Assange, Neither Hero nor Villain

The post Iraq invasion reflection of many honest, serious journalists was as follows: we were unwitting accomplices in an unnecessary and tragic war waged on false pretences. We were manipulated, caught up in the fear, the anti-terrorism fervour and hysteria clouding our judgement and journalistic integrity. Instead of pursuing the truth, we pursued mission accomplished and shock and awe. We were embedded, bringing the bangs and bright lights of exploding bombs into Americas living rooms like a video game ‘” all the horror and violence, the death and destruction erased and redacted. It was war purified, for prime-time family consumption.

In fact, vast portions of our society had this very reflection ‘” we were lied to and fear was used as a tool to coerce us into supporting hostility and aggression against a victim that was a non threat. We will never again allow this to happen.

And so it seems rather remarkable that these very journalists, those with deep, sincere shame and regret for failing to uphold the oath to their profession, are being cowed in plain light again. And so are the rest of us, as if the words “anti American” triggers in us a Pavlovian response, only we don’t salivate, we foam at the mouth and line up with pitchforks, urging the master to exact fierce retribution on anyone who is painted to utter our name in vain.

For Julian Assange, we’ve heard some variation of the following charges from prominent politicians and public personalities “treasonous, anti-American, traitor, he should be hung, he should be shot.” In response, we teeter, from instinctive support for our master and muted reflection of the last major deception. Those of us more weakly indoctrinated and conditioned remain quiet, even though our deepest instincts tell us that at its essence, all Assange has done is what every quality investigative journalist attempts to do every single day ‘” uncover and make public facts and information that is secret and that has importance, relevance and meaning.

I don’t think Julian Assange is a hero or a villain. He’s at best a brave idealist, at worst an opportunistic businessman with a penchant and savvy for self promotion and hype. He leaks information that others have risked their careers and their lives to steal for our benefit. Leaking sensitive information may require courage but it requires no particular skill. So he is not a genius or a messiah. But he is serving an important function, just as our media should, in helping our real heroes, the whistle blowers, to expose the truth.

Being a whistle blower and risking your career and/or your life for the advancement of truth and justice, is courageous and heroic. Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins, who exposed the criminality at Worldcom and Enron respectively, are heroes and deserve the highest admiration of society. When the high powered perpetrators are able to continuously evade the system of checks and balances, insiders with knowledge of their deception and criminality is the most important tool we have for revelation, exposure and justice.

There is, of course, nuance to the Assange debate. Not everything should be eligible for public consumption ‘” we need secrecy and the ability to protect our intellectual property for the advancement of our interests and goals. In that, Assange’s indiscriminate release cables is counterproductive, harmful and possibly even illegal. If his releases were more focused on violations of laws, ethics and morality, I think he would find more mainstream support and would be viewed in a more favorable light by the masses.

It is unarguable however, that Assange and Wikileaks has served an important function in rekindling the conversation and dialogue about the role and structure of news and media in our country. Since much of our corporatized media has repeatedly failed in its basic oath and duty, we will need mechanisms like Wikileaks and we will need our heroes, the whistleblowers, so that we can continue pursuing our dream of living in an open, honest and just society.