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Peter Ludlow on “The Political Philosophy of Julian Assange”

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There Is Something To See Here

Julian Assange is not that important. Don’t give him a Nobel Prize. Don’t demonize him. Don’t line up in solidarity behind someone who may or may not be a serial rapist. Don’t demand the conviction of someone who is only accused of a crime, and needs to be presumed innocent until he is convicted. Demand justice for him — and don’t pretend you know what that is, unless you’re one of the three people who do — but don’t fall into the trap of thinking his conviction, in the long run, has very much to do with the whole host of really important issues that the Wikileaks revelations have brought up. Don’t make him more important than he is.

Wikileaks is only a single part of something that is, on its own terms, very important. They’ve given us a great deal of knowledge about exactly how the American state actually acts, proof that many of the state department’s secrets are simply a way of avoiding democratic oversight, that our diplomatic corps secretly does horrible things in our name. We already had a lot of knowledge of that, but now we have a lot more, and much of it utterly and uniquely damning. Julian Assange is a smart man who’s done some brave things in service of a good cause — and we owe him a debt of gratitude for the gift he’s given us. Thank you, Wikileaks. But that’s all we owe him, and them.

Which is why I want to say this, as clearly as I can: it’s exactly because Assange and Wikileaks are relatively unimportant (compared to the gigantic scandal of the anti-democratic security state in which we now live) that the media has made him into a superstar, has tried to make the entire story about Wikileaks and a single eccentric and interesting character, rather than about the United States government’s actions as a system. The more we focus on him — and I’ve contributed to that, which is why I particularly want to write this post — the more we take attention away from the real story, the substance of the things Wikileaks has revealed.

It tells you a great deal about how our media works, after all, that so very many of the people pronouncing moralistically on Wikileaks and Assange — either pro- or con- — seem more or less completely unblemished by more than a casual familiarity with the most sketchy and incomplete details of the case or the cabledump. On day one, long before more than a tiny fraction of the cables had been released, and long before they had a chance to look very deeply at more than a few, the fact that so many pundits were already pronouncing that there was nothing new here will tell you a lot about how seriously to take such people. They were wrong, but it’s more important to point out that they simply had no idea what they were talking about; even now, we‘ve barely figured out more than a little bit what‘s in those cables (and only 1/250th of the total has been released).

But this is why we need to keep a sense of perspective here. Julian Assange and Wikileaks are unimportant compared to the larger issue they’re raising: our “progressive” government’s basic antipathy to democracy, human rights, and international justice. Wikileaks has done a great deal to illuminate what our government actually does, but as Glenn Greenwald is absolutely right to point out, by far the most immediately revelatory effect of the Wikileaks dump was not in the cables, but in our government’s reaction to them. As we have seen, across the board, even “Democratic” politicians like Joseph Lieberman will piss all over due process and the bill of rights in pursuit of the right to keep anything secret from the American people. And anyone who is “against” the United States, in any form, is seen to deserve death, the laws be damned.

I’m grateful for what Wikileaks has done, and I think the benefits of their leaking vastly outweigh whatever negative side-effects the leaks may eventually prove to have. The fact that I’ve yet to see any credible evidence that they are having negative effects speaks volumes to me. I think the leaks have been, on balance, a very good thing. That will still be the case even if — as may prove to be true — Julian Assange is a serial rapist. It will be no more or less the case if he proves not to be.  Whether he is a rapist is irrelevant, in that sense,

Assange’s rape charges are important for very different reasons, of course. It is a scandal how international law fails to take seriously a very serious crime like rape, but the scandal is certainly not unique to this case, nor should this case — because of its unique visibility — be distorted by being forced to bear the burden of the gigantic structural issues it brings into focus. The two women Julian Assange may have raped deserve justice, but no more or less than the millions of abused women world-wide who also deserve justice, and focusing on two very visible victims is only useful if it allows us to better focus our attention on the invisible ones. Does focusing on two visible victims, after all, do anything to reveal the structural and systemic reasons why some victims are treated as such while most are completely ignored? To some extent it might — and particular feminist writers have been doing really good work to make this point — but it’s also really dangerous to be distracted by this particular case, because if there’s one thing it does not provide, it’s clarity. In any case, I think it’s fair to say that most people who are moralizing about either the fact that Interpol has taken a sudden and suspicious interest in rape victims (or about the fact that, most of the time, they don’t) also don’t seem to have much interest in actually figuring out when and where and why Interpol does intervene. Lots of discussion of the Assange case has not been accompanied with much discussion of other cases like it; the latter has been ignored in favor of the juiciness of the former. That seems like as obviously a bad thing as it’s an utterly predictable thing.

I think we do everyone a disservice if we don’t take the rape charges seriously on their own terms. I think Assange should face his charges, but the Swedish court and British extradition process should be scrutinized as closely as it can be to determine the extent to which political pressure is distorting how the system might otherwise work. He should face justice, whatever that may prove to be, not politically motivated persecution. And unless we’ve given up on that ideal completely — and however damaged and imprecise the mechanisms may be, they can still work if we try to use them — we accomplish that by focusing on the system, not the case.

On the other hand, if all we do is look at Assange himself — which is what most of the media wants to do — we fall into the trap they‘ve set for us. If we moralize about Wikileaks and Julian Assange exclusively, we’re not doing our moral duties as citizens, and as human beings. Our job is to watch people with power and try to ensure that people with power don’t misuse it. Part of that is scrutinizing powerful men who have the opportunity to commit rape and be forgiven for it by people who are in solidarity with their politics. But a very different — and enormous — part of being good citizens, in this case, is observing that the United States government acts like a giant, amoral, and secretive machine for more deeply establishing economic and political privilege worldwide, and that keeping secrets from us — almost exactly as Julian Assange wrote, years ago — is the way they go about doing it. Whether or not he’s a rapist, and whether or not Wikileaks has been acting like responsible journalists or irresponsible anarchists, has very little to do with the fact that he was right, at least, about that.

Let us rake this muck

What have we learned from the Wikileaks cables? Some things I’ve found worth knowing.

We know more about how the Obama administration downplayed what it’s own diplomats were saying about the coup in Honduras, doing very little to push back in the face of conservative arguments that the coup was essentially legal. As Daniel Altschuler writes:

“what is not really news: that Ambassador Hugo Llorens, the U.S. State Department and the Obama administration knew that what took place was a coup.  Lest it go unsaid, the Obama administration categorically rejected Zelaya’s ouster all along…[But] there was little pushback from within the Obama administration on the details of the events leading to the coup.

This is important because conservatives argued so vociferously that the coup was legal, that Obama — as he is wont to do — gave up:

“an influential Law Library of Congress Report…argued that Zelaya’s removal from power (though not from the country) was legal.  Conservatives in the United States used this report to claim that Zelaya’s ouster was really just Honduras’ version of a legal impeachment.  Republicans in Congress kept pushing this line, using it as a tool to pressure the State Department and place holds on presidential appointments. This pressure made the Honduras affair a headache for the Obama administration, which tried to wash its hands of the matter by prematurely stating it would recognize the November 2009 elections.

What is remarkable about the cable, Altschuler argues, is “its tone and its level of detail”:

“…by using the language of “conspiracy” and systematically debunking the arguments made by coup supporters, the cable makes the wrong of Zelaya’s removal abundantly clear. Today, the revelation of the Llorens cable is the top headline in Honduran newspapers, where it will hopefully advance public debate within the country about last year’s crisis.”

The leaked analysis by the embassy offers a systematic rejection [of the] pro-coup case, but it was never advanced publicly.  Had the administration made public such an assessment of the Honduran coup—and its implicit rejection of the LLC report—it would have provided a useful tool for refuting the spurious arguments made by conservatives.  Instead, as summer 2009 drew to a close, the position that the coup was a defense of the rule of law gained traction inside the Beltway.

This dealt a blow to both the chances of Zelaya’s restitution and defenders of democracy in the Americas more generally.

It is very important that the State department’s own sense of the legality of the event be kept secret, so that the president can be passive in the face of illegality when he likes!

This one is a British scandal, though they were carrying water for us; the Guardian describes, the British government designated a territory in their Indian ocean colonies a “marine protected area” simply to prevent the people they forcibly removed from it decades ago (to allow the US to build a military base there) from pursuing their claim for a right of return. As The New Statesman writes,

“A Foreign Office cable, released by WikiLeaks last week, revealed the real reason why a British territory in the Indian Ocean was designated a “marine protected area” earlier this year. The leaked documents show that the MPA had been dreamt up by Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials to preserve the Chagos Archipelago — officially part of the British Indian Ocean Territory and home to one of the world’s most abundant coral reefs — as a military outpost, and prevent the native Chagossians from returning. The indigenous population of the archipelago was deported in the late 1960s and early 1970s to enable the US to build a military base on the Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands and home to most of their inhabitants. After pointing out that the island’s strategic usefulness would not be hampered by the establishment of a marine reserve, the cable goes on to state that “the BIOT’s former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands”.

Let’s just quote some relevant language from the cable itself:

[Colin] Roberts [the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) Director, Overseas Territories] acknowledged that “we need to find a way to get through the various Chagossian lobbies.” He admitted that [Her Majesty’s Government] is “under pressure” from the Chagossians and their advocates to permit resettlement of the “outer islands” of the BIOT. He noted, without providing details, that “there are proposals (for a marine park) that could provide the Chagossians warden jobs” within the BIOT. However, Roberts stated that, according to the HGM’s current thinking on a reserve, there would be “no human footprints” or “Man Fridays” on the [British Indian Ocean Territory‘s] uninhabited islands. He asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents. Responding to Polcouns’ observation that the advocates of Chagossian resettlement continue to vigorously press their case, Roberts opined that the UK’s “environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossians’ advocates.”

…Roberts observed that BIOT has “served its role very well,” advancing shared U.S.-UK strategic security objectives for the past several decades. The BIOT “has had a great role in assuring the security of the UK and U.S. — much more than anyone foresaw” in the 1960s, Roberts emphasized. “We do not regret the removal of the population,” since removal was necessary for the BIOT to fulfill its strategic purpose, he said. Removal of the population is the reason that the BIOT’s uninhabited islands and the surrounding waters are in “pristine” condition. Roberts added that Diego Garcia’s excellent condition reflects the responsible stewardship of the U.S. and UK forces using it.

As the Guardian continues:

“The admission is at odds with the public position of the Foreign Office that the proposed park does not prejudice or have any effect on the islanders’ right to return. The islanders have claimed the marine park was a ploy to block their return, saying it would make it impossible for them to live there as it would ban fishing, their main livelihood.

“Man Fridays”? Really, British foreign service? Not only are you a bunch of amoral realpoliticians, but you’re deeply racist too? Officially? It is very important that this be kept secret!

Johann Hari just brings the pain:

[Yemen:] “The Obama administration has been denying that it has expanded the current “war” to yet another country, Yemen. Now we know that is a lie. Ali Abdulah Saleh, the Yemeni dictator, brags in these cables to a US diplomat: “We’ll continue to say the bombs are ours, not yours.” The counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen, who until recently was a senior advisor to General Petreaus in Iraq, estimates that for every one jihadi killed in these bombings, they kill fifty innocent people. How would we react if this was happening in Britain? How many of us would become deranged by grief and resolve to fight back, even against the other side’s women and children? Bombing to end jihadism is like smoking to end lung cancer – a cure that worsens the disease.

[Torture:] The US and British governments told us they invaded Iraq, in part, because they were appalled that the Iraqi government tortured its own citizens. Tony Blair often mentioned “Saddam’s torture chambers” in making his case for the war. Yet these leaked documents show that as soon as our governments were in charge, the policy of burning, electrocuting and raping people started again – and they consciously chose a policy of not objecting and not investigating. Modern jihadism was born in the torture chambers of Egypt in the 1950s. A lot more will have been made in the torture chambers of Baghdad since 2003. Some of it has already exploded onto our streets – the attempted Glasgow airport bombing was by Iraqis who said they were “resisting” the use of torture in their country. There will be more.

[Our indiscriminate bombing:] The cables reveal how this grief and murderous rage is being spread across the Muslim world, while we lie about it. Here’s just one example. US troops blew up an Afghan village called Azizabad, and killed 95 people, 50 of them children. None were al Qaeda, or even Taliban. They knew what they’d done – yet in public they kept insisting they’d killed “militants”, and even accused the local Afghan villagers of “fabricat[ing] such evidence as grave sites.”

All of these are obviously better kept secret.

As Boing Boing boils it down, we now know that Dyncorp, “a company, headquartered in DC with Texas offices, helped pimp out little boys as sex slaves to stoned cops in Afghanistan.” Not actualy that surprising. What we didn‘t know, though, was that Afghanistan’s Minister of Interior was told to hush things up by President Karzai and that he then requested the American assistant ambassador put pressure on journalists to keep quiet about it, because it could “endanger lives.”:

[Minister of Interior] Atmar said he insisted the journalist be told that publication would endanger lives. His request was that the U.S. quash the article and release of the video…Atmar then disclosed the arrest of two Afghan National Police (ANP) and nine other Afghans (including RTC language assistants) as part of an MoI investigation into Afghan “facilitators” of the event. The crime he was pursuing was “purchasing a service from a child,” which in Afghanistan is illegal under both Sharia law and the civil code, and against the ANP Code of Conduct for police officers who might be involved. He said he would use the civil code and that, in this case, the institution of the ANP will be protected, but he worried about the image of foreign mentors. Atmar said that President Karzai had told him that his (Atmar’s) “prestige” was in play in management of the Kunduz DynCorp matter and another recent event in which Blackwater contractors mistakenly killed several Afghan citizens.

Assistant Ambassador Mussomeli (now our ambassador to Slovenia) urged him to chill and let it blow over; as the Guardian reports:

US diplomats cautioned against an “overreaction” and said that approaching the journalist involved would only make the story worse. “A widely-anticipated newspaper article on the Kunduz scandal has not appeared but, if there is too much noise that may prompt the journalist to publish,” the cable said. The strategy appeared to work when an article was published in July by the Washington Post about the incident, which made little of the affair, saying it was an incident of “questionable management oversight” in which foreign DynCorp workers “hired a teenage boy to perform a tribal dance at a company farewell party”.

It is very important that our diplomats be able to help Afghani politicians protect “the image of foreign mentors” from the charge of pimping Afghani children.” And I’m very glad that our nation will continue to represented by Ambassador Mussomeli, who, in his spare time, “enjoys writing poetry and short plays, going on walks, reading about history, and playing tennis and bocce ball.” Counseling Afghan government officials on how to protect the image of US mercenaries who pimp children, after all, is only his day job.

In other news, the Saudi princes are hypocritical hedonists, Shell runs the Nigerian government, and Man bites Dog.

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