange also reveres their historical, founding principles. Indeed, his defence of the actions of Wikileaks rests on the integrity of the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
In his essay on literature and lies, Vincenzey writes:
There are two basic kinds of literature. One helps you to understand, the other helps you to forget; the first helps you to be a free person and a free citizen, the other helps people to manipulate you. One is like astronomy, the other is like astrology … Orwell said that most people cannot see artistic merit in novels which contradict their views, and this is the beginning of all aesthetics. I would add that new insights are even more offensive than contrary opinions, if only because they suggest that the reader was mistaken about something.
In a sense, this is the dilemma now confronted by citizens of Western, democratic nations. The exposure of the mechanisms of neocorporatist power has most likely only reinforced what most people already sensed intuitively. Here I am leaving aside those that make it their business to understand such things. The revelation of truth provided by the power elites’ reaction to WikiLeaks and the conspiratorial flavour of the treatment of Assange serve to create uncertainty in large sections of the citizenry much in the same way as Captain Vere’s arbitrary decision to execute Billy Budd created uncertainty, initially at least, in the minds of his fellow officers.
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. (Assange)
The role of the fourth estate in the formulation of attitudes to WikiLeaks and Assange is at the centre of the future of democracy. When US Senator Joe Lieberman recently called for an investigation of the role of the New York Times in the WikiLeaks affair he presaged a challenge to the First Amendment that could usher in a new era of McCarthyism. In Australia, Laurie Oakes used his Walkley Award acceptance speech to castigate the Australian Prime Minister, herself a lawyer, for publicly snubbing the presumption of innocence by effectively declaring Assange a criminal; you have to know the rules have changed. Assange recently wrote an opinion piece in The Australian in which he praised Keith Murdoch as a champion of free speech. Clearly, the world is upside down and the rules have changed. Morals, ethics and politics are on the table like a dish served cold. Journalists and writers are called upon to stand for truth. We can succumb to the persuasion of an authority who will reassure us that there are limits to freedom and that the rule of law should be bent to punish those who dissent. Like Billy Budd, we can exalt the executioner in the comfort of knowing that the death of freedom will be for the common good. Similarly, we can be like the citizens of small town Vermont in Jackson’s story who robotically practice malevolent rituals devoid of meaning. Or we can take to heart the advice of Teddy Roosevelt:
There are, in the body politic, economic, and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man, whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful …
One of my favourite blog post comments in the torrent of discussion in recent days was this:
Can someone please give Assange a Nehru jacket, a fluffy cat and an underground lair?
Another was the suggestion that in WikiLeaks: The Movie, Assange will be played by Tilda Swinton. Assange is an almost bespoke version of left notoriety – bohemian, anarchistic, intellectual, heroic. A kind of geeky, prematurely grey-haired, loping, lone-wolf version of Che. And yet, if he hunted moose and drove an SUV he could quite easily be a fellow traveller of Glenn Beck and the Tea Party because, much to Beck’s chagrin I suspect, Assange appropriates and subverts many of the philosophical drivers of the citizen politics of the American New Right. The fact that Assange possesses an impenetrably encrypted insurance file that he threatens to release if ‘things go bad’ only adds to the life imitating fiction aspects of the WikiLeaks affair. For those of you wishing to invest in a little piece of the world’s future according to WikiLeaks, this is the file from the underground lair. Good luck with encryption.
Although Assange the character is a sitting duck for satire his actions make it extremely difficult for commentators of all persuasions to bag him with impunity. This presents a dilemma for those darker forces that wish to eliminate him. In their bid to have him extradited to the US to face trumped up espionage charges, the political establishment runs the risk of escalating him to global hero status as a celebrity political prisoner and champion of free speech. Imagine the trial.
No, I doubt his enemies will take this course. Far more effective would be to build on the narrative of Assange-as-terrorist by linking his actions and motives to those of militant Islamism. This, in some ways, provides the establishment with a perfect opportunity to conflate the deeds of Assange with the rising militancy of workers and students in Europe protesting against ‘austerity measures’ being imposed on them by the neocorporatist response to the fallout of the Global Financial Crisis. The real challenge, for establishment and anti-establishment alike, will come when the disenfranchised taxpayers of America, lumbered with the socialisation of a crippling debt, courtesy of Wall Street, finally realise that the stone in their hand is aimed at the wrong target. That realisation may come when WikiLeaks releases a tranche of documents from what is rumoured to be a source within the Bank of America.