In a case of exceptional but unsettling timing, I published my rumination on the demise of the First Amendment a few hours before I heard the news of Glenn Greenwald’s indictment. While I’m not nearly as conversant with his legal crisis as I am with Assange’s, I have wondered for a while now how Greenwald, living and working under the Bolsonaro Administration, has evaded prosecution for his investigative journalism. The arrest of Assange was horrifying in large part because it took place in a western nation, in clear contradiction of western liberal standards, whereas Greenwald’s freedom in a Latin American dictatorship has been more surreal than his imprisonment would be. Our first reaction, then, should be to disregard these illusory distinctions between western liberty and southern authoritarianism, as they are so called, and to understand the global nature of the threat—and the subsequently global nature of the fight.
The implications of the war on journalism are massive, yet the rebellion feels awfully slight. I have a small group of friends who know of this war and who fight against the tyrants, but none of them live within two hundred miles of me. I’m surrounded by the victims of mass media propaganda, the apathetically pacified as well as the hatefully programmed, none of whom take any interest in these portentous developments. If they pay any attention at all, is to the anticlimactic impeachment trial, the circumstances of which no one understands. Of course, this ignorance doesn’t lend itself to reticence; on the contrary, the benighted can’t help themselves from loudly endorsing a side in this fictitious “campaign for democracy”.
Apart from their own embarrassing gullibility, the two camps in the impeachment circus share an appalling willingness to revoke civil rights in the interest of halting their political opponents. Much has been made of the Trumpeters’ calls to imprison the staff of MSNBC, but what of the liberals’ desire to see Assange convicted for indirectly “helping” Trump win the election? The difference is that the corporate media is safe from federal interference (because the corporate media is a form of federal interference), but more important is the commonality: these spectators are so frightened of “the other side” taking their liberties away, they voluntarily surrender their liberties to the party that claims to fight for them. Americans are notoriously incapable of seeing beyond their first step, but even in this instance, their myopia is striking.
Has this deepening submissiveness of the American people been the unintended effect of Trump’s presidency? For the last five years, the countercultural intelligentsia have argued, possibly to their own reassurance, that the establishment despises Trump and would prefer a more restrained and less forceful overseer of the corporate plantation. However, the establishment is also paying close attention, and if we’ve learned anything in the Trumpish Age, it’s that the American government can get away with more than we previously believed. The oligarchs have noticed this, and while Trump may be moving too fast for their liking, they must credit him for pushing and extending the American people’s limits for fascism and political dysfunction. He has given every future president the right to govern at least as unjustly as he has, for the jaded plebs will answer the critics: “Oh, this is nothing to be concerned about. We survived Trump, and we’ll survive this, too!”
The question is, who will survive? Will there be an environment for journalists when the Trumpish Age has ended? Will the Trumpish Age eventually end, or is it impossible to reverse our declining standards? The Democrats are envious of Trump’s advancements in authoritarianism, and whether they return to power in November or in 2024, they will be all too eager to flex their own muscles and prove they can be just as tough as Trump. They will continue to make their squeamish defense of the First Amendment, a law which, as I have already argued, was repealed at the very moment of Assange’s indictment. Bernie Sanders will continue to tweet in support of Greenwald, whose trial will be held outside American jurisdiction, but he will say not a word in defense of Assange, whose fate will be sealed in an American courtroom. The descent into madness and incoherence has begun, and Trump is less a catalyst than a checkpoint.
The charge against Greenwald is a checkpoint, too, but the American people have missed it. They are too busy texting in the back seat of the car while somebody else, a shapeless entity whom they have never seen or named, delivers them to their final destination. Somewhere behind them, they missed the arrest of Assange, as well. What else have they missed, and what else will they miss in the midst of their travels? Assange used to be here with us, accentuating that which had escaped our attention. Greenwald performs a similar service—for now. Let’s see for how much longer he will be here.