Like every conscientious American, I have been worried sick for the last two weeks, nauseated by the frightening capture of Julian Assange. In arresting this man, a man whose contributions to the informative pool have been indispensable, the vassals of the American Empire have attempted to send a very obvious message: “Do not expose our mendacity or our criminality, lest you pay with your life.” It is a message of omnipotence, a declaration of the American Empire’s nigh-unlimited reach. Notably, there is no commentator who has missed this point: even Assange’s fiercest critics have celebrated the “international cooperation” that made his arrest possible, although, of course, they miss the sinister implications of this uniformity. Meanwhile, we who stand with Assange are increasingly worried: when will our own number be called, and what punishment will we face for our own refusal to accept the lies of state?
In writing to you today, I am not attempting to diminish your concerns of American fascism. I will not lie and tell you I am unafraid: hardly anybody ever reads my blog, but even so, I am taking a very serious risk, exposing myself to charges of subversion, or something similar. These notions of personal jeopardy in the service of higher goals are romanticized, especially in our culture, but the grim reality of such endangerment became tangible, for the first time in my life, when Assange was handcuffed and dragged out of his living quarters and into an armored van. Such was precisely the Empire’s intent: to frighten people, to discourage them from working toward the intellectual liberation of the human species. They have not scared me into submission, but they have certainly scared me, and I must consistently remind myself of Assange’s parting cry: “Resist this attempt by the Trump Administration!”
I was surprised to hear Assange mention Trump specifically. I never thought Trump was especially interested in seizing Assange. Perhaps I was overly optimistic that Trump’s authoritarianism was distinct from the authoritarianism preferred by the American military intelligence agencies—and maybe it is, but in any case, it has now been made clear that the latter entity is the one in control. Anyone who was holding out hope that Trump represented a chance for administrative revolution a la Ron Paul must have been devastated when the President, in an incredible display of weakness and fear, claimed to have no knowledge of WikiLeaks. It was very reminiscent of the embarrassing about-face we witnessed a few months ago, when the architects of American foreign policy hurried to reassure our military partners that Trump has no meaningful authority and that our soldiers will, in fact, remain in Afghanistan and Syria. Never again will I look on Trump as anything more than a disposable puppet—except, of course, as a weakling, as a coward.
Still, the direct reference to Trump by Assange is troubling. Why, when I heard it, was I reminded of John Pilger’s ongoing commentary of American foreign policy in the Trumpish Age? Why was I reminded of his claim that the military intelligence agencies are embarrassed by Trump, whose graceless rhetoric tears down the veil of acceptability? Trump makes it harder for these autocrats to get things done—not because he is fighting for freedom, but because he inspires no confidence in thoughtful people. Accordingly, I thought of Assange’s apprehension as a blunder, as another awkward maneuver by a thoroughly awkward president. However, this interpretation was different from literally all other views to which I’d been exposed: as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, everyone, from Assange’s supporters to his critics, saw the arrest as a demonstration of American might, of American supremacy. Why, then, was I convinced that the Empire was somehow doing wrong, even in the service of its own fascistic ends?
In capturing Assange, the American Empire is attempting to threaten the entire world, to warn all people that dissent will not be tolerated. This message is coherent, but is it really one that you want people to hear? The brilliance of the American autocrats has been their ability to present oppression as freedom, a sublime propaganda that the Soviet Union never mastered—in this sense, it may be that Trump’s dishonest style is closer in crudity to that of the Soviet Union than it is to traditional American misinformation. In any case, the arrest of Assange has been depicted, predictably, as an act of freedom, undertaken because Assange endangered the lives, and therefore the freedoms, of people unknown. If the public accepts this narrative, uneven and clunky though it may be, then a twofold success is achieved: a critic of American imperialism is silenced, and a gullible public is provided further evidence of the moral perfection of the United States.
But isn’t there another possibility? Could it be that the United States, in going to these lengths—lengths which, despite their tragic consequences, are comically absurd—is actually taking an awful and unnecessary risk? For all of the professed concern regarding crimes he supposedly committed more than a decade ago, it’s important to observe that Julian Assange was an aging, enervated man hiding in an apartment, almost completely isolated from the world. What threat did he pose to the United States? Clearly, he posed no physical threat—no individual person can, after all—and while his provocative interviews with Afshin Rattansi probably posed a spiritual threat, those interviews are still available for the public to view, to study, and to remember.
The inevitable rebuttal is that, although we cannot undo the intellectual damage Assange inflicted upon the Empire, it is best to prevent any future destruction. Fair enough—but then again, consider how many people are writing in support of Assange’s ideas. Even now, as I type, I am promoting ideas very similar to his. The only difference between us is that I do not have his checkered past—but then again, neither does Chomsky, or Pilger, or Chris Hedges, or any number of other writers. These men are respectable, by all accounts, and in the absence of a controversial reputation, each of them ought to constitute a graver existential threat to the Empire.
The only way to redeem Assange in the glazed-over eyes of the unquestioning public is to martyr him, and that is precisely what the Empire has risked in demanding prosecution. In the past several months, writers in The Guardian and other publications sullied Assange as an irrelevant figure, a political non-entity who had surpassed his time. Assange will never be irrelevant, of course, but to be fair, WikiLeaks had become something of a minor figure in the post-Trump media: the publisher was mentioned often during the transitional period, but two years later, the public was much less interested in WikiLeaks than it was in political figures, such as Roger Stone, who might have made contact with the organization. Assange had shrunk in the collective subconscious, a development which might have been deliberate on the part of the various authorities.
If it was, then this effect has been completely undone by Assange’s arrest, and it will continue to be undone as his trial commences. Perhaps the Empire felt that it was more important to drag him out of the embassy and to hold him up to the world as an example of what will happen if you step on the toes of powerful people, but at the same time, doesn’t this generate new interest in his case? Aren’t there going to be lots of people who, upon reading of his arrest, will look into his story for the first time? “Hmm. You know, I never did take the time to find out what that WikiLeaks affair was all about. I think I’ll check it out. Well, it says he published something about the American military, something to do with the war in Afghanistan. What did he publish, anyway? Let’s take a gander . . .”
In my estimation, this is cutting your nose to spite your face. I don’t imagine that this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, that the arrest of Assange will precipitate a revolution, but I do ask, quite seriously, if the powers that be have finally lost sight of their own scope. There is a limit, after all, to the execution of power, if one does not wish to destroy oneself in the process, and there is reason to believe that the Empire blew through that line by demanding Assange. Now, to be fair, the Empire has many celebrity commentators, including the various late-night comedians/political propagandists, who will spread the official narrative: recently, I suffered Stephen Colbert’s tedious and uninspired monologue on this subject, and he is not the only one to repeat the claim, the plainly and obviously false claim, that Assange put his feces on the embassy walls. Nevertheless, the risk is maintained, and it is taken daily, that enough people will learn the truth about WikiLeaks only because they heard of Assange’s arrest. Why would they put such a spotlight on a man who, as I mentioned previously, was almost completely concealed from the public?
Perhaps it was a risk that the Empire was willing to take, provided that enough people understand the threat and decide to keep quiet, now and in the future, lest they face a fate similar to whatever is awaiting Assange. It’s a real possibility, especially in the midst of the many other infringements upon the 1st Amendment that have become all too common in the last few years. I am interested to see how the Department of Justice will handle this case, especially in light of the judicial precedent set with Chelsea Manning, and I still hold out hope that Assange will be cleared—not because the aforementioned Department believes in justice, but because this is an opportunity for the Empire to reassure the public that freedom of speech is still protected. However, these are things that are yet to be, and in the fluid present, we are living in darkness. Let us thank Assange for offering us some light, light which we have yet to deserve.