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A New Must-Read: Robert Manne's "The Cypherpunk Revolutionary Julian Assange"

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, March 6 2011

It will take you a half hour to read Robert Manne's new essay on Julian Assange, but trust me, if you are one of those people who have been transfixed by the epic and world-shaking trajectory of WikiLeaks, the time will be well spent. The 15,000 word article was written for The Monthly, an Australian public affairs magazine that Manne is the chairman of, and it's behind a paywall there. It has also been posted in full on Cryptome.

A few highlights:

Manne, a professor of politics at Latrobe University in Melbourne, makes an absolutely striking comparison between Assange, perhaps the most famous Australian in the world today, and the man who previously would have claimed that title, media mogul Rupert Murdoch:

Murdoch's importance rests in his responsibility for injecting, through Fox News, the poison of rabid populist conservatism into the political culture of the United States; Assange's in the revolutionary threat his idea of publishing damaging documentary information sent by anonymous insiders to WikiLeaks poses to governments and corporations across the globe.

He also carefully unpacks the available record of Assange's online postings over the years, and shows convincingly how much of his political orientation was shaped by his participation in the cypherpunk movement and in response to several key controversies therein. The cypherpunks, Manne writes, were predominantly anarchist libertarians; interesting, he finds early signs of a stronger social conscience and a desire to protect the downtrodden in Assange's comments on their email list. For example, he unearths one interesting comment Assange made to Declan McCullagh, a well-known tech writer:

In October 2001, Declan McCullagh expressed "surprise" when a "critique of laissez-faire capitalism" appeared on the cypherpunks list "of all places". Assange replied:

Declan, Declan.

Put away your straw man ... Nobel economic laureates have been telling us for years to be careful about idealised market models ... This years [sic] Nobel for Economics won by George A. Akerlof, A. Michael Spence and Joseph E. Stiglitz "for their analysis of markets with assymmetric [sic] information" is typical. You don't need a Nobel to realize that the relationship between a large employer and employee is brutally assymmetric [sic] ... To counter this sort of assymetery. [sic] Employees naturally start trying to collectivise to increase their information processing and bargaining power. That's right. UNIONS Declan. Those devious entities that first world companies and governments have had a hand in suppressing all over the third world by curtailing freedom of association, speech and other basic political rights we take for granted.

Assange was, then, an absolutist crypto-anarchist but one who leant decidedly to the Left. Mainstream cypherpunks did not defend trade unions or speak negatively of "rampant capitalists" and positively of "human rights activists". He was an electronic but not an economic libertarian.

At the same time, Manne shows that Assange was no fan of the left, either, as shown by his comments about the World Social Forum, the "Progressive Commie Socialist" agenda, and his desire to not be seen as "preaching to the choir."

Manne's essay touches glancingly but knowledgeably over the controversies of the last year. He seems sympathetic to Assange's vision of the power of "principled leaking" and empathizes with his frustration with how WikiLeaks early disclosures failed to have the impact he desired because the media had no incentive to follow up on them. Manne also cares little for how the major papers who have worked with WikiLeaks have tried to make themselves the center of the story, writing:

Even though these negotiations [between WikiLeaks and the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel] are one of the less interesting aspects of this story, already three books from the news outlets involved offering their own perspectives have been published. Assange had long regarded the western media as narcissistic. It is likely that his judgement was now confirmed.

Manne also sketches out some of the as-yet unfinished ironies of the WikiLeaks story, predicting that if Assange is ultimately extradited to the United States, it would be:

certain to ignite a vast Left vs Right global cultural war, a kind of 21st-century equivalent of the Dreyfus Affair. Ironically, if that broke out, his staunchest and most eloquent defenders were likely to be people such as John Pilger or Tariq Ali, whom Assange privately had once derided as followers of the "Progressive Commie Socialist" agenda, or the left-wing American film-maker Michael Moore, whom, Domscheit-Berg tells us, Assange considered "an idiot"....If a culture war was engaged over Assange's extradition to the US it would involve, strangely enough, the clash of cultural armies mobilised by the creators of Fox News and WikiLeaks, the two most influential Australians of the era.

Once you've read Manne, consider what Tony Kevin, a former Australian diplomat, has to say about the current moment. Kevin argues that Manne's essay will have a big impact on Australian public opinion, and could come at a critical time in affecting how that country deals with the pending case against Assange:

We need to understand that Assange faces what Australian citizens David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib went through a few years ago in Egypt, Pakistan and Guantanamo, when their own government failed in its duty to protect them. Australian citizenship did not protect them then and it will not protect Assange now, should he fall into US hands. It is up to Australian citizens back home now to try and prevent this from happening by making our well-founded concerns for Assange’s safety and human rights clear to our government.

But Kevin also makes a starker argument about treatment of the alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning, who is now being forced to sleep naked every night and present himself naked every morning, a further step in what can only be understood as an effort by his holders at Quantico prison to break his sanity. Forced nudity, it is sadly necessary to note, has in the past been used by the U.S. to intimidate detainees (think Abu Ghraib). Kevin writes:

While the desired goal of Manning’s torturers must be now to extract from him some kind of ‘confession’ incriminating Assange, their fall-back goal would be to reduce him to an insane or vegetable state from which he could not recover in time to mount an effective public defence of himself in the military court-martial. Manning’s open-court testimony – if he could hold on to his courage, integrity and sanity meanwhile - would be severely embarrassing to his accusers, and could arouse American liberal public opinion in his favour. They would want to try to prevent this risk, hence their present apparently desperate escalation of torture.

Will there finally be a definitive moment, where the disruptive questions raised by Assange's vision of the cleansing powers of public disclosure and Manning's apparent action of conscience are fully engaged in the open? I hope so. But for that to happen, it is vital that Manning get a chance to have his day in court as a sane man. Apart from Glenn Greenwald at Salon and Jane Hamsher's gang at FireDogLake, the American media has been shockingly silent about Manning's treatment. It is time for that to change.