Monday, December 6, 2010

In Order of Disappearance

It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.

(Julian Assange)

As the story goes, when private Bradley Manning copied the war logs that eventually found their way to WikiLeaks and into the world’s newspapers he did so on a series of discs labelled 'Lady Gaga', disguising the procedure by wearing headphones and lip-synching to non-existent Gaga music. It is a colourful, possibly apocryphal detail that must not be allowed to detract from how insanely brave Manning was, if he is, indeed, the source of the leak. But it also highlights again the constant and often grotesque meshing of the trivial and the deadly, of pop and carnage, in our daily, hypermediated lives. I delved into this state of affairs at the time of the earthquake in Haiti not because I thought it was anything other than obvious, but rather to ask how can we sensitise ourselves again to the enormity of the crimes of our societies. Manning himself has asked the question, reportedly, heart-breakingly, in an online chat with the very person who ended up betraying his confidence to the authorities. He wrote this:
god knows what happens now … hopefully, worldwide discussion, debates and reforms. if not … we're doomed.

Manning is currently in solitary confinement at Quantico and looking at a maximum prison term of 52 years, unless the always charming presidential hopeful Mick Huckabee has his way and they execute him first. For every day Manning spends behind bars, we should be asking ourselves how closer we are to bringing the architects of the war in Iraq and the atrocities in Afghanistan in front of a tribunal, and how that debate and those reforms are coming on. It is, as in the case of the ongoing response to natural disasters, at least partly a matter of attention: for how long can we give this thing enough thought that we can effectively organise and bring about change? The discs, after all, were labelled 'Lady Gaga'. Are we sure that the matter is in fact grave and urgent enough?

The face of private Manning in the media is a grainy enlargement from what may be a family picture. But there is another face that looms in print and on our screens these days, larger, more sharply defined, and it’s the face of Julian Assange. At what point exactly did he become a character in the story? We know it wasn’t part of the original plan for the organization to have a front man, but he sure is that man now, and it probably helps WikiLeaks – if not exactly the leaked documents themselves – to stay in the news. The fact that Assange is able to answer questions and articulate the goals of the organization also has to be regarded as a positive contribution. But then there are the charm, the hair, his troubles with the law in Sweden and not one but two women. He has become a movie spy, or perhaps there simply needed to be a movie spy for us to be able to follow these developments at all, to make the release of diplomatic cables sexy enough. He contributes to our pop understanding of a profoundly complex set of events, institutions and relationships. He’s the male lead.

Ever since his languid likeness started circulating I have associated in my head Julian Assange with Cosmo, Ben Kingsley’s character in Sneakers. The film itself is far from memorable, but Kingsley brought a most Assange-like intensity to it, an incongruous, cold charm that compensated for the lack of depth in his character. On paper he is in fact the classic idealist turned villain, a former computer hacker and student activist whose desire for justice turns into hunger for money and power. Or so it seems, for on this point the story is a little ambiguous, and as he tries to recruit again his former college pal – the truly insipid Martin Bishop, played by Robert Redford – Cosmo talks of the universal key to document decryption he has obtained as the means to master the information flow and 'destroy all records of ownership'. Bishop doesn’t buy into this instant digitised revolution, and what’s more, he retorts that the pair were never activists to begin with: they were pranksters; they were in it ‘as a way to meet girls’. Grown-up Bishop is now a security expert, commissioned to penetrate banks systems so that they can be tightened up. He's the person in charge of making sure that there will be no leaks, if you will. He’s not an idealist and furthermore he has concluded that he never was.

It is typically, brazenly, unavoidably American that Bishop should be the good guy in this scenario, whereas Cosmo, the one who wants to do away with secrecy and possibly with capitalism, simply must be the villain. The film’s peculiar resolution, played screwball-style – Bishop and his gang return the universal decryptor to the NSA, in exchange for holiday packages and a Winnebago or, in Bishop’s case, the quashing of old charges – is dispiritingly conformist, and even as Redford allows himself one last laugh by revealing that he has actually disabled the device before handing it in, it grates that he was one of the faces of progressive cinema in the Seventies and the lead in Three Days of the Condor, a film that dealt so much more subtly and critically with the idea of the invisible government and its operations.

Then again, perhaps Sneakers is simply a film of its time. It was made in 1991, after the Cold War had drawn to a close and in the era of military interventions that purported to be transparently mediated, a sort of instant spectacle, swift and surgical, where you wouldn’t need secrecy because the enemy was simply powerless to conspire; whereas Three Days of the Condor was released in 1975, after the oil crisis, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

In the famous, climactic confrontation at the end of the film between Redford's character and Higgins, the deputy CIA director, the hero’s stance against the agency’s crimes and the circumvention of the American people is challenged on the basis that in time there will be another crisis worse than the oil shock, and only then – when plans to destabilise or invade the Middle East might come to fruition – it will make sense to ask those same people, was the price paid in terms of the human casualties and the principles betrayed too high?

That happens to be today’s storyline, and if Assange is its male lead then it would seem that whether or not he’s the good guy and what he’s doing is of value would depend on whom you asked, and that the audience is divided along lines that aren’t altogether predictable. There is a lot of liberal angst about his abrasive persona, his behaviour to his associates (comparisons to The Social Network have been frequent in this respect) and perhaps more legitimately the suspicion of rape that hangs over his head; there has been in the United States a Democratic administration looking to bring charges under the Espionage Act in the person of Attorney General Eric Holder, and various Republicans suggesting that Assange is a terrorist and that nothing short of capital punishment would do; there have been David Brooks and investigative journalists Steve Coll and Marc Thiessen skewering Assange and his organization from the pages of The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. These last are the folks for whom, it seems, the appalling heights of cynicism of the last decade are a manifestation of civic pragmatism that it behoves the media to uphold, and the most abhorrent crimes against humanity in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza are not only an acceptable price to pay, but a price that should remain untallied for the sake of Western security and peace of mind.

Of Assange’s most enthusiastic supporters I have less to say, other than to observe even amongst the most carefully worded opinions some who would lapse into dismissing, discrediting, smearing his female accusers more or less out of hand, if not to concoct the wholly predictable conspiracy theories regarding their motives. But there have also been a number of substantive, acute and useful analyses. I want to single out above all Aaron Bady, who this time last week did the thing that wasn’t sexy and examined two of Assange’s own critical essays from 2006 in which the aims of the organization are laid out. It is a remarkably lucid and helpful piece of writing that I urge you to make the time to read. At a juncture when it is difficult to cultivate one’s optimism, it gives me a glimmer of hope that we might find ways to have the debate that Manning asked for, that we might give this thing the attention it deserves, because the topic is not trivial, but goes to heart of the functioning of contemporary democracies and international institutions; and in fact that looking, as Bady and Assange do, at the formal characteristics of the communication – who is allowed to talk to whom and in what voice, under what level of scrutiny – is fundamental to understanding how the debate can be framed in the first place, how we can make it about those topics that seem so often unspeakable except amongst the converted: the reforms, a critique of imperialism that connects with a broad enough public to make a difference, how to restrict the capacity of our nations to wage wars, be they economic or military.

But then of course that glimmer is extinguished as soon as you let your mind wander back to the source of the information and to private Manning, who at this moment is isolated and allowed to speak to exactly no-one except his interrogators. We’d do well to ask what kind of society allows for people who aspire to be elected to the highest office in the land to suggest that such a person is the villain and ought to be executed; how is that public conversation framed, and how did it get that way? To make matters worse, not even his supporters are allowed to speak openly of what they think of his (alleged) actions, for implying that he is guilty of the leak would hurt his cause. We find ourselves therefore in the not a little Orwellian situation whereby the act of exposing war crimes cannot be spoken about, is pushed outside of discourse itself, and supporting the individual suspected of this act of bravery requires first of all that the bravery be stripped off of him. We stand by private Manning for the thing that we cannot say that he has done. In this film he has become the extra, the guy in the non-speaking role, lip-synching to a song that isn’t there.