Not Giving Up on Julian Assange
Somewhere in the sunny uplands of Merry Olde England – where multicolored unicorns are always promised but never delivered – one man chases another across emerald hills. They resemble each other, at least superficially: both white, middle-aged, of reasonable height, full heads of hair. One is racing ahead while the other huffs and puffs and chuffs behind, immensely pleased with himself for keeping up. One gets to the hilltops first but upon close inspection, has the look of a defiant, hunted man. Still, he is free, even if harassed across the international landscape by his double, his opposite, who believes in nothing.
The two men grew up under somewhat similar circumstances (unstable family, endless movement, an invisible or distant father) but there the similarities end: one is the young man who lived by his wits and changed the world, while the other is the American-born, part Turkish insider who has never met an individual or idea he couldn't betray. He hoisted himself on lies, knowing that power isn’t secured by truth but by the brutal gesture. The other wanted that evanescent thing called truth and he wanted to build a library that housed the truth, something apart from our vanishing blogs and urls. Our rulers, terrified by the liberties the web had unleashed, took notice.
One sits in a cell, the other is trapped in the Prime Minister's office. One is fighting for freedom, for his life, while the other must be bored to bits with all the ceremonies, the weekly humiliation he must endure in Parliament and the eager acolytes desperate to replace his incompetent shambles of a government. Perhaps in his dreamtime the Prime Minister visits the solitary man in Belmarsh.
Enough poetry, enough of fables. You know who I'm talking about, even there in America, so obsessed with its own demons it rarely notices the world. The two men are Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the other, his most famous prisoner, Julian Assange.
Assange is the phantom pursuing the world, yes, even those parts of the great world who don’t know his name. He is, in his own words, a wild colonial boy who took on the Great Powers and called their bluff by being, simultaneously, a muckraking journalist, better by seven leagues than the vast majority of his contemporaries, and the daring publisher of diplomatic cables and military atrocities. Not to mention his role as a gadfly who could make a terribly succinct explanation for the never-ending war in Afghanistan in less than 30 seconds. He didn't deal in after-the-fact analysis but laid the raw meat of war crimes on the table asking, So what do you think of that?
Our leaders are pissed and pray for distractions that will keep us looking the other way. They tried Sex Crimes on him, and that didn't hold. Then the threat of extradition to the United States, and after he took refuge in a neutral embassy, minor bail violations. His arrest and punitive detainment have encouraged governments all over the world to do the same. The latest report from the Committee to Protect Journalists with the names of the disappeared is due shortly.
Assange’s phantom haunts English and European democrats and deputies, powerless to get him out. He engaged in correspondence with then-President François Hollande, which went nowhere. Just a few weeks ago the French Assembly united across parties to demand the country offer him asylum. So there is hope, but the chances of Global Prisoner No. 1 getting out of Belmarsh maximum security look thin. Authorities on one continent and an island have proven they are willing to destroy their own legal systems to keep him in jail indefinitely. American presidents no longer care for that bit in the Constitution about no laws restricting freedom of the press. Journalists at the New York Times, who published Assange’s' revelations, leap over each other to write articles denouncing him.
Governments around the world feel reasonably sure he’ll go back to his old trade. Not that anyone went to jail for what he revealed, that's the striking thing. Apart from a few low-level convictions, everyone's career has advanced nicely, in government, in journalism, in public esteem.
Leaving off China and Turkey, supposedly the worst offenders – although, in the case of the tennis star Peng Shuai, China proved they can disappear anyone they like – there are plenty of examples to trouble the Anglo-Saxon conscience: Reality Winner, Daniel Hale, Edward Snowden. Former English ambassador and journalist Craig Murray just finished a four-month stint in jail in Scotland for the novel crime of 'jigsaw identification.' There are many others.
This cruel prosecution awaits a new Zola to focus the attention of the ruling class. Just as Emile Zola wrote J'Accuse in defense of Alfred Dreyfus in his famous letter to President Félix Faure in 1899, someone should write a 21st century version. There are similarities between the two men, Dreyfus condemned to Devil's Island after a show trial, Assange remanded to Belmarsh on essentially, nothing. He currently endures a never-ending legal circus in London’s Royal Courts. The prosecutor always pulls another rabbit out.
But who would that be, this new Zola? Our stars do not exactly distinguish themselves. If there were one, how would his or her appeal rise above the din from the welter of media platforms? By the 1890s Zola was a conservative, which made his defense of an obscure Jewish military officer all the more compelling. English Lords have been known to make a stand, but their current "defenses of the realm" are ineffectual, taking up matters of little interest outside Britain. The Home Secretary has meanwhile proposed new laws restricting the right to dissent. Not a single world leader has spoken out about the case while Ecuador infamously withdrew its offer of asylum after a change of regimes. (How that would go over here in France during the run-up to national elections in which candidates are vying to outdo each other in the Mean to Immigrants business.) A general strike or a sustained campaign of civil disobedience seems the only strategy that might have effect. There are certainly enough international committees of solidarity, all of them standing in the cold, taking photographs and tweeting like mad. We are rushing into the arms of a new tech-driven 1984. Call it 2034 if you like but engagement is still possible even now, as winter looms and we confront the uncertainty of another viral variant. If we give up on our political prisoners, we all take one step further into the cell.