As the extradition trial of Julian Assange nears, Patrick D. Anderson revisits the historic role of the US government and media in retaliating against those who refuse to submit.
Feature photo | “Assange.” Acrylic and oil pastel. @fabulosfab_fab
Ido not respect anyone who has not been to prison.” Julian Assange once said to Renata Avila, a Guatemalan human rights activist who serves as legal counsel for WikiLeaks. “What he meant,” Avila says, “was that being in prison means that you have made so much trouble for the system that the only way for the system to deal with you is to lock you up and try to silence you.”
After a decade of being shuttled from house arrest to confinement in an embassy to Belmarsh Prison to, if the United States government gets its way, ADX Florence in Colorado, there is no question that the Executives of Empire are trying to silence Assange.
Assange and Avila are not the first to make such an observation, for in his classic essay “Civil Disobedience,” the nineteenth-century American writer Henry David Thoreau said, “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison… where the State places those who are not with her, but against her.”
With the remaining three weeks of Assange’s extradition trial scheduled to begin Monday, May 18, Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience offers lessons about the history of the U.S. government’s retaliation against those who refuse to submit. These lessons appear most clearly in Thoreau’s commentary on the execution of John Brown.
The execution of John Brown
Brown was a militant abolitionist from Connecticut who made his reputation by using violence against slavers during the antebellum period. While living in Kansas, he once led a group of antislavery guerrillas who attacked a group of slavery sympathizers who participated in an anti-Black race riot, dragging five men from their cabins and hacking them to death with hatchets. Most famously, however, Brown led a raid on a U.S. military armory at Harpers Ferry, hoping to steal weapons and incite a slave rebellion. The raid failed. Brown was found guilty of treason and hanged.
Thoreau was enamored with John Brown. As he wrote in “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” Brown was “a man of rare common sense and directness of speech, as of action; a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles… not yielding to a whim or transient impulse, but carrying out the purpose of a life.” Thoreau believed, with good reason, that principled individuals like Brown, who served the people with their consciences, were rare. When such people did appear, “they are commonly treated as enemies” by the state.
Of course, Thoreau was disgusted by his contemporaries, many of whom, in Thoreau’s eyes, failed to understand Brown’s principled stance against slavery because they themselves lacked any commitment to higher principles. Against those naysayers who claimed Brown was a fool who threw his life away, Thoreau declared: “they cannot conceive of a man who is actuated by higher motives than they are. Accordingly they pronounce this man insane, for they know that they could never act as he does, as long as they are themselves.”
The Last Moments of John Brown, oil on canvas. Painting | Thomas Hovenden circa 1882
Even the self-proclaimed abolitionist media denounced Brown, arguing that his means were inappropriate to the cause of ending slavery. This Thoreau could not abide, for their inability to stand behind their professed values exposed them all as spineless dilettantes. The disparity between the media’s words and deeds was enough for Thoreau to conclude that only a small fraction of people who professed abolitionism were truly committed to it.
Like Brown, Assange is a principled individual who is being punished for his integrity. “WikiLeaks nurtures and ethic of unconditionality,” Geoffroy de Lagasnerie has written. “Our democracy is in decline today precisely because our repeated tendency to suspend and defer democratic principles in the interest of short-term practical objectives.” Just as John Brown excelled in principled action compared to his expedient, supposedly anti-slavery contemporaries, Assange abides by principles that eschew all nationalism and militarism, which is exactly why militaristic, nationalist states like the US government hate him so much.
To be sure, Assange generally eschews violence as a means to social and political change, and Assange is not—as of now—facing threats of physical execution (though he has been threatened with that many times in the past).
Nevertheless, just as Brown was physically executed, Assange has been victimized by approximately a decade of social execution by character assassination. “Corrupt and unaccountable power uses its political and media influence to smear Assange,” Caitlin Johnstone observes, “because, as far as the interests of corrupt and unaccountable power are concerned, killing his reputation is as good as killing him.” “When looked at in its proper context,” she adds, “what we are witnessing is the slow-motion assassination of Assange via narrative/lawfare.”
The social execution of Julian Assange
There are many parties involved in the social execution of Assange, ranging from the obvious to the disappointing. The obvious, of course, is the U.S. government and corporate media. Just as the abolitionist press failed to support a true abolitionist when he took action, the U.S. corporate media have taken the lead in Assange’s social execution. In fact, the media have taken up the Pentagon’s strategy without being coerced or even asked.
Citing a 2008 U.S. Defense Department report on WikiLeaks, which was later published by WikiLeaks, John Pilger explains that character assassination of Assange has been the Pentagon’s plan for twelve years. The report, writes Pilger,
described in detail how important it was to destroy the ‘feeling of trust’ that is WikiLeaks’ ‘center of gravity.’ This would be achieved, they wrote, with threats of ‘exposure [and] criminal prosecution’ and an unrelenting assault on reputation. The aim was to silence and criminalize WikiLeaks and its editor and publisher. It was as if they planned a war on a single human being and on the very principle of freedom of speech. Their main weapon would be personal smear. Their shock troops would be enlisted in the media—those who are meant to keep the record straight and tell us the truth.”
“The irony,” he concludes, “is that no one told these journalists what to do.” U.S. corporate media is so comfortable with government propaganda that they do not even have to wait for directions. They spontaneously carry out assassinations by propaganda just as the CIA carries out assassinations by drone.
U.S. liberals are another obvious party to the social execution of Assange, for they apparently only support Assange when WikiLeaks publishes documents perceived to be unthreatening to the Democratic Party. “What happened in 2016 broke a lot of people’s hearts,” stated Lisa Lynch, a communications professor. Assange “proselytized about radical transparency,” she said, but he ended up a pawn, used by Russian hackers in a geopolitical game. “I find Assange to have been a pawn in a lot of games,” she said, warning the public not to grant Assange too much agency.
Not to be outdone by the corporate media, the Pentagon, and liberals, self-styled “leftists” have participated in the character assassination of Assange. “I had trouble seeing him as a journalist from the start,” said Todd Gitlin, a journalism professor. “But he certainly was a publisher. It turns out he was not just any old publisher, he was a publisher with a distinct angle. And his angle is anti-democratic.” Gitlin, who was a leader of the antiwar movement in the 1960s, now sheepdogs for the Democratic Party when he isn’t busy endangering First Amendment press freedoms by throwing a journalist who isn’t U.S. Government Approved™ under the imperial bus.
Apparently anyone whose politics cannot be crammed into the narrow, partisan ideology of the so-called American “left” is simultaneously an anti-democratic knave and a naïve pawn.
As Johnstone has astutely reminded us, even those so-called leftists who repeatedly claim that “I support Assange but he is trash” have already internalized Pentagon propaganda. They have already acquiesced to Empire’s social execution of Assange. It is no coincidence that someone who has embarrassed the Empire over and over is presented to the public as “literally the worst person in the whole entire world.”
Like Thoreau, those of us who care about human rights, press freedoms, and self-determination for the nations victimized by relentless U.S. imperialism ought to be appalled by those among our contemporaries who would rather acquiesce to the power of the military-media complex than stand on principle. The entire narrative surrounding Assange stems from a narrowly partisan and nationalist perspective. Assange’s critics despise him not because of what he does but because of what he stands for. Most of those who contribute to Assange’s social execution cannot think beyond party loyalties and nationalist sentiments.
If United Kingdom courts rule in favor of the United States and grant extradition, Assange will be sentenced in the same place that all U.S. government whistleblowers have been sentenced: the Eastern District Court of Virginia. I say “sentenced” not “tried” because those indicted under the Espionage Act, as Assange is, are prohibited from defending themselves in court. Assange faces up to 175 years in a supermax prison, but at 48-years-old, even one-quarter of that would mean Assange will like likely die in prison. Such a sentence would complete his social execution.
“He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers,” Thoreau wrote of John Brown, “because his peers did not exist.” Corporate media has already tried Assange in the court of public opinion, but they are not his peers. If the U.S. government succeeds in trying Assange in a court of law, neither there will he be judged by his peers.
In the end, Thoreau was right to ask one question: “Who is it whose safety requires that Captain Brown be hung?” Thus, we might ask: Who is it whose safety requires that Julian Assange be locked away for life?