Jesus, what a can of worms. If it were scripted from Hollywood with Brad Pitt in the starring role you wouldn’t give it a second look. It’s not just the embassy cables themselves of course, but the accompanying furore around Julian Assange’s imminent arrest on sexual assault charges, not to mention the calls for his murder by people such as Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. For much of this week my preferred activity before breakfast has been to hit the net and find out what the embassy cable leaks have revealed overnight about the operation of our rotten political systems.
There are so many perspectives from which to look at the embassy cables release, because there has been such a deluge of information: the US government’s sleazy threats to any other nation that might impede their hideous regimes of torture and surveillance; the way the US sought to railroad Copenhagen; the utter contempt in which the democratic process is held by popularly elected governments; not to mention the subsequent ganging up on Assange by prize-winning journos who sniffily claim that he and his WikiLeaks crew are not ‘real journalists’, and so on and so on. But what has been occupying my thinking this morning is the Amazon decision to boot WikiLeaks off its servers where it was temporarily resident, and the implications of this for writers and for whatever is termed literature.
It seems to me that fiction writers, western writers anyway, rarely talk about what writing might be as a political process (see the recent Overland young writers interviews for example). But whether you’re writing stories about Noddy or about post-apocalyptic nightmares or suburban power-plays, politics is always there. It’s built into who we are. Distribution of literature is inevitably tied to publishers and now to hyper-giant distributors like Amazon and Apple. And herein lie the genesis of a very big problem.
Julian Assange says that WikiLeaks temporarily used Amazon’s hire servers to host an index to the cables. They did not at any time host the documents themselves. Assange also says that using Amazon was a strategic move to expose Amazon’s false claims to be proponents of free speech. Homeland Security Chairman Joe Lieberman says that he asked Amazon to nix WikiLeaks, which they promptly did. Amazon argued, in a chummy press release, that they made the decision themselves, based on the fact that WikiLeaks violated their terms of service in relation to illegally obtained and harmful content.
Either way, it doesn’t look good. Amazon will dump you if someone more powerful leans on them a little bit, or they will dump you if they decide they don’t like your political content, and they will decide what that harmful political content is. In other words the private sector will decide what constitutes harm in political action, and decide at their discretion or at the discretion of someone who makes them a friendly phone call. I should add that there will be no consistency in this. Amazon may have dumped WikiLeaks, but my Kindle will cheerfully allow me to buy copious amounts of self-published neo-Nazi screeds at Amazon full of elaborate arguments of holocaust denial.
In his online Q&A at the Guardian on Saturday, Julian Assange made the following comment in regard to the whole question of free speech:
The west has fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on. In such an environment it is easy for speech to be “free” because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments. Western speech, as something that rarely has any effect on power, is, like badgers and birds, free. In states like China, there is pervasive censorship, because speech still has power and power is scared of it. We should always look at censorship as an economic signal that reveals the potential power of speech in that jurisdiction. The attacks against us by the US point to a great hope, speech powerful enough to break the fiscal blockade.
In other words, as long as we continue to write without contradiction of the basic power relationships that Assange identifies, we can say what we like, and construct the literature we want. We can PhD ourselves to death in as many creative writing courses as we like, because no-one cares. Another way of putting it is to say that literature is in fact already constrained by those power relationships. They are already wired into literature’s processes of creation and production and will increasingly be so in the future. It’s very easy, on the basis of Amazon’s recent actions and Apple’s policing of its content, to see a very near future where literary content will be nakedly controlled by corporations like Amazon, who are very susceptible to being pressured by people representing national security interests. This policing will undoubtedly knock-on to publishers too, who will be heavily reliant on the Amazons and Apples of the world to get their product out and making money for them.
Writers, fiction writers at least, and particularly those in the West, seem fairly docile when it comes to writing within the boundaries of the non-political. That is to say that writers are very deft at ignoring the political aspects of literature’s creation, ignoring the fact that the writing individual is politically constituted and that writing exists, always, in political contexts.
The backlash against WikiLeaks and WikiLeaks-style activity and thinking has only just begun. The denial of service attacks WikiLeaks must currently be experiencing beggar the imagination. Julia Gillard claims that the WikiLeaks embassy cables release is ‘illegal’, though what laws have been broken she didn’t specify. Presumably they will have to be invented by her. And if this comes to pass, and I download the embassy cables to my laptop, that will undoubtedly make me a criminal as well.
Daniel Ellsberg says he has written to Amazon to ask them to cancel his Amazon account based on their treatment of WikiLeaks. It seemed like a good idea to do the same. The pro-forma that accepted my email says I can expect a reply within 12 hours. I can’t wait. And I’ll ditch my Kindle too I think. It always was a creepy little device. Now it’s starting to look positively sinister.