Friday, December 10, 2010

Oliver Broudy: Has Assange Turned Me Into An Anarchist?

Has Assange Turned Me Into An Anarchist?: WikiLeaks wants to topple the Information State. Bring it on.
by Oliver Broudy
Mother Jones


That some of the leaked secrets actually seem to support American interests shows how government can become captive to its own insular culture, and lose the wherewithal to shape public debate based on the facts. One might feel better about this if journalists could still convincingly carry out this function. However, journalistic access to official sources has become harder to come by than ever. Between 2006 and 2009, news room budgets were cut by $1.6 billion. Meanwhile, on the government side, between 1996 and 2009, the number of documents and other communications containing information labeled secret has risen 1,000 percent. We are at the mercy of PR, an industry that in the space of a decade has more than doubled.

In fact, the best evidence that traditional journalism may no longer be an effective watchdog is the unprecedented series of front page stories that even this relatively low-level, if voluminous, stash of cables produced: If journalists had the resources and access they needed, they might have broken some of these stories a long time ago. (As Assange told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year, "How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It's disgraceful.")

Of course, the incrementalists have a point too, which is that WikiLeaks' radical tactics will only give rise to more secrecy, and that the establishment will simply slink deeper into the shadows. The already shrinking space in which journalists operate will contract even further, leaving more room for make-believe journalists like Glenn Beck.

Sure enough, less than one week after the most recent WikiLeaks dump, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) proposed legislation making it illegal to publish the names of informants serving the US military or intelligence agencies. For the journalist, the rules of the game are rarely so clearly manifest: Either be content with the crumbs that the political establishment flicks from the table, or be prepared to lose your access entirely. It's the same tension that limits the really disruptive questions in White House press briefings to interloping activists with nothing to lose. Really probing inquiry, ultimately, is about as welcome to the government as an anarchist at a GOP presidential convention.

We usually accept this just as we accept partisan gridlock and corporate lobbying: This is the way the system works. We take it for granted that very little can be done about it. Right up to the moment, that is, when someone plants himself, like the Tianamen Square tank man, squarely before the government juggernaut, and refuses to step aside. Then we're treated to an amazing spectacle: This is what it looks like when power squirms. When the US government warns its employees to steer their eyes away from the WikiLeaks documents even though they're on every front page and news site. When Sweden and Interpol, possibly in response to US pressure, pursue trumped up charges against the WikiLeaks founder. When Mike Huckabee calls for alleged leaker Bradley Manning's execution, Sarah Palin says Assange should be "hunted down," and Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) declares that WikiLeaks should be designated a terrorist organization.

For those of us struggling to interpret these events, the attacks on Assange suddenly shift the debate from the content of the cables to whether it was right for them to be released in the first place. By force of habit we tend to defer to the establishment, simply because there's no point in backing a loser, and so long as the establishment writes the rules of this game, the establishment can't ever lose.

But here's where a final distinction between the anarchist and WikiLeaks revolution reveals itself: Thanks to the internet, where more than 1,200 copies of the WikiLeaks site are currently mirrored, this revolution might actually succeed.

It was precisely this kind of revolution that the internet once promised. In the '90s, we thought it was going to change everything by ushering in a new age of democracy, of equality, of access. Instead, it became just another way to buy shoes. How gratifying, then, to see that promise renewed. And how tempting to finally be able to say: Screw Joe Lieberman.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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