dumping on Julian Assange

On February 7, 2016, Jochen Bittner, political editor at the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit, published an Opinion piece in the New York Times under the heading ‘How Julian Assange Is Destroying WikiLeaks. While it begins innocently enough as a response to the report of a UN Panel finding that Assange had been arbitrarily detained, and calling for his immediate release, Bittner’s piece goes on to launch a vitriolic attack on Assange himself. The Times’ response was notably more cautious, suggesting in an editorial, published on the same day as Bittman’s piece, that the UN Panel’s ruling ‘might offer a way for Sweden and Britain to walk away from a case that has not made much sense from the outset.’ Australian readers might also reflect that this ruling offers our ‘Not-Tony-Abbott’ government an excuse to abandon its stubborn refusal to return Mr Assange’s passport.

Assange, Wikileaks and others who raise their heads above the state-sanctioned barricades protecting what we call free speech are usually polarising figures, admired by many and vilified by governments and their camp-followers in the print and broadcast media. Bittman’s opinion piece is worth further attention, if only because, at least at first glance, it appears to sit between these extremes, admiring Wikileaks while reviling its founder.

Bittman tells us ‘that WikiLeaks, which Mr. Assange founded in 2006, has been a boon for global civil liberties’, adding that the ‘problem is that the project is inseparable from the man. Mr. Assange has made little secret about his skepticism toward Western democracy and his willingness to work with autocratic governments like Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia – [by hosting a series on Russian state-controlled TV]. His personal politics undermines WikiLeaks’ neutrality’.

Yet, apart from Bittner’s assurance that ‘the project is inseparable from the man’, why should we suppose that Assange’s skepticism toward Western democracy or his willingness to work with Russian state-controlled TV poses a problem for Wikileaks? Perhaps Assange should have worked with an outfit like Fox.

There is one further point worth noting in Bittner’s critique of Assange. ‘One element of Assange-think has been clear from early on: There is no such thing as a legitimate secret. The public is entitled to share any knowledge governments hold.’

This, Bitttner says, ‘is not only nonsense, it is dangerous radicalism.’ To critique this dangerous radicalism, Bittner quotes a passage from Jonathan Frantzen’s novel Purity: Outlets like WikiLeaks “have this savage naïveté, like the kid who thinks adults are hypocrites for filtering what comes out of their mouths. Filtering isn’t phoniness — it’s civilization.”

Bittner makes no distinction between insult and critique. Those of us who have not read Frantzen’s latest novel might wonder what place this passage appears in the book. Is it simply the narrator’s view (which may or may not be Frantzen’s own) or the view of an irritated character whose comeuppance follows later in the text? What, in any case, makes the strained analogy reported by Bittner, an argument that has to be taken seriously? Are outlets like Wikileaks really like a kid who has recently discoveed that adults cannot always be trusted? We can agree that a certain amount of dishonesty is required for moderately harmonious co-existence (which might be considered a minimal requirement of civilization) without agreeing that therefore governments should be given a free pass.

Moving on, in Assange’s ‘simplistic reading, the West is hypocritical because it stands for civil liberties, and all secrets are antithetical to liberty. No wonder he got a show on Russian television — his viewpoint puts him nicely in line with Mr. Putin’s ideological agenda…. [is there a]quid pro quo between Mr. Assange and Mr. Putin…. Why, in all its time online, has WikiLeaks never revealed any Russian intelligence scandal? Because there is none? Or because Mr. Assange doesn’t want to embarrass Mr. Putin?’

In his determination to smear Assange, Bittman forgets at least two things: one is that Western states have given us too many reasons to doubt the strength of their commitment to civil liberties; and the other that, near the beginning of his tirade, he had described Wikileaks basic approach as ‘simple, and ingenious: an online drop box that provides maximum security for whistle-blowers in the digital age. Anyone determined to disclose corporate or government misbehavior — from tax fraud to war crimes — can be sure that the heavily protected WikiLeaks’s submission system ensures their emails and uploads cannot be traced.’ This implies that we should allow the posssibility that Wikileaks never published Russian intelligence material simply because it nevert received any. Perhaps there were no brave Russian Chelsea /Bradley Mannings prepared to risk the wrath of the Russian military.

What of Assange’s alleged ‘scepticism toward Western democracy’? The core of Bittner’s argument on this point seems to be that if ‘you believe it is illegitimate for a government to keep secrets, it’s a quick jump to assume that a government that holds secrets is illegitimate itself — and that a system that maintains this illegitimacy, namely democracy, isn’t half as good as most people think. In other words: Like any other system, democracy stinks.’

Three points may be noted here. First, it is a ‘quick jump’, to use Bittman’s term, from disapproving of Assange’s conduct to this slick reading of his mind.Second, there is Bittner’s shift from his earlier reference to ‘Western democracy’ to the more concise ‘democracy’ in this last passage. ‘Western democracy’, it seems, is ‘democracy’. This deceptively simple shift involves a conservative elision of long and complex histories. In most Western states, what we now call democracy is the outcome of more or less peaceful accommodations with political arrangements that were not democratically established but already in place. (USA has different problems, mostly of its own making.) As a result, contemporary democratic regimes normally contain significant components that have not been determined democratically – monarchs, unelected parliamentarians, power-sharing with the military, powerful security and law-enforcement agencies, not to mention inherited laws, treaties, borders and potentially troublesome minority populations. If Assange and his supporters are not happy with significant components of contemporary democratic states, it does not follow that they are anti-democratic.
Second, even if we agree to call partly-democratised Western varieties of representative democracy ‘democratic’, we should also acknowledge that the term ‘democracy’ may be used in ways other than to denote representative government. In the long history of Western political thought democracy has more often been understood as popular government and, in that sense, it was usually regarded as a bad thing. While Aristotle distinguished three forms of government – by the one, the few and the many – he argued that a mixed form of government ws superior to any one of them. The problem he and many later commentators had with popular rule was that it seemed likely to be dominated by the views of the poor, and poorly educated majority.

Only gradually during the nineteenth century did representative government come to be called democracy. Representative government was seen as having it both ways: it had the merit of not being rule by the one or by the few and it avoided the danger of rule by the many because, as Madison puts it in the American Federalist Paper, representation kept the people in ‘their collective form’ out of the actual work of government. Representative government was thus easily seen as combining rule by the many, rule by the few (elected representatives) and, at least in presidential regimes, rule by the one. The older sense of democracy as popular government nevertheless survives in the confused and confusing doctrine of the popular mandate and in the widespread belief that government action should not go against popular opinion. Radical critics of contemporary democracies tend to argue that they should be more democratic while the traditional fear of popular rule continues in political elites’ fear of such diverse ‘populist’ leaders as Corbyn in the UK, Le Pen in France, Trump and Saunders in the USA.

Moreover, polls conducted by the American-based Pew Research Centre show that while people in contemporary democracies, and particularly in the recently democratised societies of Eastern Europe, value the personal freedoms – of speech and association – associated with democratic rule, they are often sceptical about the quality of their own democratic regimes. While there is certainly room for dispute about the precise interpretation of these results, it seems clear that Bittman’s contrast between the views he attributes to Assange and what ‘most people think’ is less sharp than he might wish.

Despite his earlier insistence that ‘the project is inseparable from the man’, Bittner concludes that while the world may need ‘radicals with aggressive egos’, these ‘radicals require a balance. Mr. Assange has none. WikiLeaks, which is a great and noble idea, must be decoupled from its inventor, who is neither.’ That there may be a disjunction between lofty human creations and the grubby little creatures who make them is old news. Nor need we be disturbed by the revelation that, like the rest of us, Assange may be a less than perfect human being. We should not forget what effects the effort required or the personal costs incurred might have on anyone who dares to offend some of the world’s most powerful governments.

If radicals like Assange are to be described as short on balance, what should we think about extreme-anti-radicals like Bittner?