I applaud the release of the first of hundreds of thousands of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks. Hopefully, they will be an eye-opener for those who believe that their government officials are the world’s good guys. What they show is that no country is too small to escape U.S. meddling in its affairs, and no effort to expand the reach of U.S. power and U.S. corporate profits is ever missed. In hot spots like Iran, Venezuela, and Honduras, they indicate that the gap between what our public officials tell us and what is going on behind the scenes is very large. U.S. ambassadors in Venezuela, for example, have sent their superiors a steady stream of obviously suspect reports extraordinarily hostile to the government of Hugo Chavez, but they have been reported as fact by U.S. politicians and used to craft U.S. policy toward Venezuela. The public is told that the government of Yemen is actively attacking al Qaeda with missiles, but the cables tell us that it is the U.S. military doing the dirty work. The government professes its commitment to the United Nations, but the leaks reveal Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordering diplomats to try to steal the credit card numbers and computer passwords from top UN officials and to get DNA samples from them as well.
Two things seem clear from what I have read so far about the WikiLeaks documents. First, what the United States does diplomatically has nothing to do with the noble ideas of freedom and democracy. It matters not at all that Venezuelans democratically elected Chavez and that a majority of them strongly support his initiatives, especially those like health care that benefit the poor. He is the embodiment of evil, actively aiding the still more evil Iranians and relying on the most evil people on the planet, the Cubans. The United States would applaud (and give full support to) the overthrow of Chavez and the dismantling of his country’s healthcare system. If poor children die as a result, well that’s the price you have to pay to be “free.” Second, the U.S. media are as deceitful as the government. Why haven’t our vaunted news media been telling us all along what WikiLeaks now reveals? Don’t they have the capacity to look beneath the surface of things and ferret out the truth? Isn’t that their job? Obviously not. Wolf Blitzer was nearly beside himself on CNN wondering why the government couldn’t prevent such exposures of the truth, in other words, keep him, presumably a journalist, from discovering what it should be his job to uncover. Instead of asking whether it is true that Iran has received ballistic missiles from North Korea, as some cables suggest but others dispute, Blitzer wants the government to make sure that he is forever unable even to try to find this out.
Perhaps Blitzer’s reaction to the leaks hints at the most important thing about them. It is not that the diplomatic counterparts of U.S. diplomats are surprised by what is in the leaks; after all, there is a good chance they do the same things. Nor is there any real possibility that the power of the United States will be compromised by the publication of these cables. What matters is that someone had the nerve to do what must not be done: reveal state secrets. And this is the most heinous of crimes. Listen to the cries for blood coming from the politicians. Presidential hopeful and Fox News stalwart Mike Huckabee said that whoever gave WikiLeaks these documents is guilty of treason and should be executed. Sarah Palin says that this person is an enemy of America, has blood on his hands, and should be hunted down like the Taliban. Several U.S. congresspersons have demanded that WikiLeaks be declared a “terrorist organization.” Hillary Clinton said that the leaks are an “attack on the world.” The public face of WikiLeaks, the Australian Julian Assange, has come in for special wrath, with a National Review contributor asking why he hadn’t been killed long ago. The U.S. Justice Department is pursuing Assange, hoping to get him extradited here for trial, and may soon try to get new legislation enacted that will make this effort immune to judicial scrutiny. The federal government has even forbade its employees from reading what are now publicly available documents. A State Department official went so far as to warn students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs that reading or discussing in public forums the WikiLeaks materials could jeopardize future government employment. In a remarkable display of disdain for free speech and press freedom, the Library of Congress has blocked computer access to WikiLeaks.
Aside from the usual suspects, such as Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, Assange and WikiLeaks have few supporters, certainly none that I know of in the mainstream media or in the halls of Congress (except for libertarian congressman Ron Paul of Texas). Why not? Doesn’t the public have a right to know what its own government does? Shouldn’t Assange be a hero instead of a villain?
Here is what I believe is going on. We live in a society dominated by large corporations and their owners and financiers (often the same). The government serves their interests, in as many ways as possible—with tax money, with legislation, with court decisions, with police and military actions when necessary. Since these facts fly in the face of any claim that we live in a free and democratic country, they must be suppressed. One way to do this is for the system’s many and well-rewarded apologists to tell us, over and over again, in every imaginable venue, that they are either not true or don’t matter. But another way is to ignite the false democracy of patriotism, to make it appear as if it is us (all Americans) against them (our enemies). From earliest age, we are bombarded with nationalist propaganda. We live in the best country in the world. God shed his grace on thee. We are the world’s beacon of freedom. We are the shining city on the hill. We are surrounded by evil enemies who want to destroy our way of life. Everyone, everywhere wants the American Dream. Those who criticize the monied oligarchy that has the real power here are denounced as un-American. Those who are opposed to the capitalism that creates this oligarchy are branded communists or socialists, and these are by definition un-American. Popular culture is full of pithy patriotic slogans. America, love it or leave it. Support the troops. “If you’re runnin’ down my country, man, you’re walkin’ on the fighting side of me.” “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”
It is obvious, I think, that most of us buy right into this and are prepared, just like Wolf Blitzer , to agree not to know certain unpleasant truths and to howl like a bloodthirsty mob for the head of anyone who dares to tell the truth. Even most working men and women, those who are most damaged by our political and economic systems, buy into it. They wave their flags and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, despite the harsh economic and political reality that stares them in the face every day. Andy Stern, former president of our largest union and a member of President Obama’s thoroughly anti-working class deficit reduction commission, tells us that he won’t be beholden to labor when he decides which of the odious commission recommendations he will support. He will, instead, act in the national interest.
I have news for Stern and for all workers. The national interest is nothing more than the interest of the rich. It has nothing to do with what is best for you and me. You can be sure that the same politicians who, in the interests of the wealthy, want to cut social security and destroy the unions of public employees, also want to eliminate WikiLeaks and put Julian Assange in prison or to death. We go along with this at our peril.
In his great anti-Vietnam War anthem, “The War is Over,” Phil Ochs sang, “So do your duty boys and join with pride, Serve your country in her suicide, Find the flags so you can wave goodbye, But just before the end even treason might be worth a try, This country is too young to die.” I’m not sure that the United States isn’t already at least half dead. But if it is to raised back to life, we are going to need a lot more “treason,” and many more “traitors.” They will at least try to tell us the truth, to strike our freedom- and democratic-loving nerves, to goad us into action. This is why they are so dangerous to the powers that be; they threaten to remove the veil that so tightly covers our eyes.
So all hail to Julian Assange, to Specialist Bradley Manning (who is charged with supplying WikiLeaks with documents giving us a damning picture of U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan), Daniel Ellsberg, to all of those who made the decision to make the truth known, to be citizens of the world. Regardless of the consequences.