Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Time and Politics 3: Whither WikiLeaks?

Image Source: Bleeding Cool.

Where did you come from, Julian? And where are you taking us? A few weeks ago, Bleeding Cool ran this story about Julian Assange's comic book fandom. Assange shares an enthusiasm for Alan Moore's V for Vendetta along with Iceland's politician, another Gen Xer, Birgitta Jónsdóttir (see her blog entry on comics here). In 1988, DC Comics reprinted V for Vendetta (it was originally printed in the UK's Warrior Magazine from 1982 to 1985); its Orwellian message influenced many Gen Xers like Assange. Unfortunately, Assange misread the message.

Gen X's Assange vs. Gen Y's Zuckerberg. Saturday Night Live broadcast (18 December 2010). Video Source: Metatube.

When you contrast Assange and Zuckerberg as generational spokesmen, it is hard to say which generation - X or Y - has put the Internet to more destructive use; and which generation has been more cynical in inverting the idealism of this new medium, while proclaiming themselves to be the new idealists. An insidious financial exploitation of people's private lives underpins the 'fun' playground of Facebook, with its naive, open-minded, yet competitive, Gen Y ethos. Despite the problems with the way his site redefines privacy, Zuckerberg was voted Time's Person of the Year in 2010. Meanwhile, the iconoclastic, anarchistic credo from Moore's V for Vendetta seems to describe Assange and his generation, Generation X. But there is something equally dubious about this rebel with a cause. From Bleeding Cool:
"Well, a New Yorker story about Assange from this summer has him at his defining moment — the Wikileaks release of the video of the Apache gunship cutting down Iraqi civilians — him with Birgitta in Icelandic capital and Birgitta’s home town…

Reykjavik’s streets were empty, and the bells of a cathedral began to toll. 'Remember, remember the fifth of November,' Assange said.

That’s straight from the popular-in-the-UK Guy Fawkes rhyme, made popular around the world by V For Vendetta. And while there are major political philosophical differences between the comic and the movie, both show an unknown individual, V, in such garb, bringing down a totalitarian government single handed, often by using their own technology and information against them."
A lot of people consider Assange to be the Internet's answer to Che Guevara. He has been called a hacker, based on his early hacking activities, a 'monk of the online age,' paranoid and anarchic, a 'destroyer of worlds', a fame-hungry, media-manipulating hypocrite - and is a self-proclaimed 'scientific journalist.'  To me, Assange seems less revolutionary, less a romantic anarchist like Moore's V. He is more Generation X's enfant terrible, shaking the establishment to its foundations, but with little vision of the impact of the damage he and his outlet are causing - or of what rise in its wake.

Assange's reading of Moore's work is superficial. But because of his impact, we are now living graphic novel fantasies on a global scale, and many of us do not even know it.  When A Scanner Darkly came out in 2006, one critic, about whom I blogged here, remarked: "the brilliance of [the film] is how it suggests, without bombast or fanfare, the ways in which the real world has come to resemble the dark world of comic books." Now, the world is being rocked by someone inspired by his misreading of a famous comic book series.

WikiLeaks logo.  Image Source: Wiki.

I have written about Assange's misreading of Moore here. The 2006 film version of V for Vendetta incorrectly equated V's terroristic and anti-fascist activism with a liberal-left propagandistic message against George W. Bush. It also wrongly equated right wing politics with fascism. When the comic first appeared, it was similarly misread as a diatribe against Thatcher's Britain. This is Assange's political misreading of V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta was not about left versus right. It was about how the world operates after politics have spun out of control. This landmark comics series was about a post-political order; it was about total anarchy versus total fascism, total chaos versus total order. V was a chaotic character who arose in a limited time period and served a limited purpose: to force the system back to some type of equilibrium, where politics could function again. Moore said as much about the series:
"I decided to use this to political effect by coming up with a projected Fascist state in the near future and setting an anarchist against that. As far I'm concerned, the two poles of politics were not Left Wing or Right Wing. In fact they're just two ways of ordering an industrial society and we're fast moving beyond the industrial societies of the 19th and 20th centuries. It seemed to me the two more absolute extremes were anarchy and fascism. This was one of the things I objected to in the recent film, where it seems to be, from the script that I read, sort of recasting it as current American neo-conservatism vs. current American liberalism. There wasn't a mention of anarchy as far as I could see. The fascism had been completely defanged. I mean, I think that any references to racial purity had been excised, whereas actually, fascists are quite big on racial purity."
If Assange is not emulating V for Vendetta in terms of a left-right argument as was portrayed in the 2006 film, the hacktivist's sense of personal agency similarly misreads Moore's work. Assange starts as an apolitical crusader for free speech, free information, truth, and open government, but he ends in a troubling position of self-appointed control:
"Assange calls the site 'an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking and public analysis,' and a government or company that wanted to remove content from WikiLeaks would have to practically dismantle the Internet itself. So far, even though the site has received more than a hundred legal threats, almost no one has filed suit. Lawyers working for the British bank Northern Rock threatened court action after the site published an embarrassing memo, but they were practically reduced to begging. A Kenyan politician also vowed to sue after Assange published a confidential report alleging that President Daniel arap Moi and his allies had siphoned billions of dollars out of the country. The site’s work in Kenya earned it an award from Amnesty International.

Assange typically tells would-be litigants to go to hell. In 2008, WikiLeaks posted secret Scientology manuals, and lawyers representing the church demanded that they be removed. Assange’s response was to publish more of the Scientologists’ internal material, and to announce, 'WikiLeaks will not comply with legally abusive requests from Scientology any more than WikiLeaks has complied with similar demands from Swiss banks, Russian offshore stem-cell centers, former African kleptocrats, or the Pentagon.'

In his writing online, especially on Twitter, Assange is quick to lash out at perceived enemies. By contrast, on television, where he has been appearing more frequently, he acts with uncanny sang-froid. Under the studio lights, he can seem—with his spectral white hair, pallid skin, cool eyes, and expansive forehead—like a rail-thin being who has rocketed to Earth to deliver humanity some hidden truth. This impression is magnified by his rigid demeanor and his baritone voice, which he deploys slowly, at low volume."
When WikiLeaks was founded in 2006, Assange stated some of his aims. Wiki:
"'To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.' In his blog he wrote, 'the more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. ... Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.'"
Whistleblowing on the Internet does have radical democratic effects, as is evident in the current unrest in the Middle East. There are reports on WikiLeaks' role in the Tunisian unrest here, here, here and here. WikiLeaks' whistleblowers have also blown open the traditional power structures that protect confidential communications and related authority. CNN recently ran a story that WikiLeaks planned to release banking details on 2,000 wealthy individuals purportedly being counselled by top banks on tax evasion:
"A Swiss whistle-blower Monday handed over what he said were secret Swiss banking records to WikiLeaks, the website dedicated to revealing secrets. Swiss banker Rudolf Elmer handed two discs to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at a news conference in London. WikiLeaks could release the secret Swiss banking records in 'a matter of weeks' if it can process them quickly enough, Assange said. Elmer said he would not reveal the names in the records and said he was unable to say how many people were involved. He said about 2,000 clients' records were included, but that because of the way trusts and corporations are set up, he could not determine how many individuals were involved. Elmer describes himself as an activist/reformer/banker. WikiLeaks in review 'I think, as a banker, I do have the right to stand up if something is wrong,' he said Monday, explaining why he was giving the documents to the website."
The Telegraph reported on February 1 that WikiLeaks released information on how British cabinet ministers released the convicted Lockerbie bombing planner under dubious circumstances.

Then there is the famous example from 5 April 2010, when WikiLeaks publicized a video of soldiers in an American Apache helicopter targeting pedestrians in Iraq in 2007. There is a story about how this footage was leaked at the New Yorker here. To get a sense of the stir it made, see the video below.

It looks straightforward. Evil soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment targeted Iraqi civilians and journalists. It was not straightforward: the New York Times reported that upon investigation the WikiLeaks footage was found to have been edited by WikiLeaks. The NYT report on this case (here) shows the edited and unedited videos side by side. The NYT comments:
"WikiLeaks’s biggest coup to that point was the release, last April, of video footage taken from one of two U.S. helicopters involved in firing down on a crowd and a building in Baghdad in 2007, killing at least 18 people. While some of the people in the video were armed, others gave no indication of menace; two were in fact journalists for the news agency Reuters. The video, with its soundtrack of callous banter, was horrifying to watch and was an embarrassment to the U.S. military. But in its zeal to make the video a work of antiwar propaganda, WikiLeaks also released a version that didn’t call attention to an Iraqi who was toting a rocket-propelled grenade and packaged the manipulated version under the tendentious rubric 'Collateral Murder.'"
There is an extended report here on how the NYT, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel all gained exclusive access to Assange's material (Hat tip: thanks to -B.). The New Yorker reports that the soldiers mistook a long range camera that one of the journalists was holding as an RPG:
"Assange saw these events in sharply delineated moral terms, yet the footage did not offer easy legal judgments. In the month before the video was shot, members of the battalion on the ground, from the Sixteenth Infantry Regiment, had suffered more than a hundred and fifty attacks and roadside bombings, nineteen injuries, and four deaths; early that morning, the unit had been attacked by small-arms fire. The soldiers in the Apache were matter-of-fact about killing and spoke callously about their victims, but the first attack could be judged as a tragic misunderstanding. The attack on the van was questionable—the use of force seemed neither thoughtful nor measured—but soldiers are permitted to shoot combatants, even when they are assisting the wounded, and one could argue that the Apache’s crew, in the heat of the moment, reasonably judged the men in the van to be assisting the enemy. Phase three may have been unlawful, perhaps negligent homicide or worse. Firing missiles into a building, in daytime, to kill six people who do not appear to be of strategic importance is an excessive use of force. This attack was conducted with scant deliberation, and it is unclear why the Army did not investigate it.

Assange had obtained internal Army records of the operation, which stated that everyone killed, except for the Reuters journalists, was an insurgent. And the day after the incident an Army spokesperson said, 'There is no question that Coalition Forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force.' Assange was hoping that Project B would undermine the Army’s official narrative. 'This video shows what modern warfare has become, and, I think, after seeing it, whenever people hear about a certain number of casualties that resulted during fighting with close air support, they will understand what is going on,' he said in the Bunker. 'The video also makes clear that civilians are listed as insurgents automatically, unless they are children, and that bystanders who are killed are not even mentioned.'"
Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, wrote an ebook about this experience: Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy: Complete and Expanded Coverage from The New York Times. You can purchase it online here. The NYT notes critics' responses to the Collateral Murder video and Assange's rebuttal: "Critics of WikiLeaks charge that the edited video misrepresented events; Julian Assange ... has responded that 'it’s ludicrous to allege that we have taken anything out of context.'" 

But the way Assange presented this footage shows that for him, the end justifies the means. He knows he wields power - sometimes as great as the institutions and individuals he targets. Power is fluid. It passes from Assange's targets to him. He clearly feels justified in using it as he sees fit. He judges who gets to see what. So instead of blindly trusting the American government, or Scientologists, or Swiss banks, or Russian offshore stem-cell centers, or African kleptocrats, he asks us to trust him and to trust WikiLeaks instead. But in so doing, he opens himself up to the same questions as those he targets.

What end does Assange pursue with WikiLeaks? When the edifices are torn down, what grand alternative will he and his followers offer to fill the void? What will happen to politics when information of every imaginable sort, be it from the private realm (as on Facebook) or from the world of high politics and international affairs, banking, business and industry, is all made public? What kind of new order can be built in an ever-volatile, ever-changing reality where there is no privacy or confidentiality? Assange's own life is a portrait of the alternatives. He has no fixed address and lives in airports.

For all the evidence of radical Internet activity shaking the foundations of democratic and non-democratic régimes alike, there is less speculation about what the Information Revolution will do to politics. I am not just speaking about the potential anti-Internet crackdown and anti-hacker backlash Assange could inspire and obviously anticipates. If Assange wants WikiLeaks to be an anarchist arm, he forgets that while anarchy implies the absence of a state, it does not imply an absence of politics. Assange and his followers will develop a new politics in this über-democratic, anarchic, Internet-driven new age of free-wheeling information. No one, not Julian Assange, nor any of his supporters or critics, knows what that new political wave will be, even if they think they do. As anyone who has watched online beheadings knows, total information-sharing is not automatically synonymous with democratic virtues and morality. Anyone can use this tool. Complete openness of information might be used to evil ends behind democratic rhetoric; it may become very difficult to recognize who is moral and who is not among the leaders of future, completely open governments.

In V for Vendetta, Moore envisioned a world beyond his hero that incorporated left- and right-wing political elements of the preceding era, both of which V embodied.  With his secret cache of lovingly preserved artefacts from the past, his romantic designs for all of society, his understanding of forgotten history, V was an inherently conservative, anti-fascistic character. Anarchism is normally associated with a far-left impulse. But when change is paramount and everything is ever-new, the tattered vestiges of conservatism take on radical connotations. V juxtaposed anarchism and conservatism through his devotion to, and preservation of, the culture of the past. Putting all the arguments about Assange aside (as in: just nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, or: should be killed by the CIA), if Assange wants to play V's role, he has to get out of the Land-of-Do-as-You-Please. He has to have some larger understanding of what will follow in the wake of his destructiveness. He has to know that the power he wields is fleeting and serves only a transitional purpose. And he has to see that there are some things that deserve to be preserved amid the turmoil. So far, Assange has shown no sign of having V's larger vision, or even of knowing what V knew - that the romantic anarchist has no place in the rebuilding that follows.

For my posts on Time and Politics, go here.
For my earlier posts on Moore's V for Vendetta, go here and here.
For all my posts on comics, go here.


  1. Assange is a symptom, not a cause.

    I cannot help but admire some of Wikileaks actions, especially where US foreign policy is concerned (the example you mention, of the helicopter incident, shows a stark problem in itself; that the helicopter and it's American crew and policy represented thereby were there in the first place. That is, after all, why the insurgents are fighting at all, right or wrong on their own account.) This does not mean that I am not aware that it is a double edged sword.

    You point out correctly that the traditional political models no longer work; but people are still labeling the current political situation in those terms. This is part of the problem.

    V--the comic book version of V--is conservative character only in the literal, non-political sense of that word; conserving the past. This is indeed where Assange fails. But these established states are going down, and many things that would be/could be/should be conserved will not be, as the looting in Egypt shows. This is a reality; Assange is merely it's messenger.

    And of course in the comic, V appointed a new, successor V to himself, whom he had taught his precepts to.

    My fear is that Assange will be killed, and thus become a martyr. That is where the true disaster will come, as his name is used to perpetrate outrages that have nothing to do with freedom of information.

  2. Thanks for your comment Jay. I don't think Assange will become a martyr, although he probably fears that. But I do wonder if WikiLeaks could end up becoming part of that which it claims it is combating.