A brief review of modern political history reveals that betrayal of democratic rhetoric in favor naked gangsterism is standard when ideological hegemony is challenged; in fact, it’s difficult to find an exception. Russian commissar Feofan Prokopovich once wrote in a 1718 tribute to Peter the Great that “the scriptures have taught us sufficiently how much obedience we all owe to the powers, the perverse as well as the good ones, not only from fear of their anger but for the sake of our consciences”. Such sentiments were the norm for a man whose principal task was to, in the words of Columbia University scholar Marc Raeff, “[justify] blind submission to the modern functions and forms of political authority with which Peter the Great had endowed the Russian state.”
Many will dismiss this dramatic display of power worship as a uniquely Russian doctrine, terminated with the inauguration of the European “enlightenment”, but it should be noted that such a dismissal lacks merit. Nearly three centuries have passed since Prokopovich’s sermon on “Royal Authority”, and his ideals persist in full form. Australian dissident and founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, has come under intense criticism within elite circles after Ecuador’s decision to grant him asylum in their London embassy. Shortly thereafter, UK Foreign Minister William Hague issued threats to invade the embassy saying “under British law we can give [the embassy] a week’s notice before entering the premises,” at which point it will “no longer have diplomatic protection”.
Irrelevant was the fact that this threat flagrantly violated the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which explicitly states “the premises of a [diplomatic] mission shall be inviolable,” and “the agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission” (Art. 22, Sec. 1). Predictably, the establishment press obscured this crime. New York Times reporter Anita Isaacs wrote that the asylum confirmation had “little if anything to do with Ecuadorean-British relations,” and “little to do with protecting Assange’s right to a fair trial or freedom of the press–which Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, has trampled upon at home”.
Aside from the fact that Isaacs provides no sources for this claim, it’s worth noting how such analysis is disregarded when it comes to US power. For example, when Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng sought asylum in the US embassy the New York Times wrote “while the deal appeared to resolve the diplomatic crisis, it also underscored the degree to which Chinese violations of human rights have become a lightning rod in the two nations ever-more entwined relationship.”
Conversely, when Julian Assange seeks asylum in Ecuador to avoid unjust prosecution at the hands of the US, it does not underscore American “violations of human rights”, many which would have gone unreported were it not for Wikileaks. A prime example can be found in the case of Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye. This case is of particular significance given Isaacs’ characterization of Correa as someone with a “confrontational style,” looking to “shore up his standing in a country with a long tradition of authoritarian politics”. Shaye revealed that a bombing in the Majala province of Yemen, contrary to claims made by the Saleh regime, was carried out by the United States. Wikileaks affirmed Shaye’s conclusion in the release of a diplomatic cable that “featured Yemeni officials joking about how they lied to their own parliament about the US role”. A total of fourteen women and twenty-one children were murdered in this attack. For this crime of journalism Shaye was kidnapped by Yemeni forces, tortured, and sentenced to five years in prison. His predicament was captured most powerfully when the international press was granted access to his prison cell. Here he stated “all of my journalistic contributions and quotations to international reporters . . . have been turned into accusations,” and Yemen “is a place . . .when a young journalist becomes successful he is viewed with suspicion”. In a phone call to Ali Abdullah Saleh, President Obama reversed an attempt to grant Shaye a pardon, citing “concern” about the release of a man who “had been sentenced to five years for his association with AQAP”. Domestic analogues to this international repression are quite abundant with a history that deserves some attention.
It is widely accepted among Wikileaks supporters that calls for Assange’s extradition to Sweden is just a mere pretext to deliver him into the hands of the United States, where he can be charged under the Espionage Act. While this scenario is very plausible, more attention should be paid to what the Espionage Act is and its grossly anti-democratic origins. The Espionage Act was passed in 1917 by the Wilson administration in an attempt to silence dissent against the First World War. Section one forbids the acquiring of any “information respecting the national defense with intent or reason to believe the information obtained is to be used to the injury of the United States.” Among the first casualties of this executive assault was Eugene Debs, a libertarian socialist and lead organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1918 Debs delivered a speech in Canton, Ohio denouncing “aristocratic conspirators and would-be murderers” who maintained that “the war [was] being waged to make the world safe for democracy”. He proceeded to say “I want to take my place side by side with the traitors in this fight”.
For this speech, Debs was slapped with a ten year prison sentence. Supreme Court Justice Holmes ruled that Debs had “attempted to cause and incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States.” Since this historic ruling, the Espionage Act has expanded in more grotesque ways. Apart from incarcerating those who impede military recruitment, the US is now in the business of incarcerating, and even torturing, those who enlist in the military, in particular those who may be guilty of exposing war crimes. Such is the case with US private Bradley Manning, who has endured “cruel an unusual punishment” in retribution for allegedly leaking classified US cables to Wikileaks. Latest reports from the UN special rapporteur on torture indicate that Manning is being held “in violation of Article 16 of the convention against torture,” and “if the effects in regards to pain and suffering were more severe, they could constitute torture.” Like Eugene Debs, Bradley Manning also takes his place “side by side with the traitors”.
With this in mind, much can be learned from actually reading the declassified material from Wikileaks, as they illustrate, in quite unambiguous terms, who the real “traitors” are (that is if the American population is of any importance). Take for instance a leaked Stratfor email from 2007 which communicated that the FBI had “compartmented a task force to hunt down an Afghani tribal al-Qaeda operative (NFI) who has entered the United States to coordinate an attack inside the United States before the end of the summer”. The email ends with the comment “no notifications will be made to the public, for fear of accusations that the matter is being ‘hyped’ for political reasons”. Here we have the chief domestic investigation agency, not disclosing, but withholding vital information that puts the American public in danger. Quite apart from preserving “national security”, this lack of transparency that has come to define US civilian institutions undermines national security in the true sense of the phrase i.e. the security of the American people. It should be acknowledged that if the charges for which Bradley Manning is unnecessarily accused merits torture, FBI director Robert Mueller should be arrested, imprisoned, and forced to endure “solitary confinement for 23 hours a day,” at least while he’s not being forced to “strip naked at night”.
And this structural endangerment of the public spills over beyond the barriers of “law” enforcement and in quite ugly ways. Take for example a report published by Media Matters which highlighted that “only 8.7% of television segments and 25.5% of print articles reported on record-breaking July heat waves in the context of climate change”. This is despite an empirical study by James Hansen of NASA which concluded that “the recent bouts of extremely warm summers, including the intense heat wave afflicting the US Midwest this year, very likely are the consequence of global warming”. Even the Pentagon concedes the threat of climate change. In an annual review of global security threats the Pentagon affirmed that climate change is “an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden on civilian institutions and militaries around the world”. Maybe Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson and the editorial staff of every major newspaper in the country can join the torture session of Robert Mueller for endangering “national security” as well.
Incidentally, this comes at a time when some Americans are wasting colossal amounts of food. Project scientist Dana Gunders published an alarming report in Grist that detailed how “in the United States today, about 40 percent of all food goes uneaten,” and “each year Americans are throwing away the equivalent of $165 billion dollars in uneaten food, making food the largest component of solid waste in our landfills”. Tracing these divergent trends of food production and food waste it would not be surprising to find climatological research papers buried deeply among the refuse heaps of America. The crop failures that climate change has contributed to are likely to worsen so long as journalists continue to serve private interests over public need. Meanwhile, the number of “food insecure” households will build in tribute to their organized irresponsibility.
All of this paints an understandably grim picture of international affairs but the substance of this assault on whistleblowers brings us back to Prokopovich’s sermon and the ideology it sustained, namely the idea that we should despise those who “do not tremble to dishonor dignities,” and those who “not only fail to hold all temporal powers to be God’s work,” but “scorn them as abomination”. Doctrines of this stripe live on in the pages of the New York Times, the British Foreign Office, and perhaps most graphically, the White House.
Yet it is to our advantage that a countervailing conception exists. This was expressed most succinctly by award-winning investigative reporter Robert Fisk, who maintained that “journalism should be a vocation,” and “our job is to record, to point the finger when we can, to challenge those ‘centers of power’ about which Amira Hass had so courageously spoken”. It is this emancipatory conception of journalism that has driven the Obama administration to charge “six former government employees who leaked information to the press,” under the Espionage Act, a record that surpasses “all other administrations combined”. It is also this conception which moved “authoritarians,” like Rafael Correa to grant Assange asylum. Like the “sinners” of Tsarist Russia, Correa also did not “tremble to dishonor dignities,” a reality which is translated as “confrontational” or illustrative of “dark suggestions” by the ideological successors of slave masters.
While Julian Assange is surely the most visible proponent of this movement toward a more emancipatory journalism, we must not allow other dissidents, who have faced equally burdensome costs to fade into obscurity. National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake deserves our support as well. Drake is being charged as an “enemy of the state,” for “willfully [retaining] top-secret defense documents that he had sworn an oath to protect,” and “sneaking them out of the intelligence agency’s headquarters, at Fort Meade, Maryland, and taking them home for the purpose of ‘unauthorized disclosure'”. It should be an elementary fulfillment of our responsibilities as democratic citizens to stand “side by side” with this “traitor”. Wikileaks, and the conception of journalism that it embodies, is crucial for us to make this stance. Without it we run the risk of transforming into individuals who “become indignant at the haughty disdain that fails to do great honor to the glorious state”, or, even worse, a New York Times diplomatic correspondent.
The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk
Russian Intellectual History by Marc Raeff