Thursday, June 27, 2024

Julian Assange and the Struggle for Political Freedom

Julian Assange's heroic but tragic life has taken an unexpected turn for the better with his recent liberation through a plea deal with the US government. It must never be forgotten that the Wikileaks founder was a successful publisher and a prized journalist, and yet was at risk of being extradited to the United States to be charged with espionage and imprisoned for life. Though many people around the world have followed Assange's hardships on and off for more than a decade, the many acts of his sham trial in London highlighted the importance of the struggle for political freedom.

In the widest sense, political freedom can be defined as freedom from state coercion. Granted the existence of a state, however small, political freedom is therefore never complete. Yet, the state can never be taken for granted and thus political freedom must always be fought for, if only to hang on to the gains of the past. Political freedom is arguably as much at risk today in the West as when Bertrand Russell was locked up for opposing conscription during WWI. The state still has no qualms about trampling on individual rights when it deems that its interests are at stake. Julian Assange was spied upon, incarcerated, and tortured. The right to privacy of millions of ordinary people is violated through secret, illegal surveillance programs conducted by intelligence agencies, some of which has been disclosed by Wikileaks and their sources.

Given the definition of political freedom above, a state obviously cannot have secrets from the people. In the words of Assange, "transparency and accountability [of the state] are moral issues". It is the moral principle that the people have a right to know everything that their state servants say, write and do; especially when they commit acts that are illegal under the state’s own biased legal system. Of course, this point becomes more relevant as the state grows in size and scope; if it were simply a night watchman state there would be far less to know.

Yet, the general public generally accepts state’s secrecy as several generations have now gone through the public education system and been subjected to the obedient mainstream media. This subservience has been enforced by the threat of state violence (or actual violence if needed, as in the case of Assange) in order to deal with serious dissenters. The state requires a compliant and servile public opinion in order to rule, and will therefore not tolerate anyone who might weaken the people's tacit acceptance of a state with fingers in all pies.

Since the rise of the modern state, many so-called "enemies of the state" have been at the receiving end of its power, from Voltaire and Emma Goldman to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The struggle for political freedom is difficult because of the seriousness of the challenge, as Julian Assange experienced for many years. When this struggle starts yielding results it entails immediate dangers because the state, like any organism, will defend itself; it cannot accept successful attempts to undermine its legitimacy, to curtail its power, to make it accountable or to expose its secrets. It will start by trying to dissuade and, often successfully, dangle benefits to sway the less determined. If that doesn't work, the state will warn its victims, in true mafia style, and can then decide to ruin careers, imprison, and finally resort to murder if that is required to remove a serious threat.

This is what happened to Julian Assange, as to many before him. Ironically, the unacceptable treatment of Assange confirms the 
abhorrent nature of the state. The US government perceives Assange as a serious threat because he has successfully helped expose its crimes and could continue to do so unless he is stopped. Thanks to Wikileaks the public now knows about the US military's war crimes, the CIA's mass surveillance program (Vault7), US political corruption (DNC Email Archive), and many other illegal acts committed by the State apparatus. Because all such crimes have to be kept secret in order to maintain the illusion of the state's benevolence, the US government has decided to punish Assange for exposing them, thereby also deterring others from emulating him. 

This frontal attack on Assange by Washington confirms the particularly unaccountable and deleterious character of the US federal government. European states are far from innocent but they have less judicial reach than their acolyte across the pond. Thus, Britain - and Europe – is incapable or unwilling to stand up to the United States, even if it means sacrificing its most fundamental principles as it does its bidding. As the late John Pilger wrote, "the land that gave us Magna Carta, Great Britain, is distinguished by the abandonment of its own sovereignty in allowing a malign foreign power to manipulate justice".

The US, in collaboration with the UK and the mostly complicit mainstream media, sees Assange as an enemy that needs to be neutralized, even if that means openly going against the fundamental principles of rule of law that this state has publicly pretended to abide by for so long. The most important of these principles is, of course, freedom of speech and of the press, supposedly protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Yet the fact that the US and UK have disregarded Assange's basic rights in plain daylight is a real risk to their reputation and thus also a sign of desperation.

Through his years of imprisonment, Assange has probably helped the cause of political freedom in the West. His fate at the hands of the state for publishing truthful information about its illegal and immoral behavior may finally make more people in the West recognize that many of the state’s activities, concealed or not, are fundamentally antagonistic to their interests.

Though the general population cannot be expected to defend political freedom like Julian Assange, his case might help wake them up from their political slumber. As George Santayana wrote: "Unless all those concerned keep a vigilant eye on the course of public business and frequently pronounce on its conduct, they will before long awake to the fact that they have been ignored and enslaved."

Even though the US government has now partially won a battle with Assange, by having him finally cave and plead guilty to a charge of espionage, Assange's future looks quite bright. He may never be allowed to practice real journalism again, but he might perhaps turn into a vocal defender of freedom. Whatever will be Assange's future, he has already made an invaluable contribution in the historic struggle for political freedom from the state from which everyone can take inspiration.

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