Journal Entry #44
Truth on trial.
NORFOLK, CONN., APRIL 9—Many of us have been greatly distressed by recent reports that Julian Assange will shortly be turned out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London, his asylum privileges withdrawn. It is clear where this will head should these reports prove out. The WikiLeaks founder will last a few minutes at best on the streets of London before the British police pick him up. Shortly thereafter he will be on a plane heading west across the Atlantic, extradited at Washington’s request. A show trial will ensue. And a life mercilessly (and illegally) damaged will be all but destroyed. This man is in my prayers (the only one in them whom I do not know personally).
A vigorous, not to say vicious debate has opened out between Assange’s supporters and those who favor the outcome just outlined. It sheds useful light on important questions. The razor-tongued Caitlin Johnstone made a contribution a few days ago that is not to be missed. It is here. Is Julian Assange a journalist? This is the question Johnstone takes on. Many ask it. Her reply, in that inimitable style of hers, is “Yes he is, you idiot,” the idiot being anyone who makes the argument that he is not.
In truth I have wondered about this for a long time. And I have never arrived at a certain answer, wholly as I support Assange’s work. Johnstone pushes me in the direction of two answers, at long last. Three, actually, the last having the most amplitude of any of them. Cú Chulainn invites readers to ponder them.
WHAT DOES JULIAN ASSANGE DO? When we think of “journalists” we think of reporters and editors. Assange is neither. So far as WikiLeaks procedures go, no one goes out in search of information: There is no reporting in the standard definition. Information comes to the organization from others who have unearthed it. Ditto on the question of editing: It is a foundational principle that WikiLeaks does not edit what it publishes. There is no intervention in the standard understanding of the editing function—no cuts, no “Insert A’s,” or “B’s,” no “subbed grafs,” no reorganization of submitted material. So far, one has not found an answer to the question.
Read Johnstone’s piece carefully. Keep your eyes peeled for her vocabulary. Whenever she mentions what Assange does, the verb is “publishes.” There are several occasions when this is the case. Small matter, but one must keep scrupulously honest. Johnstone gave me an answer to the vexing question. Assange is not a journalist in the way we customarily think of those in the hackery trade. But he is a publisher—not of books but of sourced material on a periodic basis. Just as the publisher of the Washington Post or The New York Times is a journalist—alas, the pitiful fates of these papers since they hit their high notes years back—so is Assange. WikiLeaks is a new kind of publication, certainly. But it is a periodic publication and its publisher is a journalist just the same.
I offer this for what definitional value it may have. And I correct myself: It is not a small matter. As Johnstone points out, “If he’s not a journalist, then his prosecution sets no precedent for real journalists.” The implication here is that Assange is fair game for prosecutors, but the newspapers who picked up Wiki’s various revelations are not. They can lynch Assange, but the publishers of the above-noted dailies are immune: They are journalists, you see.
What bunkum. It is a transparently fraudulent argument.
This leads to a second point: Taken in a larger context, whether or not Assange is a journalist is maybe not the front line of defense. I wonder whether the journalist-or-not argument, apart from the scam of protecting those who picked up Wiki’s work, is at bottom much more than a distraction. Since when are journalists covered by First Amendment protections but others are not? It may not be wise, then, to get lost in the semantics of the corporate-owned Houyhnhnms. Emphatically no, Assange the publisher should not be singled out from others in the same profession, notably those who sourced and reproduced documents WikiLeaks made available. It is the height of hypocrisy that this is so far the case. But the larger issue is First Amendment coverage: It is universal. Plumbers, plasterers, lumberjacks, and all others must be similarly protected. At the horizon, I mean to suggest, the taxonomy pertaining to Assange does not matter.
WE DO NOT YET KNOW Julian Assange’s fate. Worst outcome, as many of us recognize, is that he is tried and sentenced in a courtroom wherein the verdict was determined long, long ago. Assange, in an old and disgraceful tradition, will be sacrificed so as to serve as an example for others: Do not disclose that which is hidden from public view. In this way, we will all share something of Assange’s fate, if not his suffering and pain, for the true trial has already begun. It is the truth that is on trial. Assange’s sin lies in telling it to a society dedicated to illusion. If psychosis is defined as a disconnection from reality, then we are talking about a psychotic society—a psychotic nation, indeed.
In this line, Cú Chulainn asks readers to consider a casual harvest of developments drawn simply from the last week’s news. I was on a television shout fest the other day when someone made mention of Washington’s view of China’s Belt and Road initiative. Apparently the running perspective is that it’s “a vanity project.” That takes care of that: Nothing more to do or say or think about. Sure thing.
A couple of days later I read that, nearly two decades after the Bush II administration’s assault on international law and common decency, the American military is still arguing about whether evidence of the torture our sadistic spooks let loose in their “black sites” should be brought into the light. It was Barack Obama who made this kind of dodge possible, let us not forget, rather swiftly after he took office. (And said spooks include the current director of the CIA—in effect, another gift from Obama.)
In the very same news cycle (and in the very same newspaper) came a report that the U.S. has revoked the visa of the International Criminal Court chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, “because of her attempts to investigate allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan, including any that may have been committed by American forces.” These reports can be found here and here respectively. I always love The Times for its habit of publishing stories such as these in the same edition and never any hint that there is a connection between the two. Heaven forbid knowledge might lead to understanding—the very last thing our press wants to encourage.
Why do these apparently disparate bits of news warrant mention together? Why does the Celtic giant take them up in a Journal entry that has to do with Julian Assange? Because they are all instances of our mass self-illusioning, if you will tolerate the awkward term. The Assange case is thoroughly embedded in this culture of illusion. I do not think it can be fully understood without this context. We are a nation hiding from who we are and how we conduct ourselves and how we view and treat the immense Other beyond our shores. We are dedicated to fooling ourselves while missing the fact that we fool only ourselves. Anyone who thinks this is a constructive and productive way to proceed into the 21st century is fooling himself or herself twice over. It is nothing more than our style of self-determined decline. It is in this context we must consider Assange’s sin as defined above.
IN THIS SAME LINE, Andrew Bacevich has just published a zinger in TomDispatch, under a headline I find irresistible: “Can We Stop Pretending Now?” The TD post can be found here.
The dissident colonel is always a thoughtful, informative read. Here he outdoes himself. “Donald Trump is a bullshit artist of the first order,” Bacevich begins delicately. “Yet all art reflects the time in which it’s produced[,] and Trump’s art is no exception. Within all the excrement lie nuggets of truth.”
From this subtle start, Bacevich unpacks “seven illustrative examples of myths that the Trump presidency has once-and-for-all demolished.” He and I have long seen eye to eye in the matter of Trump: He is consequence more than cause, as we have both argued severally in print. This is to say we are all responsible for the decadence and lapses that led to this man’s residence in the White House. “Bitter” is too mild a term for this truth (and hence so few of us who can bear it).
The seven myths are excellently chosen. As I’ve linked to the piece, I will mention only my favorites:
- “Myth No. 3: The ‘wise men’ are truly wise.”
- “Myth No. 4: The Persian Gulf is a vital U.S. national security interest.”
- “Myth No. 7: War is the continuation of policy by other means.”
In reply to the first-rate head on Bacevich’s piece, one must answer, “No sign of it.” Americans have a little time left to wake up, to reverse course, to stop the pretending. But a mature judgment must overcome all impulses in the direction of “should”—the single most dangerous word available to journalists, in my view.