In her ground-breaking book on the effects of technology on our ways of living – Alone Together – Sherry Turkle discusses the fact that young people who cherish the freedom that the internet has given them, don’t seem to be perturbed by their online exposure to state and corporate scrutiny, that is, their lack of privacy. Moreover, they feel impotent and resigned in the face of such power to invade one’s privacy.
She continues by contrasting the present situation with the notorious McCarthy era in American history: “As the McCarthy era swirled about them, my grandparents were frightened. From Eastern European backgrounds, they saw the McCarthy hearings not as a defense of patriotism but as an attack on people’s rights. Joseph McCarthy was spying on Americans, and having the government spy on its citizens was familiar from the old world. There, you assumed that the government read your mail, which never led to good. In America, things were different.
“I lived with my grandparents as a young child in a large apartment building. Every morning, my grandmother took me downstairs to the mailboxes. Looking at the gleaming brass doors, on which, she noted, ‘people were not afraid to have their names listed, for all to see,’ my grandmother would tell me, as if it had never come up before. ‘In America, no one can look at your mail. It’s a federal offense. That’s the beauty of this country.’ From the earliest age, my civics lessons at the mailbox linked privacy and civil liberties. I think of how different things are today for children who learn to live with the idea that their email and messages are shareable and unprotected. And I think of the internet guru at the Webby awards who, citing Foucault with no apparent irony, accepted the idea that the internet has fulfilled the dream of the panopticon and summed up his political position about the net as follows: ‘The way to deal is to just be good.’
“But sometimes a citizenry should not simply ‘be good.’ You have to leave space for dissent, real dissent. There needs to be technical space (a sacrosanct mailbox) and mental space. The two are intertwined. We make our technologies, and they, in turn, make and shape us.”
My reason for quoting Turkle so extensively is that she casts light on what democracy entails as far as one’s privacy (and by implication, other democratic rights) is concerned — privacy is easily, and resignedly relinquished in “panoptical” cyberspace, as she notes. The term “panopticon” was coined by Jeremy Bentham in the 19th century to refer to the kind of prison building where warders have constant visual access to inmates in their cells, and Michel Foucault used this as a motif to show that today, we live in a “panoptical society”, where sophisticated technology enables those in power to keep us under constant surveillance.
And it is this intrusion into our privacy by the state (in the guise of the National Security Agency [NSA] in the United States, for example), as well as incriminating secrets kept by the state from us, that whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange of Wikileaks have courageously exposed, to their democratic credit (see, for instance, this video, revealed by Wikileaks, of the American military shooting civilians in Iraq), but simultaneously to their personal detriment.
Both have become refugees as a result, and in Assange’s case, a prisoner after he was seized from the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Assange is facing imminent trial in Britain, and could be extradited to the US, where he would probably be imprisoned for life after rendering a service to us ordinary people by exposing dark secrets on the part of the American state and military. That would be a colossal injustice.
Not surprisingly, therefore, a growing list of more than 160 current and former world leaders, ministers and parliamentarians are calling for an end to Assange’s persecution in an open letter to the British government. Former president of Brazil and also erstwhile political prisoner, Lula da Silva, had this to say: “… If the democrats of the planet Earth, including all journalists, all lawyers, all unionists and all politicians have no courage to express themselves in defence of Assange, so that he is not extradited, it means we have a lot [of] democrats out there who are liars.”
One thing is clear, however: Assange has done nothing wrong. Instead, he has only exercised his right to freedom of expression, in the process indirectly upholding the rights of everyone — you and me included — in the so-called democracies of the world. It is generally well-known that he published documents supplied to him by Chelsea Manning when the latter was an intelligence analyst in the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq, which means that he did not directly spy on American military activities. Yet, incongruously, he has been charged under the US Espionage Act, and even more absurdly, for publishing accurate information.
It is no secret that this persecution of the Wikileaks founder by the US is motivated by a desire for revenge on a man who, together with a number of the world’s leading newspapers, exposed atrocious war crimes committed by US personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the point to remember is that, should he be extradited to the US by Britain and sentenced as expected, implicitly it would be a blow to all citizens in constitutional democracies. This is because it will set a precedent that any government, including ours, could appeal to for charging and sentencing their own citizens who stand accused of espionage, or treason, for merely practising their constitutional, democratic right to freedom of expression.
As Slavoj Žižek puts it, drawing the appropriate connections between the powers pursuing Assange and those same forces which are guilty of other unforgivable actions: “…very few seem to take his situation seriously, with an awareness that our own fate is at stake in his case. The forces which violate his rights are the forces which prevent the effective battle against global warming and the pandemic. They are the forces that ensure the pandemic is making the rich even richer and hitting the poor hardest. They are the forces which ruthlessly exploit the pandemic to assert their control over our social and digital space, regulating and censoring it at our expense — the forces which protect us, but also deny us our own freedom”.
Žižek also hints at the possibility that, if Assange — whose health is allegedly in a parlous state in prison — should die, or (which is almost the same) vanish into an American prison for the rest of his life, he would in all probability attain the status of a martyr. And we all know what that implies: in death martyrs are even stronger than they were when alive.
In Žižek’s words: “…he will die in order to live in all of us. This is the message we all must deliver to those who have held him: if you kill a man, you create a myth which will continue to mobilise thousands”.
What Assange has already done for citizens of the world is beyond valuable; he has been a champion for our freedom, and therefore deserves to live and to be set free, so that he can be reunited with his partner, Stella Morris, and their two children. The latter were apparently conceived in the Ecuadorian embassy in London when Morris, a lawyer, visited him during the long years he spent there. To me this is a small consolation: that this courageous man enjoyed at least some (presumably pleasurable) moments in the space where he was obliged to hide from his persecutors.