Like badgers and birds

WL_Hour_GlassJesus, 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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Thought-provoking post. Two quick points – first, ‘naked control’ is much less likely, and in any case less insidious (because the crudity of direct exercise of power causes a backlash) than the overall narrative conditioned and determined by ideology, which is much harder to combat because it can operate even when all involved – journalists, intellectuals, writers – are acting in good faith. Second, while Amazon is certainly an unsavoury operator (see this article from 2008 on their treatment of workers: ), they are as bad as they are big; all corporations act to maximise profit (which unsurprisingly includes not rocking the boat politically in their host nations – witness the craven behaviour of Google in China) or they fail and are replaced with ones that do. By all means scrap your Kindle (or, better, hack it: ), but consumer protest tacitly cedes ground to the idea of one’s power resides in one’s wallet; and this is ground that should not be ceded. We are citizens, not customers.

    1. Hi Joshua, thanks for the links, especially the Kindle hacking stuff. I’ve de-registered it as a first step, so at least I don’t have Amazon looking over my shoulder while I’m reading.
      The thing about the naked control option, is that it seems to be becoming more and more a strategy of choice of political parties, witness Labor’s internet censoring proposals, the various legislations that have been passed since 9/11, the increasing usage of CCTV etc. I agree that forms of narrative conditioning are usually capitalism’s control mode of choice, but I see it being interrupted by other more intrusive methods
      that masquerade as a protector of the public good, eg: saving children from molestation, the public from terrorists and so on. If corporations think more overt norms of control benefit them, guard the bank vaults, enable the bonuses to keep on coming, then I think we may well see more and more of them. Writers are not much of a worry yet, because they don’t cause too much trouble and keep the coffers full.

    2. Joshua, I entirely agree with you that consumer protest cedes ground that should not be ceded but I am on less certain footing on the idea that we are citizens, not customers.

      I think it is fair to say that our governments are in some ways (mostly willing) hostages of big business, and even if one is not prepared to go so far as that, it would be difficult to make the case arguing that the individual power structures of governments and capitalism are not seriously entangled. If you add to this that corporations are not constrained by borders in the way that governments are, isn’t it the sad fact that we are unavoidably customers by the accident of birth in this era, possibly even more than we are citizens. Even our governments call us “clients”.

      This makes the issue of ceding ground somewhat more complicated, to me. The fact is I do actually use the “consumer protest” such as boycotting products or companies but as a political act this is not vocal activism to effect change within the system, which is, I think, where the ground is ceded. (Usually with a chorus of self-congratulation I find rather depressing to watch.) Rather, it is disengagement – so far as I am able – from the system itself.

      Perhaps I am just quibbling with words, but isn’t the necessary revolutionary act then this silent and passive refusal and the slow creation of alternative relationships outside of existing power structures, both commercial and political? And to do this, aren’t we required to acknowledge that a customer is indeed what we are?

      (Stephen – a wonderful post, as usual.)

        1. I’ve also participated in boycotts, and I agree that they can be of some (marginal) effect politically. But the role allotted to the mast majority of humankind in the capitalist system is to be a worker producing consumer goods and a consumer buying them. The boycotting of this or that company is just a preferential choice of one company over another. Choosing A over B is meaningless when both A and B operate on the basis of exploiting surplus value from labour, because both A and B disenfranchise the worker in the decision-making process. Only through solidarity can respect for rights – in this case the rights of free speech – be implemented in the actions of collectives. This solidarity is precluded by the model of a corporation with shareholders, etc. Starbucks can make soothing noises about fair trade, but it’s hokum: making a profit demands that any such customer relations exercise is essentially smoke + mirrors. I can’t imagine what “alternative relationship” _that is also commercial_ could exist outside of the existing power structures, because it is the commercial-ness of relationships that make them exploitative.

          Now, if it were a choice between A and Z, where A is Amazon and Z is a hypothetical workers’ cooperative which operates democratically within the company and relates to consumers on the basis of mutualism, in which there are no shareholders demanding the exploitation of producers, maximising the deception applied to consumers, and delivering the shittiest and/or most overpriced products they can possibly get away with … well then yes let’s choose Z! But in that case we are not customers either, we are something else – we are again citizens in a truly democratic economy. In the absence of a political environment in which such an economy can flourish, I would argue that our efforts would be best applied to creating the conditions where can make choice Z; not fooling ourselves into thinking we make a difference by choosing A or B. This is why I say we are citizens, not customers.

  2. Hi Michael, yes agreed. The writing of Greenwald and a few others stands out with even greater clarity at the present time, as nearly everyone else appears to have either caved in (‘nothing to see here, move along’)or aligned themselves with the attack dogs of the extreme right.

  3. I this post, thank you Stephen. I am impressed by folks who can digest this stuff as it’s happening and write lucidly. I feel like the fellow in Munch … you know the one.

  4. No worries, Clare. Jeff Sparrow is usually the dude who jumps on critical events as they unfold, and does it much better than me. But I am very very interested in the whole phenomenon of the Wikileaks disclosures. I think they expose so many fracture points in so many narratives, and will do so for some time. I can’t wait to see what’s in that huge encrypyted Wikileaks ‘insurance’ file, they’re holding onto.

  5. Thanks Stephen, what a great post. Thanks for gathering the various strands together.

    Gob-smacking the whole thing and yet it isn’t. Vested (capitalist) interests pulling together as we would expect making scurrilous and unsubstantiated allegations and unlawful threats against someone they haven’t yet charged. Amazing to hear politicians say we’ll change the law so we can lay charges. As you point out, the ground has well and truly been laid with legislation introduced post September 11 that eerily echoes Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, the increased surveillance of citizens and greater censorship. But as you say, all done under the banner of the public interest.

    I’m surprised not to have heard an outcry from journalists and stunned last night that ABC news didn’t even bother reporting on WikiLeaks. At least tonight it got a mention.

  6. If the political and moral vacuum that is contemporary media reporting hadn’t been previously exposed as the sinister object it is, the Wikileaks cables have certainly done a number this time. Avoiding thinking about Wikileaks at all, has been the general Australian media strategy, and only this morning has there been any serious interest in cablegate, and even then only inasmuch it might help to identify Australian ‘terrorists.’ The US media response has been virulent this time, and it’s no real surprise to see much-lauded Pulitzer Prizewinners calling for draconian action against Assange. And just to add to the general hilarity, Christopher Hitchens this morning was virtually foaming at the mouth about Assange. He could hardly contain his profanity I think.

    1. It is, it’s fabulous. Open letter to Gillard also got a mention on ABC news. Great if we can send to all our networks and get as many people making comments that support the letter as possible. Notice Libs are leaping on Gillard (they don’t care about Assange or freedom of speech nearly as much as getting some political mileage out of it) which may inadvertently lend growing opposition to treatment of Assange more credence.

  7. the Drum letter is here
    There’s currently 3655 comments, and I think it’s actually overwhelmed the facility.
    On Hitchens, his Slate attack on Assange was extraordinary. I mean, Hitchens calling someone else an ‘unscrupulous megalomaniac with a political agenda’? Oh, the LOLZ!
    More than that, though, in his second para, Hitchens damns the British government for backing Saddam Hussein in 1976. It ‘chose to drape tyranny in the language of cliché and euphemism’, he says.
    But hang on? What’s this?
    Oh, it’s Christopher Hitchens writing in 1976. And what does he call Saddam Hussein? Why, Mr Hussein is ‘the first visionary Arab statesman since Nasser’!
    It’s one thing to change your mind. It’s quite another to entirely rewrite your past.

  8. I guess the 3,000 plus comments are fairly unanimous too, which is not often the case the few times I’ve looked at Drum. I note the Drum Ed’s nervous apology at the head of the letter too.
    Hitchen’s letter was rather alarming as apart from pot-kettle-black etc he seemed to have crossed a line from the usual belligerent self-promoting shouter into someone more disturbing and disturbed.
    On Australian media:The SMH this morning, reporting on the US cable comments on Rudd, says that it has itself ‘secured’ the scoop from Wikileaks, as though their own reporters had intrepidly battled the forces of darkness to obtain the info. And ABC radio finally headlined Wikileaks this morn, but only in relation to Assange’s arrest. ‘The international manhunt’ for Assange, Bob Gates gravely tells the world, is over.
    And at Obama’s press conference yesterday, not ONE reporter mentioned the cables.
    Also, to wind up it looks as though Assange’s comments I quoted about ‘fiscal power relationships’ is panning out: Apparently your Visa/Mastercard/Paypay account can be canned for using it for “illegal” activities. That’s a relief to know that Visa et al are policing the world for signs of criminal card use, and that contributing to neo-Nazi organisations, etc etc etc, is never done with a credit card.

  9. WikiLeaks isn’t only exposing power, corruption and toadying at the highest level of government, it is exposing much of the Australian media as part of the problem.

  10. Yes, its amazing isn’t it? A vast unspoken conspiracy of media silence for the most part. Without being directly instructed to do so, everyone just knows that reporting on the cables directly is generally to be avoided, while attacking Assange, or his son as Fairfax has done, is the strategy of choice.

  11. And a natural outcome of a highly concentrated media and defeated and under-funded public broadcaster with a board and management more interested in audience and ratings than fearless reporting.

  12. Amazon has done creepy political things before. I’m thinking of last year, when books with gay and lesbian content were excluded from sales rankings on the grounds that they were ‘adult’ content. That’s undoubtedly political. They were pressured into reincluding the content – and thus, ensuring the writers got the compensation and sales they were entitled to – but I’ve never bought from them since.

    Wikileaks is such an interesting phenomena. Did you read the analysis in 3quarksdaily of Assange’s reasons for developing the site? It’s based on actual essays he wrote about doing so, and also discusses the parallels with the use of language. You’d be interested, I think.

  13. Thanks Georgia. Assange’s essays are very interesting documents for all kinds of reasons. I hadn’t read them before. An excellent analysis of them at 3quarks and at zunguzungu too. Asssange seems to have spent a lot of time, thinking about paranoia and conspiracy, and about how to get out of the paranoid circuit. His description of his own grand theory, his model of how conspiracies work and how they can be opened up, immediately brought to mind two images for me: Guy Debords’ Game of War, and the scene in the Incredibles where the Omnidroid is tricked into attacking itself and tears out its own brain. Assange seems like a ‘grand theory’ kind of guy: He writes;
    “Everytime we witness an act that we feel to be unjust and do not act we become a party
    to injustice.”
    Certainly, all kinds of power relationships have been nakedly revealed, and the corporate-government reaction, thrashing about in a welter of fear and anger just exposes them further. The day after Mastercard and Visa close Wikileaks accounts, it’s revealed that the US govt has previously lobbied on their behalf etc etc etc. The whole Wikileaks phenomenon is domino-ing right through the guts of the internet.The leaks cannot be closed now without virtually shutting down the net. A few minutes ago Twitter suspended the Anonymous group’s accounts to stop them organising their attacks of Mastercard’s website. So they opened another one. And so on.
    Even Assange’s personal behaviour is crowded with conspiracy theory and creates polarised arguments and split states of mind, witness Naomi Wolf’s bizarre attacks on the women who have claimed Assange assaulted them. The more the leaks reveal, the weirder the whole saga gets, as the guts of conspiracies – which are always based on irrational and paradoxical doublethinking – spill out into the light of mundane reality, so we all start to feel that we’re suddenly inhabiting a reality where imcompatible structures (each surreal) are occupying the same space.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.