Wikileaks Meets Guantanamo

wikileaksPublic outcry about the ongoing Wikileaks and the charges against Julian Assange, paint an interesting picture of philosophical inconsistencies on both the left and the right.  The cloud of strident invective might keep many people from seeing real substance as the reaction to Wikileaks shows us that we are entering a new era of journalism.

Consider who doesn’t like the Wikileaks revelations:  Tea Bag Republicans who have been wailing about secret documents concealing the real citizenship of the hated black President.  The Faux News pundits accusing Obama of being a secret servant of the Moslems who want to force Sharia Law on us.  The radio blowhards proclaiming that our Islamo-fascist President is actually doing the bidding of Jewish bankers.

For the first two years of the Obama administration, the Republicans have been in lockstep demanding more transparency from the White House and promising investigations, as soon as they took over Congress.  San Diego Tea Bag nutball and billionaire military contractor, Darrell Issa has promised that he will use his new chairmanship of the Committee on Oversight and Reform to hold hearings intended to examine every detail of operations in the Obama administration.

But now Wikileaks is revealing things about the Bush administration.  How Dubya and his team of tough warriors backed down from Russia, caved in to demands from Saudi oil princes, and handed shopping bags full of cash to corrupt poppy growers in Afghanistan.

So the Tea Bag Republicans have pivoted.  No longer are they demanding transparency and openness.  No longer do they want people to know what government is doing with their resources.  Darrell Issa’s ‘oversight’ hearings may well focus on how it was that the Obama administration permitted such disclosures, whose truth and exposure of past lies, greed and corruption is such an affront to national treasures like the Blackwater mercenary army.

For those who may have forgotten, some Blackwater mercenaries got themselves killed in Fallujah, Iraq, while trying to slaughter civilians.  Their wives and girlfriends then testified to Congress about misconduct by the mercenary company.  Issa was outraged that any military contractor should ever be criticized.  He launched an attack on the women, denigrating their losses and accusing them of fronting for peaceniks and other haters of war profits.

But are Issa and his Republican compatriots any worse than the ‘progressive lefties’ who claim that Wikileaks is so important that its founder should be above even an accusation of crime?

Julian Assange has been accused of sexual misconduct by or with two women in Sweden.  The charges were made before the recent wave of Wikileaks disclosures.  Assange’s legal team has acknowledged the sexual encounters, but claim that they have been mischaracterized.  Around the world, Wikileaks supporters have risen up and demanded that Assange be set free, allowed to escape the legal processes for which many of these same activists have been campaigning for decades.

Why?  What makes Assange immune from legal process?  Is the left so sure that Assange will be convicted in Sweden?  Sweden has some pretty strong laws favoring women’s rights, despite the drama of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo stories.  But should we jump to the conclusion that those laws will be ignored or misused to persecute Assange for his journalism?  Is progressive commitment to justice for women so tentative that it will fold up as soon as a progressive hero stands accused?

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-San Diego)

Why are people who have campaigned long and earnestly to convince people that civilian Courts could try any Guantanamo prisoner fairly, now so sure that neutral Sweden can’t provide Assange a fair police investigation (remember that Assange has not yet even been charged with any offense)?  Why are people who have spent decades trying to get male dominated societies to recognize the reality of sexual abuse of women suddenly so distrusting of the educated women of progressive Sweden?

Wikileaks is a piece of a wave of transformative journalism, political activism and social observation.  In the 20’s and especially the 30’s, Life magazine’s pictures of American life in cities, on farms, in factories, and in the homes of ‘regular folks’ opened public eyes to their nation in ways the newspapers never had.  In the 60’s and 70’s, television newsfilm, not yet controlled by corporate decision makers, gave every American intimate knowledge of Jim Crow and of imperial wars against undeveloped (but resource rich) nations.

Life magazine’s huge success bought its founder’s way into wealthy society, and moved the magazine away from social examination.  Life died an ignoble death when its owners were unwilling to let their photographers be as honest as the TV cameramen (it was all men) haunting the civil rights demonstrations and then slogging through Vietnamese rice paddies.

By the 1980s, corporations had solidified control of television news.  Independent news and competition for stories was stamped out as corporations consolidated all the stations in every city under a few big Wall Street owners.  As with newspapers like USA Today and The NY Post, and magazines like Life, TV was tamed and reined in from presenting stories that challenged the messages that corporate America wants us to hear.  And as with the evolution from newspapers to picture magazines to TV and radio, the closing of the corporate fist around the means of expression simply caused people who wanted to tell the truth to find new ways.

In colonial days, independent newspapers ran riot with information, made up ‘facts’, crazy libels and myriad voices and opinions.  In the early days of broadcasting, independent radio operators and a few TV stations broadcast myriad opinions available to all listeners.  And for the first decades of the internet, countless people attempted to use the internet to express opinions and share information that isn’t available elsewhere.

It is no coincidence that Wikileaks has become famous and a target of politicians and established corporate media at exactly the same time as both major political parties are working feverishly with the most conservative corporations to find ways to exert editorial control over the internet.  Whether they let corporations block unwanted content, or give preferential rates to favored commercial interests, the intent to control is what it has been since Gutenberg printed the first Bible that everyone could read.

Wikileaks is as much a threat to today’s establishment as NBC was to the military-industrial complex that Republican Dwight Eisenhower warned us about in 1961.  Wikileaks threatens something new and uncontrolled.  It is doing for government operating secrets what newsfilm did for government support of colonial puppets and Bull Connors.  No one yet knows where this will lead.  Uncertainty is terrifying, particularly for those in charge.

That’s why the attacks and calls for murders are against Wikileaks and not against the New York Times and other mainstream newspapers that also published the Wikileaks documents.  Governments know that the Times will always have Judith Millers to prevent real threats to power.  They don’t know, yet, how to contain what Wikileaks does.  But they do know that Wikileaks is just the tip of a new wave of icebergs.

The knee-jerk defenses of Julian Assange may be similar reaction to fear of the unknown.  Progressives are more likely that conservatives to be educated and to know that, historically, any new media will be subject to attack and attempts to control it.  But rather than reflexively defend Assange, progressives should realize that history also provides patterns for the evolution of new media.

Tom HallWikileaks is only one manifestation of a new approach, which will have the democratizing effects of the Life magazine pictures of the 30’s and the newsfilm of police dogs and napalmed children.  While gaining control of print and broadcast, the corporate world has been outflanked by the next wave.  Let’s celebrate, rather than denying that Assange can get a fair hearing.

Tom Hall

Published by the LA Progressive on December 11, 2010
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About Tom Hall

Tom Hall is a family lawyer in West Los Angeles. He is from Boston, and was raised in Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Quakers) to think that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people in techniques for disciplined nonviolent demonstrating. After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make a comfortable life. The Bush administration shocked him back into social concerns. Now he’s working to see that the Obama administration lives up to its progressive promises. Tom can be reached at ProgBlog@aol.com