Above photo: A billboard van calling for an end to extradition proceedings against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waits at traffic lights in Parliament Square in London, England, on September 14, 2020. David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
The real measure of how free is a society is not how its mainstream, well-behaved ruling class servants are treated, but the fate of its actual dissidents.
Persecution is not typically doled out to those who recite mainstream pieties, or refrain from posing meaningful threats to those who wield institutional power, or obediently stay within the lines of permissible speech and activism imposed by the ruling class.
Those who render themselves acquiescent and harmless that way will — in every society, including the most repressive — usually be free of reprisals. They will not be censored or jailed. They will be permitted to live their lives largely unmolested by authorities, while many will be well-rewarded for this servitude. Such individuals will see themselves as free because, in a sense, they are: they are free to submit, conform and acquiesce. And if they do so, they will not even realize, or at least not care, and may even regard as justifiable, that those who refuse this Orwellian bargain they have embraced (“freedom” in exchange for submission) are crushed with unlimited force.
Those who do not seek to meaningfully dissent or subvert power will usually deny — because they do not perceive — that such dissent and subversion are, in fact, rigorously prohibited. They will continue to believe blissfully that the society in which they live guarantees core civic freedoms — of speech, of press, of assembly, of due process — because they have rendered their own speech and activism, if it exists at all, so innocuous that nobody with the capacity to do so would bother to try to curtail it. The observation apocryphally attributed to socialist activist Rosa Luxemburg, imprisoned for her opposition to German involvement in World War I and then summarily executed by the state, expresses it best: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”
The metric to determine whether a society is free is not how its orthodoxy-spouting, well-behaved, deferential-to-authority citizens are treated. Such people are treated well, or at least usually left alone, by every sovereign and every power center in every era, all over the world.
You will not feel the sting of Silicon Valley or other institutional censorship as long as you affirm the latest COVID pronouncements of the World Health Organization and Dr. Anthony Fauci (even as those decrees contradict the ones they issued only a few months earlier), but you will if you question, refute or deviate from them. You will not have your Facebook page deleted if you defend Israeli occupation of Palestine but will be banished from that platform if you live in the West Bank and Gaza and urge resistance to Israeli occupying troops. If you call Trump an orange fascist clown, you can stay on YouTube for eternity, but not if you defend his most controversial policies and claims. You can vocally insist that the 2000, 2004 and 2016 U.S. presidential elections were all stolen without the slightest concern of being banned, but the same claims about the 2020 election will result in the summary denial of your ability to use online tech monopolies to be heard.
Censorship, like most repression, is reserved for those who dissent from majoritarian orthodoxies, not for those who express views comfortably within the mainstream. Establishment Democrats and Republicans — adherents to the prevailing neoliberal order — have no need for free speech protections since nobody with power would care enough to silence them. It is only the disaffected, those who reside on the fringes and the margins, who need those rights. And those are precisely the people who, by definition, are most often denied them.
Similarly: powerful officials in Washington can illegally leak the most sensitive government secrets and will suffer no punishment, or will get the lightest tap on the wrist, provided their aim is to advance mainstream narratives. But low-level leakers whose aim is to expose wrongdoing by the powerful or reveal their systemic lying will have the full weight of the criminal justice system and the intelligence community come crashing down on them, to destroy them with vengeance and also to put their heads on a pike to terrorize future dissidents out of similarly stepping forward.
Journalists like Bob Woodward, who spend decades spilling the most sensitive secrets at the behest of the ruling class D.C. elites, will be lavished with awards and immense wealth. But those like Julian Assange who publish similar secrets but against the will of those elites, with the goal and outcome of exposing (rather than obscuring) ruling class lies and impeding (rather than advancing) their agenda, will suffer the opposite fate as Woodward: they will endure every imaginable punishment, including indefinite imprisonment in maximum-security cells. That is because Woodward is a servant of power while Assange is a dissident against it.
All of this illustrates a vital truth. The real measure of how free is a society — from China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to France, Britain and the U.S. — is not how its mainstream, well-behaved ruling class servants are treated. Royal court vassals always end up fine: rewarded for their subservience and thus, convinced that freedoms abound, they redouble their fealty to prevailing status quo power structures.
Whether a society is truly free is determined by how it treats its dissidents, those who live and speak and think outside of permissible lines, those who effectively subvert ruling class aims. If you want to know whether free speech is genuine or illusory, look not to the treatment of those who loyally serve establishment factions and vocally affirm their most sacred pieties, but to the fate of those who reside outside of those factions and work in opposition to them. If you want to know whether a free press is authentically guaranteed, look at the plight of those who publish secrets designed not to propagandize the population to venerate elites but, instead, those whose publications result in generating mass discontent against them.
That is what makes the ongoing imprisonment of Julian Assange not only a grotesque injustice but also a vital, crystal-clear prism for seeing the fundamental fraud of U.S. narratives about who is free and who is not, about where tyranny reigns and where it does not.
Assange has been imprisoned for almost two years. He was dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London by British police on April 11, 2019. That was possible only because the U.S., U.K. and Spanish governments coerced Ecuador’s meek President, Lenin Moreno, to withdraw the asylum extended to Assange seven years earlier by his staunch sovereignty-defending predecessor, Rafael Correa.
The U.S. and British governments hate Assange because of his revelations that exposed their lies and crimes, while Spain was enraged by WikiLeaks’ journalistic coverage of and activism against Madrid’s 2018 violent repression of the Catalan independence movement. So they bullied and bribed Moreno to throw Assange to the wolves — i.e., to them. And ever since, Assange has been held in the high-security Belmarsh prison in London, a facility used for terrorist suspects that is so harsh that the BBC asked in 2004 whether it is “Britain’s Guantanamo Bay.”
Assange is not currently imprisoned because he was convicted of a crime. Two weeks after he was dragged out of the embassy, he was found guilty of the minor offense of “skipping bail” and sentenced to 50 weeks in prison, the maximum penalty allowed by law. He fully served that sentence as of April of this year, and was thus scheduled to be released, facing no more charges. But just weeks before his release date, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled an indictment of Assange arising out of WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of U.S. State Department diplomatic cables and war logs that revealed massive corruption by numerous governments, Bush and Obama officials, and various corporations around the world.
That U.S. indictment and the accompanying request to extradite Assange to the U.S. to stand trial provided, by design, the pretext for the British government to imprison Assange indefinitely. A judge quickly ruled that Assange could not be released on bail pending his extradition hearing, but instead must stay behind bars while the U.K. courts fully adjudicate the Justice Department’s extradition request. No matter what happens, it will takes years for this extradition process to conclude because whichever side (the DOJ or Assange) loses at each stage (and Assange is highly likely to lose the first round when the lower-court decision on the extradition request is issued next week), they will appeal, and Assange will linger in prison while these appeals wind their way very slowly through the U.K. judicial system.
That means that — absent a pardon by Trump or the withdrawal of the charges by what will become the Biden DOJ — Assange will be locked up for years without any need to prove he is guilty of any crime. He will have been just disappeared: silenced by the very governments whose corruption and crimes he denounced and exposed.
Those are the same governments — the U.S. and U.K. — that sanctimoniously condemn their adversaries (but rarely their repressive allies) for violating free speech, free press and due process rights. These are the same governments that succeed — largely due to a limitlessly compliant corporate media that either believes the propaganda or knowingly disseminates it for their own rewards — in convincing large numbers of their citizens that, unlike in the Bad Countries such as Russia and Iran, these civic freedoms are guaranteed and protected in the Good Western Countries.
(The ample evidence showing that the indictment of Assange is the single gravest threat to press freedoms in years, and that the arguments mounted to justify it are fraudulent, has been repeatedly documented by myself and others, so I will not rehash those discussions here. Those interested can see the article and video program I produced on this prosecution along with my op-ed in The Washington Post; Laura Poitras’ New York Times op-ed last week on the indictment; former Brazilian President Lula da Silva’s Guardian op-ed calling for Assange’s immediate release; the editorial from The Guardian and column from The Washington Post’s media reporter Margaret Sullivan condemning this prosecution as abusive; and statements from the Freedom of the Press Foundation, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Columbia Journalism Review, and the ACLU warning of the serious dangers to press freedoms it poses).
Even Assange’s conviction on “bail jumping” charges, and the way it is portrayed in mainstream media discourse, reveals how deceitful these narratives are, and how illusory are these supposedly protected liberties. Assange’s misdemeanor bail jumping conviction was based on his decision to seek asylum from Ecuador rather than appear for his 2012 extradition hearing in London. That asylum request was granted by Ecuador on the ground that Sweden’s attempt to extradite Assange from the U.K. for a sexual assault investigation could be used as a pretext to ship him to the U.S., which would then imprison him for the “crime” of reporting on its illegal and deceitful acts. Such retaliatory imprisonment, said Ecuador, would amount to classic political persecution, thus necessitating asylum to protect his political rights from attack by the U.S. (the case in Sweden was subsequently closed after prosecutors concluded that Assange’s asylum rendered the investigation futile).
When the U.S. grants asylum to dissidents from adversary countries in order to protect them from persecution, the U.S. media heralds it a noble, benevolent act, one that proves how devoted the U.S. Government is to the rights and freedoms of people all over the world.
Recall the celebratory tone of U.S. media coverage when the Obama administration gave refuge in its Beijing embassy and then permanent asylum to the blind Chinese activist-lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who had faced numerous criminal charges in his home country for his work against various policies he regarded as oppressive and unjust. American liberals depict asylum when granted by the U.S. Government, to protect against persecution in other Latin American countries, as so sacred that the Trump administration’s efforts to limit such asylum invoked their sustained fury (that fury is about to dissipate as Biden does the same, but with the softer and gentler language of reluctance).
But when asylum is granted by other countries to protect someone against persecution at the hands of the U.S. Government, then suddenly asylum is transformed from a noble and benevolent shield against human rights abuses into a dastardly, corrupt crime. That is how U.S. and British journalists routinely malign Ecuador’s decision to shield Assange from the possibility of being shipped to the U.S to be punished for his journalism, or how they still speak of Russia’s grant of asylum to Edward Snowden, which shields him from being shipped to the U.S. to face a likely punishment of life in prison under the repressive Espionage Act of 1917, a law that bars him from even raising a defense of “justification” in court and thus obtaining a fair trial. Under this propagandistic framework, not only the governments that grant asylum against U.S. persecution (such as Ecuador and Russia) but also the individuals who seek asylum from U.S. persecution (such as Assange and Snowden) are cast by the U.S. and British media as villains and even criminals for availing themselves of this internationally guaranteed asylum right.
Indeed, the British judge who doled out the maximum sentence to Assange for bail jumping, Deborah Taylor, sneered at his sentencing hearing that he “used his asylum at the Ecuadoran Embassy to insult the British judiciary.” She added: “It’s difficult to envisage a more serious example of this offense. By entering the embassy, you deliberately put yourself out of reach, whilst remaining in the U.K. You remained there for nearly seven years, exploiting your privileged position to flout the law and advertise internationally your disdain for the law of this country.”
Snowden’s asylum in Russia — the only thing standing between him and decades in a high-security cage in the U.S. for the “crime” of revealing unconstitutional spying by Obama officials — is similarly scorned in elite U.S. media and political circles as something shameful and even treasonous rather than a perfectly legal shield under international asylum conventions against persecution by the vengeful and notoriously repressive U.S. security state.
Here we see the blinding propaganda to which U.S. citizens are endlessly subjected. Asylum is always warranted when extended by the U.S. Government to dissidents or outcasts from inferior countries, but is never warranted when granted by other countries to U.S. dissidents or other other journalists and activists whose punishment the U.S. seeks. This warped formulation is potent because the U.S. media succeeds in peddling the toxic mythology that the U.S. has unique rights and entitlements that lesser countries do not because, unlike them, the U.S. is a freedom-loving democracy that honors basic human rights and steadfastly guarantees fundamental civil liberties of free expression, a free press, and due process to all peoples.
The next time someone makes that claim, explicitly or otherwise, tell them to look at the fate of Julian Assange, one of this generation’s most effective journalists and activists in exposing the crimes, deceit and corruption of key U.S power centers, particularly its permanent security state. Assange is not even a U.S. citizen, having spent a week total in his life on U.S. soil and having absolutely no duties — legal, journalistic or ethical — to safeguard U.S. secrets.
But no matter: anyone who effectively challenges U.S. power must and will be crushed. That is because freedom of speech and press and other civic guarantees are granted only to those who refrain from meaningfully challenging the U.S. ruling class: i.e., to those who do not need those rights. Those who do need those rights — those who dissent and are disaffected — are denied them, definitively proving that these rights exist only on parchment, that in reality they are artificial and illusory for those who actually need and deserve them.