You don’t need totalitarian government when you’ve got MasterCard

The sentence “Julian Assange has not yet been charged with a crime,” became a problematic way to discuss Wikileaks a few months ago, when Swedish authorities accused him of rape. So Julian Assange has not been charged with espionage or—as one Fox News reporter suggested, in apparent ignorance of his Australian citizenship—treason. Instead, he is the object of extradition proceedings for failing to stop what began as consensual sex when his condom broke. Meanwhile, in the same treason interview, Joe Lieberman suggested that the New York Times be investigated for publishing Assange’s leak of diplomatic cables. An “investigative” phone call from the senator’s office already prompted Amazon to stop hosting his website, and MasterCard and Visa prohibited donations to WikiLeaks last week. While the US government decides whether what he did was spying or journalism, his website has been shut down, his income stream has been frozen, and Julian Assange has been put in jail. But he hasn’t been censored.

It’s worth noting that, aside from the soft lean of Lieberman and other individual congressmen, the American government didn’t do any of this stuff. They just made it clear that they dislike Assange very much, and several multinational corporations did the rest. Visa, Mastercard, Amazon, PayPal and a dozen or so smaller entities divested themselves from WikiLeaks voluntarily. All they had to do was recognize that he was a less powerful enemy than the United States government.

The complexity of the situation is thrown into relief, as usual, by the simplicity of Sarah Palin’s reaction. Speaking on Facebook, for Christ’s sake, Palin opined that Assange should be hunted like a terrorist. Quote:

First and foremost, what steps were taken to stop Wikileaks director Julian Assange from distributing this highly sensitive classified material especially after he had already published material not once but twice in the previous months? Assange is not a “journalist,” any more than the “editor” of al Qaeda’s new English-language magazine Inspire is a “journalist.” He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands. His past posting of classified documents revealed the identity of more than 100 Afghan sources to the Taliban. Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?

What Palin fails to recognize but helpfully conveys in her statement anyway is that we are hunting Julian Assange like a terrorist. He has been publicly identified as an opponent in our vague war against people who want bad things to happen to the United States, and any way we can think to hurt him is now far game. We haven’t convicted him in a court or charged him with a crime, but we have smashed his metaphorical printing press, shut down his business and declared him a rapist. And we didn’t even need any of our legally established instruments of government to do it.

Contrary to Palin’s claim, Julian Assange does not have “blood on his hands.” None of the Afghan sources referred to in Wikileaks’s earlier leaks has been harmed, and the damage from this latest round is thus far limited to a general sense of embarrassment. His publication of classified documents is “terror” only in the sense of that endlessly applicable phrase “War on Terror”—our belief that any opposition to our perceived national interest is immoral, and that anything we do to our perceived enemies is justified. We are at “war” against this terror, not in the sense that we are fighting military battles against other nation-states, but that we have declared our willingness to ignore our scruples in pursuit of our enemies.

I submit that a fair and benevolent state does not have enemies. It has defendants; it has convicts; it has disinterested laws. The quality of our government is arguable, but I also submit that we do not have a fair and benevolent state. Last week proved that the state doesn’t stop at our government; it extends to credit card companies, to web hosting services, to online retailers and bankers. To say that our government is not censoring Julian Assange is to ignore that all these entities acted in our government’s declared interests. To say that they are not part of the state because we don’t get to vote for them or influence their conduct is to miss the point. Our lack of influence is the point, and it’s a terrifying one, and we need people like Julian Assange make it, one way or the other.

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  1. It’s important to keep in mind the distinction between businesses like Mastercard and Amazon, who in a free society are free to stop doing business with a megalomaniac like Assange. (Nothing’s stopping him from taking his business elsewhere. ) It’s arguable that these businesses were even right to cut ties.

    In spite of doing some pretty wonderful things for free information, Assange has acted irresponsibly and reprehensibly in compromising the security of US sources and employees (even if none have been murdered yet) as well as delicate ongoing negotiations. In contrast to the Pentagon Papers or Abu Ghraib, this release of information has failed to show any massive American government wrong-doing. It’s mostly embarrassed foreign leaders and showed that American diplomats are astute and a little catty.

    And now, of course, Assange is an alleged rapist.

    It is instructive to see nuts like Palin and Gingrich on Fox News calling for his assassination. Fortunately they’re not in power, for now.

  2. Consider the reality that Assange himself probably did not read all of the documents he released, so he loses points for recklessness in his headlong conversion of diplomatic work product to his own profit motive.

    World Domination (Master) Card and Visa, Pay Pal et al, may well have thought “Whoa! Didn’t sign on for this!”; and made a corporate decision to not get further embroiled in what is, at best, a shit storm.
    Really, who wants to become a fence for stolen intellectual property?

    Since I feel free to call Palin and Gingrich self-serving fascists, I feel free to say that the WikiLeaks’ director put the ASS in Assange.

  3. Damn, the distinction btw businesses and the state, I meant to say. Your conflation of the two is unconvincing, and sounds a little paranoid, tea-partyesque.

  4. That last paragraph reflects the structure of “human nature” -style arguments a little too closely for my tastes.

    And you’re arguing that multinationals are a frighteningly large part of the state apparatus – okay, fine, I’m with you there – and that (y)our white knight Julian Assange needs to make that point. So why isn’t he? Why is that most of Wikileaks’ effort has been spent on exposing action by our “freely elected”, “public good”-motivated government? [Danger quotes indicate ideas I could take or leave.]

    Elevating this guy as some sort of internet-age, he’s one of us! folk hero is fucking stupid. What has he ever done for anybody not named Julian Assange? It’s not only stupid, it’s self-defeating. Systematically undermining the efficacy of the only thing protecting us from douchebag multinationals like MasterCard is not robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

  5. I agree—Julian Assange does not make a good hero. I think his stated mission of forcing governments to keep fewer secrets is a good one, but I don’t think his leaks thus far have moved toward that objective in a concrete way. My complaint is not so much that Assange is being wronged, but that non-governmental entities are performing a function historically undertaken only by governments—and not good governments, at that.

    The questions of censorship and due process and the other stuff covered in the Bill of Rights become a lot more complex when governments don’t need to abridge those rights directly. I personally get really angry when someone makes the “free speech” argument with respect to private speech. As thinking people are wont to point out, the law doesn’t guarantee that you can say whatever; it guarantees that the US government won’t stop you from saying whatever. This seems to be an instance of the government not restricting speech directly, but also making it clear that it wants private entities to do so on its behalf. I’m sure that’s not a historical first, but this may be the first time in history when the power of private entities to control speech so nearly approximates that of the government.

  6. I’ve been reading this blog for awhile, but I seldom post anything. I just wanted to say that this is possibly the most astute analysis I’ve read on the whole Wikileaks controversy.

  7. Oh yeah, and Assange’s “rape” charges aren’t rape charges at all. The crime of “surprise sex” exists in few countries besides Sweden and is punishable with a fine of up to $716.00. The difference between rape and surprise sex is that surprise sex takes place between two consenting adults.

  8. Mike, consent can be withdrawn at any point in the sex act, such as when you’re banging an asshole Australian who suddenly removes his condom, as is alleged to have happened here. Consent withdrawn, the continued sex becomes rape.

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