This piece originally appeared in The Age
The internet is saturated with snark. We all know it, and there’s probably little more to be said about it. But here’s what you don’t hear: that the praise for public statements—whether TV reports, newspaper columns or speeches—is just as witless as the abuse.
In lesser measure than malice, praise abounds—small, harmless nods to writers: ”good piece, X” or ”interesting column, Y”. Tiny, comforting quilts covering one reader and the writer. Surely nothing controversial here?
Except that I’m increasingly frustrated by the subtext of this praise. When thanks is gifted to a columnist, what I hear is: ”Thank you for reinforcing my beliefs.” It’s rare that I hear: ”Thanks for thoughtfully challenging some of my assumptions.”
It reduces our appraisal of public words to an act of conscription (this writer speaks for me). The play and thoughtfulness allowed us in an open society is ignored for the retracing of tribal loyalties. Quality is reduced to whether or not we agree with it, rather than examining whatever constituent parts of language—intelligence, rigour, honesty, elegance, wit—are present. It’s excruciatingly dull.
I’m convinced by the psychological studies that suggest many of our moral positions— and our political ones—are made intuitively, and are only rationalised after the fact. In the words of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, we become ”moral lawyers”, avidly hunting for evidence of the position we have already emotionally discovered.
Let’s apply this to the strange case of Julian Assange. A few days ago he made a speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Here’s what I heard: a flurry of boilerplate, elision and rhetorical conflation. For a man championed as uniquely brave, he sounded a lot like our own elected hacks.
Others saw a rallying cry from a hero, a man cruelly buffeted by the weird crosswinds of international intrigue. And a man abandoned by his own government.
There are countless other interpretations in between, but what interests me is how what you think of Assange and his project is an extremely good predictor of what you think of the international response to him. The opposite holds just as well. The two things are separate, and deserve equally sober attention.
When WikiLeaks was conceived in 2006, Assange penned two essays that served as a manifesto. The first, ”Governance as Conspiracy”, is a short and pungent declaration of his theory and ambitions. He wrote: ”If total conspiratorial power is zero, then clearly there is no information ﬂow between the conspirators and hence no conspiracy.”
It’s techno-anarchism—the use of technology to sponsor a revolutionary transparency, a collapsing of the traditional secret-holding of governments. For Assange, government equals conspiracy, so its real power comes not through popular mandate but from secrets. WikiLeaks wants to remove them all.
This radical transparency, it would seem, should apply to all governments as all governments equal conspiracy, to lesser or greater degrees. There’s a purity to Assange’s vision, a sense of the universal virtue of profound transparency.
Assange fouls this purity for a simple reason: his open hostility to the US. It’s not the matter of his political beliefs but the fact we know them. Assange’s very publicised beliefs lessen—if not obliterate—the likelihood of receiving leaks from countries or individuals unsympathetic to Assange’s beliefs. For WikiLeaks to retain its purity, its philosophical consistency, it should have no face. Or, put another way: Assange can be a fierce advocate of radical flow of information or he can be a fierce critic of America.
I’ll let you decide if revolutionary transparency is a good thing—not transparency, but total, absolute transparency—but it’s anarchical in essence. It also has nothing to do with due process and allegations of rape, two things that, for many Assange supporters, have been ignored in favour of his martyrdom.
But the response to WikiLeaks invites scorn also. Bradley Manning, who slipped Assange his greatest cache of documents, has been detained now without trial for more than two years.
Last year the US State Department’s spokesman resigned after calling the treatment of Manning—solitary confinement for nearly a year—”stupid and counterproductive”. It would seem questionable conditions of detainment are permitted, but speaking out about it is not. The UN special rapporteur for torture more than agreed, finding earlier this year that Manning’s treatment was “cruel and inhuman”.
I’ve crudely reduced WikiLeaks to two components—it’s clearly more complex than this. I’ve done this to show how often we assume sides and then passionately engage the fallacy of composition—that what is true of the part must be true of the whole. Pick any other topic and the calculus of our dodgy logic is the same.
I once wrote that our political beliefs, contrary to the assumptions of the intellectually vain, aren’t often the polished outcomes of reason. They’re more often rooted psychologically and enforced by tribal loyalties.
If you doubt this, ask yourself why you fervently believed that last column you enjoyed deserved a Walkley Award. I hope it was for more than your agreement with it.