The slow-motion murder of Julian Assange, which we’ve been witnessing unfold for several years now, has accelerated precipitously. His recent admission to the Belmarsh Prison hospital and his reported inability to hold coherent conversation with his lawyers is a testament to his artificially induced decline. His brutal persecution for practicing investigative journalism—an act unequivocally protected by the 1st amendment—holds deep (and, if we’re honest with ourselves, ominous) implications about where the United States and other Western nations are headed.
The far-reaching and symbolic nature of his silencing makes it especially disheartening that larger protests and social unrest haven’t broken out in the U.K. or the U.S. To understand this lack, and to figure out a way forward, it helps to consider his persecution as but a part of a much broader dynamic.
Understanding empire remains key to understanding citizen inaction
Western empires that maintain the trappings of liberal democracy have played a perpetual game of keep-away with their populations. It’s a game that consists of secrets, lies, half-truths, false hopes, distractions, distortions and cultivated apathy.
For the empire, this is entirely necessary. Because it’s a precarious situation to tell citizens over and over that they are good, that we as a nation are good, and that our extraordinary goodness means we must spread our wonderful ways to peoples across the globe, if that same population learns the opposite is true and that we’re merely gussied up killers, exploiters and profiteers. The cognitive dissonance will be too extreme, too immediate—the risk of internal revolt too great. After all, no one wants to believe they’re evil, or evil’s enabler. See the history of the 1960s for the last, most recent period of unbearable cognitive dissonance, citizen disillusionment and revolt.
This game of keep-away extends to the nation’s laws and its justice system. For the empire, it’s very helpful for social control if citizens believe that the making of law is fair and democratic and that enforcement is sober, judicious and egalitarian. This piece of empire’s game has been a winning one here in the United States, at least with a good portion of the white population.
In any society, though, there are cracks and crevices that pockmark these dark, self-defeating victories of control. Some of the best places to look for those cracks and crevices are in art, literature, music and other forms of expression that don’t always appear to be political. When it comes to the issue of law and its use as a bludgeon against Julian Assange, the near hundred-year-old tradition of noir detective fiction comes to mind.
Fiction can help us see our reality
If you pick up a piece of noir detective fiction by classic creators of the form like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, or by newer purveyors like Walter Mosely and Sara Paretsky, you’ll discover cynical, yet oddly principled protagonists that live in gray zones outside the sunny belief that we inhabit a world where laws are wisely made and fairly enforced. In their investigations, noir detectives lift up rocks and gaze squarely at what corrupt organisms squirm underneath them.
What they invariably discover (and frankly, already know) is that the enforcement of the law against criminals or anyone else is largely dependent on who holds power over the law itself. As a matter of course, the detective becomes acutely aware that society’s elites—the judges, the lawyers, the wealthiest business-people, the deeply embedded bureaucrats, and their loyal subordinates like politicians and the police—include some of the most vicious criminals of them all. And they’re the ones who wield the law.
While citizens of the larger society may believe the law is made and applied in good faith by its functionaries, the noir detective, by necessity, moves through the world without this illusion. In that illusion’s absence, the detective gets something in return: they can see hidden truths that allow them to play uncommon angles, angles that help them maneuver through hostile territory where they’re “always outnumbered, always outgunned” (to steal a phrase from Walter Mosely). There is something politically instructive, even darkly delightful, in how noir detectives use questionable tactics such as con-artistry, blackmail, subterfuge and manipulation to achieve their goals, safeguard their clients, and stay alive. We’ll get back to that in a bit.
When you look through the camera lens at the corrupt underpinnings of the law that we see played out in noir detective stories, you can also pull that camera out of the fictional realm and swing it around to look at one of the seemingly small events that ensnared Assange here in our much messier reality.
We know that, through Wikileaks, Julian Assange exposed the U.S.-centralized empire’s dirty secrets (The Iraq War Logs, Vault 7, etc.) and he did so with a kind of cavalier matter-of-factness that disrespected and enraged the elites who run that empire. Remember, secrets are a deeply necessary part of what allows the system to maintain its power, so for those that run it, this was a gauntlet provocatively cast down at their feet. The duel was on.
While outright assassination was contemplated, it was deemed too overt (recall Hilary Clinton allegedly bellyached about why Assange couldn’t just be ‘droned’), so the next best option was to utilize the plaything of the elites—the law. The power the United States has to influence other nations—particularly Western nations that depend on its financial and surveillance systems—may have found its opening in Sweden, where two women who slept with Assange were concerned about their potential HIV status due to a broken condom—and, reportedly with one of the women, his refusal to wear one. As women have greater protections from sexual crimes and misconduct in Sweden than in many other countries, it seemed relatively natural for them to visit the police and inquire whether Assange could be required to take an HIV test.
It may be true that the intensely cerebral Assange has difficulty connecting emotionally with women, and in part because of that, was a selfish and inconsiderate lover. But at no time did the women suggest they were assaulted or raped and in fact refused to sign statements to that effect when pressured to do so. Since the sex was consensual, the case was dropped by the prosecutor…then suddenly reopened by an entirely different prosecutor. Assange stuck around Sweden for a month to answer questions.
After all that, he was never charged or arrested and was told he could leave the country. However, yet another case reopening followed and then a bizarre ‘red notice’ from Interpol (usually only issued for terrorists and extreme criminals) requesting that Assange be arrested where he was in the U.K. and sent back to Sweden for questioning on a sexual crime Swedish prosecutors had never seen fit to actually charge him with. Due to an essentially illegal European warrant, the U.K. even had to disregard some of its own laws to make the arrest. It is a fact we must confront here that, even in ostensible democracies, this is the prerogative of those who wield the law.
It’s not too difficult to see, at this point, that something had to be going on to motivate the gyrations of the British and Swedish legal systems and the strange actions of Interpol. The gauntlet had indeed been picked up. Once Assange’s lawyers got wind of secret Grand Jury charges being prepared in the U.S., they knew the gig was to get him back to Sweden in custody, reveal the Grand Jury charges, and extradite him to the U.S. straight off. Hence, after bailing him out of a U.K. prison, the rapid move to gain asylum and get into an embassy for protection. In the weeks preceding Assange’s forced removal from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, all of this proved to be true when the secret Grand Jury charges were inadvertently exposed.
One need only look at how rape allegations are handled in most other cases (dismissively and ineffectively) to see the clear differential, when the power of elites is not brought to bear on the situation. Noted author and journalist Naomi Wolf astutely observed this in a pointed piece she wrote for The Huffington Post back in May of 2011.
Unseen by the public, difficult to verify, and secret—these are the machinations elite power uses to twist the law to its own purposes. It’s merely a plaything, a tool, a lever to be pulled. If Assange were the client of a noir detective, that gumshoe would have gone underground with all kinds of shady maneuvers to figure out what was up with the Swedish and British prosecutors and why they were acting so hinky. By the end of the story, much corruption on the part of the powerful would have been uncovered—as well as a whole bunch of dead bodies.
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This elite manipulation and misuse of the law isn’t just a foreign policy-related international phenomenon. Empires must operate at home as well, usually along class lines, so domestically here in the U.S. we see similar manipulations play out in numerous arenas:
- Drug enforcement that seems to only touch the poor, the black and the brown, even though illegal drug use is widespread across the entire population
- Financial crime enforcement that only seem to come down on two-bit players and not the big institutions that defrauded millions and crashed the economy
- Voting fraud crimes that get enforced on individual voters but not on powerful people and institutions that commit wide-scale election fraud
In nearly every area of our society, it seems that if the criminal is a powerful person or organization, the law is weak, but if the perpetrator is marginal (and, in many cases, hardly even a perpetrator!) the law is merciless.
If we go back to Assange, one might wonder at the exact nature of the law when he, an outsider and publisher of an unsanctioned new-fangled website, lies at death’s door in one of the UK’s harshest prisons while the publishers of elite newspapers like the New York Times, recognized insiders who actively used Wikileaks’ information the empire is so angry about, nosh on delicacies at Manhattan cocktail parties and spend their weekends in the Hamptons.
Why do they not cower in fear of secret Grand Jury charges? Why are they not running for their lives from the power of the state? How is that possible if we live in a country of laws where justice is blind and thus unimpressed with their wealth and privilege?
So then why is there no serious popular revolt?
This extraordinary breadth of injustice, a devastating inequality that in some way touches virtually all non-elite people in the U.S. and beyond, should by all accounts be filling the streets with angry, desperate citizens. But if you go to any major American city, or the U.K., or Australia, or other Western nations that are willing participants in the empire, you’ll see only a small, dedicated group of dissidents.
This takes us back to the beginning of the piece. And here we must offer continued thanks to writers like Caitlin Johnstone who never tire in reminding us of propaganda’s powerful impact on the public psyche. Particularly here in the U.S., through our news, our entertainment, our sports obsessions, our education, our careers, and even our social lives we have been conditioned for many decades to valorize and identify with the powerful, with the winners.
Although we’re raised to pay lip service to the idea that we’re all equal before the law, we rarely see any public examples of that being the case. In fact, it’s become difficult for us to see the crimes of the powerful as crimes at all, while the crimes of the weak and marginalized fill us with rage and desire for retribution.
All of this is extremely significant because if we’re conditioned to see the skating by of the powerful and corrupt as unremarkable, even desirable, there is no way we can hold any genuine allegiance to democracy, to the idea that we are all equal citizens with the exact same inalienable rights and responsibilities regardless of our stations in life.
So when someone like Julian Assange bloodies the nose of the empire, many Americans can be induced to feel that he’s bloodied their nose, too. Propaganda has ushered us into a space where many of our fellow citizens mentally behave as the house slave that Malcolm X at one time mocked: “What’s the matter, boss. We sick?”
Additionally, our increasingly privatized lives have become so insular, so detached from a communal whole, that everything that goes on in the public sphere seems far away, unconnected to our lives, almost as if it’s not real. In that context, how do you get worked up enough to protest anything?
There is a dark sliver of light
So, the perennial question: what is to be done? What do you do if your population is not ready or too propagandized for mass civil disobedience? For the small, dedicated groups of dissidents I mentioned earlier, it could be helpful to look to the example of the noir detective, to Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Easy Rawlins and V.I. Warshawski. It may even be helpful to watch TV programs like Mr. Robot (which is dystopian noir, if it’s anything) very carefully.
Because what these protagonists do is play dirty against dirty people. They use tricks and games and clandestine alliances to get over on people who are more powerful than they are.
What could that look like in a political context for empire resisters?
Let’s take the U.K. Home Secretary as an example. We know currently that this is the person who holds the key to whether Assange will be extradited to the U.S. directly or sent to Sweden as a conduit to the U.S.
How could their work be disrupted? How could they be pressured, pranked, and made miserable? And given to understand that the disruption will not stop unless they “do the right thing” by Assange?
In a larger sense, I would suggest that a loose alliance could be formed between dissident activists, technophiles, hackers, investigators, amateur gumshoes, and rabble-rousers—and that such a loose alliance could secretly strategize ways to make things difficult for elites who manipulate the law and are accustomed to having their lives run smoothly.
Rainer Shea wrote a piece earlier this week in which he—echoing Chris Hedges and others— made an exceptionally dark observation: That, as American hegemony collapses, it will be the corporations that step in to continue empire in a different form. If this is to be the case and, if you look closely at developments in the U.S. there are portents of it, we have a small window of time to exercise citizen power. If we accept that a mass movement in Western nations may not be in the offing (France excepted), it’s time to get creative—and fast.
As always, thanks for reading.
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