In one of his first public events since being held under house arrest, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange appeared in London Saturday for a conversation with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, moderated by Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman. They discussed the impact of WikiLeaks on world politics, the release of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and Cablegate — the largest trove of classified U.S. government records in history.
“From being inside the center of the storm, I’ve learned not just about the structure of government, not just about how power flows in many countries around the world that we’ve dealt with, but rather how history is shaped and distorted by the media,” Assange said.
Assange also talked about his new defense team, as well as U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, the accused Army whistleblower who has been jailed for the past year. Assange is currently under house arrest in Norfolk, outside London, pending a July 12 appeals hearing on his pending extradition to Sweden for questioning in a sexual misconduct case. He has now spent six months under house arrest, despite not being charged with a crime in any country. Assange was wearing an ankle monitor under his boot and Saturday’s event concluded shortly after 6:00 p.m. so he could return to his bail address by his curfew.
The event also marked the publication of the paperback edition of Žižek’s Living in the End Times, in which he argues that new ways of using and sharing information, in particular WikiLeaks, are one of a number of harbingers of the end of global capitalism as we know it.
The discussion was sponsored by the Frontline Club, founded in part to remember journalists killed on the front lines of war.
Please note that this program contains the words sh*t and bullsh*t and may NOT be suitable for broadcast.
VAUGHAN SMITH: Good afternoon. My name is Vaughan Smith. I’m the founder of the Frontline Club, co-founder actually, co-founder with my wife Pranvera, who’s hidden amongst you somewhere. We’re very excited to be doing this today. This is the largest event we’ve done at the Frontline Club. And I’d like to thank Will of the Troxy Centre and all his team. I’d like to thank you for coming to this fantastic place. I’d like to thank Dan, our branding man, because I’m standing in front of a hundred logos, which are all new. So thanks, Dan. Our new look. We’re not shy of our new look. I’d like to thank the Frontline Club staff, who have worked extremely hard to put this on, particularly Flora and Millie. And so, thank you all. I’m extremely proud of you all.
The Frontline Club exists to promote what’s best in journalism and to put on debates and discussions like this. We’re a social enterprise, and if you wish to support us, come to Paddington, if you haven’t already been, where we can feed and entertain you. We do 200 events a year. As a social enterprise, the money you spend tonight and any money you spend at the Frontline Club helps us do this work, so we’re very grateful for it.
If you want to help Julian or Slavoj or Democracy Now!, you can buy some books or put donations at the end. That facility will be there. Now, it’s Julian’s 40th birthday tomorrow, so if you want to help him with those exorbitant legal fees, then, you know, give generously at the end.
So, all that remains is for me to welcome Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! Amy is a multiple-award-winning journalist and is the main presenter for Democracy Now! and has flown all the way from America to be here, and she’s a pretty fine person. And I’m extremely glad to hand over to her now. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Good afternoon. It is a great honor to be with you this afternoon, and a shout out to all of the people who are watching this broadcast all over the world. We are live-streaming this at democracynow.org. By the way, how many of you watch or listen to or read Democracy Now!?
We have given out about a thousand fliers of where we broadcast in Britain and also where you can watch, read and listen to the broadcast. We’re also live-streaming. We’ve offered the embed for anyone to take to put on their website. The Nation is live-streaming us. MichaelMoore.com is live-streaming us. Free Speech TV is broadcasting Democracy Now! across the United States. And there are many others. I hope people tweet in, Facebook in, let us know what you’re doing with this broadcast.
It’s extremely important, because information is power. Information is a matter of life and death. We’ve learned that through these remarkable trove of documents that have been released in the last year. The Iraq War Logs, the Afghanistan War Logs, and what’s been called Cablegate, the U.S. State Department documents that are continuing to be released.
Why does it matter so much? Well, we’ll talk about that this afternoon, but let’s just take one example that came out in the Iraq War Logs, February of 2007. The war logs show that two men were standing, Iraqis, under an Apache helicopter. The men have their hands up. They clearly are attempting to surrender. The Apache helicopter can see this. So, they’re not rogue. The soldiers call back to the base, and they say, "What should we do? These men have their hands up." The lawyer on the base says you cannot surrender to a helicopter, and they blow the men attempting to surrender away. That was February 2007.
Now, we will fast-forward to July 12th, 2007, and video that has been released by WikiLeaks. This devastating video of an area of Baghdad called New Baghdad, where a group of men were showing around two Reuters journalists. Well, one was a videographer, a young up-and-coming videographer named Namir Noor-Eldeen, and one was his driver, Saeed Chmagh. He was 40 years old. He was the father of four. And they were showing them around the area. The same Apache helicopter unit is hovering above. They open fire. The video is chilling. I am sure many of you have seen it. If you watch or listen to Democracy Now!, we played it repeatedly, discussing it with various people, from Julian Assange to soldiers who were there on the ground. Over time, we dissected this.
The soldiers opened fire. You have the video of the target, and you have the audio of the sounds of the soldiers cursing, laughing—but not rogue, always going up the chain of command, asking for permission to open fire. In the first explosion, Namir Noor-Eldeen and the other men on the ground are killed. Saeed Chmagh, you can see him attempting to crawl away. And then a van pulls up from the neighborhood, and they’re attempting to pick up the wounded. There are children in the van. And the Apache helicopter opens fire again, and Saeed Chmagh, others in the van are killed. Two little children are critically injured inside.
Now, I dare say that if we had seen what came out in the Iraq War Logs in February of 2007, if we had learned the story at the time, after it happened, of the men with their hands up trying to surrender, there would have been an outcry. People are good. People care. People are compassionate. They would have called for an investigation. Perhaps one would have begun. But it might well have saved the lives of so many. Certainly, months later, perhaps that same Apache helicopter unit under investigation would not have done what it did. And maybe Namir Noor-Eldeen, the young Reuters videographer, and his driver Saeed Chmagh, not to mention the other men who were killed and the kids critically injured, none of that would have happened to them. That’s why information matters. It is important we know what is done in our name. And today we’re going to talk about this new age of information.
We’re joined by two people many of you know well. Earlier, I asked a young man who had come to the gathering why he had traveled so far. He said, "Are you kidding? To be with two of the most dangerous people." Well, the National Review calls Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek "the most dangerous political philosopher in the West," and the New York Times says he’s "the Elvis of cultural theory." Slavoj Žižek has written over 50 books on philosophy, psychoanalysis, theology, history and political theory. His latest book, Living in the End Times. And we’ll talk about what he thinks and talks about around the world.
Now, we’re joined by another man who has published perhaps more than anyone in the world. In fact, he wrote a book on the underground computer information age called Underground: The International Computer Underground [Ed.: Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness, and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier. But with the Iraq War Logs, the Afghanistan War Logs, now the U.S. government cables that have yet to be fully released, I would say that Julian Assange is perhaps the most widely published person on earth.
Today we’re going to have a conversation about information, and I’d like to ask Julian to begin by going back to that moment in 2007, as we talk about the Iraq War Logs, and talk about the significance of them for you and why you’ve chosen to release this information.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, Amy, I suspect, under that criteria, perhaps Rupert Murdoch is the most widely published person on earth. Something [inaudible]. People say that Australia has given two people to the world, Rupert Murdoch and me, fairly big in publishing.
Well, in some ways, things are very easy for us and very easy for me, in that we make a promise to sources that if they give us material that is of a certain type, that is significant, of diplomatic, critical, ethical or historical significance, not published and under some sort of threat, we will publish it. And that actually is enough.
Of course, we have a goal with publishing material in general. But it has been my long-term belief that what advances us as a civilization is the entirety of our intellectual record and the entirety of our understanding about what we are going through, what human institutions are actually like and how they actually behave. And if we are to make rational policy decisions, insofar as any decision can be rational, then we have to have information that is drawn from the real world, in a description of the real world. And at the moment, we are severely lacking in the information from the interior of big secretive organizations that have such a role in shaping how civilization evolves and how we all live.
So, getting down into Iraq, so that was 400,000 documents, each one written in military speak; on the other hand, each one having a geographic coordinate down often to 10 meters, a death count of civilians, U.S. military troops, Iraqi troops and suspected insurgents. So, it was the first—rather, the largest, because we also did the Afghan War Logs—the largest history of a war, the most detailed significant history of a war to have ever been published, probably at all, but definitely during the course of a war. And so, it provided a picture of the everyday squalor of war, from children being killed at roadside blocks to over a thousand people being handed over to the Iraqi police for torture, to the reality of close-air support and how modern military combat is done, linking up with other information such as this video that we discovered of the men surrendering, being attacked.
So, as an archive of human history, this is a beautiful and horrifying thing, both at the same time. It is the history of the nation of Iraq, in most significant recording, during its most significant development in the past 20 years. And while we always see newspaper stories revealing and personalizing some—if we’re lucky, some individual event or some individual family dying, this provides the broad scope of the entire war and all the individual events, the details of over 104,000 deaths.
And we worked together to statistically analyze this with various groups around the world, such as Iraq Body Count, who became a specialist in this area, and lawyers here in the U.K. who represented Iraqi refugees, to pull out the stories of 15,000 Iraqi civilians, labeled as civilians by the U.S. military, who were killed, who were never before reported in the Iraqi press, never before reported in the U.S. press or in the world press, even in aggregate, even saying, "Today a thousand people died"—not reported in any manner whatsoever. And you just think about that: 15,000 people whose deaths were recorded by the U.S. military but were completely unknown to the rest of the world. That’s a very significant thing. And compare that to the 3,000 people who died on 9/11. Imagine the significance for Iraqis.
So, that is something that we specialize in and that I like to do and I’ve always tried to do, is to go from the small to the large, not just by abstraction or by analogy, but actually by encompassing all of it together, and then trying to look at it and abstract, through mathematics or statistics, and so to try and push both of these things at the same time, the individual relationship plus the state relationship plus the relationship that has to do with civilization as a whole.
AMY GOODMAN: Slavoj Žižek, the importance of WikiLeaks today in the world?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Well, to understand properly this question, it’s just—you can withdraw and give me two hours. No, but I will try to condense it. First, let me say also how proud I am to be here and to let me mention something which maybe most of you don’t know, that how difficult even it was to organize this event, like it had to be moved two times, out and more out from Central London and so on.
So, again, what I want to say is, let me begin with the significance of what you, Amy, started with, these shots. I mean, not shooting, but video shots of those Apache helicopters shooting on. You know why this is important? Because the way ideology functions today, it’s not so much that—let’s not be naive—that people didn’t know about it, but I think the way those in power manipulate it. Yes, we all know dirty things are being done, but you are being informed about this obliquely, in such a way that basically you are able to ignore it.
And can I make a terrible, maybe sexual offensive, but not dirty—don’t be afraid—remark? You know, like a husband—sorry for making male chauvinist twist—a husband may know abstractly "my wife is cheating on me." And you can accept, "OK, I’m modern, tolerant husband." But, you know, when you get the thought of your wife doing things, it’s quite a different thing. And it’s, I would say, with all respect, something similar. It’s very important, because the same—no, no, I’m not dreaming here. The same thing I remembered happened I think about two years ago in Serbia. You know, people rationally accept that we did horrible things in Srebrenica and so on, but, you know, it was just abstract knowledge. Then, by chance, all the honor to Serb media who published this, they got hold of a video effectively showing a group of Serbs pushing to an edge and shooting a couple of Bosnian prisoners. And the effect was a total shock, national shock, although, again, strictly seeing, nobody learned anything new.
So here, so that I don’t get lost, if you allow me just a little bit more, here we should see the significance of WikiLeaks. Many of my friends who are skeptical about it are telling me, "So, what did we really learn? Isn’t it clear that every power, in order to function, you have collateral damage? You have to have a certain discretion—what you say, what you don’t say." But to conclude, I will propose a formula of what WikiLeaks is doing, and it’s extremely important. Of course, I’m not a utopian. Neither me nor Julian believes in this kind of a pseudo-radical openness—everything should be clear and so on. But, what are we dealing with here?
Another example from cinema, very short, Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. You find there a wonderful joke, where, I think towards the beginning of the film, the hero enters a cafeteria and says, "Can I get some coffee with cream, please?" And the waiter answers him, "Sorry, we ran out of cream. We only have milk. So, can we give you—can I serve you with coffee without milk?" That’s the trick here. Like, when we learn something from the media, like, if I may repeat the metaphor, they behave as if they are serving coffee with cream. That is to say, of course we all know they are not telling the entire truth, but, you know, that is the trick of ideology. Even if they don’t lie directly, the implications, the unsaid, is a lie. And you bring this out. You are not so much putting them—catching them, as they put it, with their pants down, lying on behalf of what they explicitly say, but precisely on behalf of what they are implying. And I think this is an absolutely crucial mechanism in ideology. It doesn’t only matter what you say; it matters what you imply to say, and so on.
So, just to make the last point, I think that—are we aware at what an important moment we are living today? On the one hand, as you said, information is crucial and so on. We all know that it’s crucial even economically. I claim that one of maybe the main reasons capitalism will get into crisis is intellectual property. In the long term, it simply cannot deal with it. But what I’m saying is just take the phenomenon that media are trying to get us enthusiastic for clouds. Like, you know, computers getting smaller and smaller, and all is done for you up there in a cloud. OK, but the problem is that clouds are not up there in clouds. They are controlled and so on. For example, you rely on—maybe you have an iPhone. But you mentioned Murdoch, name was mentioned here. Do you know—it’s good to know—if you rely on your news through iPhone or whatever, that Apple signed an exclusive agreement with Murdoch? Murdoch’s corporation is again the exclusive provider of entire news, and so on and so on. This is the danger today. It’s no longer this clear distinction: private space/public space. The public space itself gets, as it were, privatized in a whole series of invisible ways, like the model of it being clouds, which is why—and again, this involves new modes of censorship.
I repeat this. That’s why you shouldn’t be tricked when you say, "But what really did we learn new?" Maybe we learned nothing new, but, you know, it’s the same as in that beautiful old undersense fairytale, "The Emperor is Naked." The emperor is naked. We may all know that the emperor is naked, but the moment somebody publicly says, "The emperor is naked," everything changes. This is why, even if we learned nothing new—but we did learn many new things—but even if nothing learned, the forum matters. So, don’t confuse Julian and his gang—in a good sense, not the way they accuse you—don’t confuse them with this usual bourgeois heroism, fight for investigative journalism, free flow and so on. You are doing something much more radical. You are—that’s why it aroused such an explosion of resentment. You are not only violating the rules, disclosing secrets and so on. Let me call it in the old Marxist way the bourgeois press today has its own way to be transgressive. Its ideology not only controls what you say, but even how you can violate what you are allowed to say. You are not just violating the rules. You are changing the very rules how we were allowed to violate the rules. This is maybe the most important thing you can do.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, Julian, even as you were releasing information in all different ways, you then turn to the very gatekeepers who, in some cases, had kept back this information, and you worked with the mainstream media throughout the world in releasing various documents. Talk about that experience and that level of cooperation and what has happened after that.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, an organizer—
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Can you turn the volume up, please, on the balcony? It’s very quiet. So, more volume, please?
JULIAN ASSANGE: Volume for the balcony.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Now that you said these devil again idiots accuse you, you see he’s the authoritarian leader who gives commands. I’m not saying this is not true. I think this is the only way to really keep things going.
JULIAN ASSANGE: So, if you want to have an impact, and you promise an impact, and you’re an organization which is very small, well, actually, you have to co-opt or leverage the rest of the mainstream press. So, under our model of how you make an impact and how you get people to do things that you wouldn’t have been otherwise able to do, unless you have an army that can physically go someplace and panzer divisions that can roll over, the only way that you can easily make an impact is push information about the world to many, many people across the world. And so, the mainstream press has developed expertise on how to do that. And it is competition also for people’s attention. So, if we had had several billion dollars to spend on advertising across the world, even if we can get our ads placed, we wouldn’t easily be able to have made the same impact that we did. And we don’t have that kind of money. So, instead, if you like, we entered into relationships with now over 80 media organizations across the world, including some very good ones that I wouldn’t want to disparage, to increase the impact and translate and push our material into now over 50 different countries endemically. And that has been, yes, subverting the filters of the mainstream press.
But an interesting phenomena has developed amongst the journalists who work in these very large organizations that are close to power and negotiate with power at the highest levels, which is the journalists, having read our material and having been forced to go through it to pull out stories, have themselves become educated and radicalized. And that is an ideological penetration of the truth into all these mainstream media organizations. And that, to some degree, may be one of the lasting legacies over the past year.
Also by—you know, even Fox News, which is much disparaged, is an organization that wants viewers. It cannot do anything else without viewers. So, it will try and push news content. So, for example, with Collateral Murder, CNN showed only the first few seconds, and they blanked out all the bullets going to the street, completely blanked it out, and said that they did so out of respect for the families of the people who were killed. Well, there was no blood, there was no gore. And then they cut out all the most politically salient points. And the families had come forward and said it was very important for us to know that they had already seen it. But Fox actually displayed the first killing scene in full. It’s quite interesting. So, Fox, not perceiving itself to be amenable to the threat of it not acting in a moral way, actually gave people more of the truth than CNN did. And so, Fox, also motivated to grab in a hungry way as great an audience share as possible, took this content and gave it to more people. Now, afterwards, of course, they put in their commentators to talk against it, but I think the truth that we got out of Fox was often stronger than the truth that we got out of CNN, and similarly for many institutions in the media that we think of as liberal.
And perhaps Slavoj would like to speak about that.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: No, I cannot emphasize enough, like, first I treated you not as an idiot out of politeness, but then I’m more and more forced to admit that you really are not an idiot. Sorry for—it happens. Now, because, seriously, I mean, what you said now is extremely important. With all the respect I have for—and I don’t mean this in any way ironically—honest liberals who really believe people should be informed and so on, but there are limits in their very mode how they function, so we should ruthlessly, not in an unethical way, but nonetheless ruthlessly, use, as you pointed out in this difference between CNN and Fox, every window of opportunity here.
And let me add another example from a totally different domain, but from fiction, cinema, TV series, which I think reproduces the same duality. We have the usual Hollywood left. All this—all this for to raise our spirit, left, liberal, pseudo-Hollywood Marxism thrillers like Pelican’s Brief, All the President’s Men, which may appear very critical, you know, like, “Oh, my god, the president himself is corrupted, connected to certain corporations and so on.” But nonetheless, this is ideology. Why? Because why do you exit the movie theater in such high spirits after seeing, I don’t know, All the President’s and so on, because the message is nonetheless, "Look what a great country we are! An ordinary guy can topple the mightiest men in the world, and so on and so on."
On the other hand, let me take an equivalent in TV program of Fox News, which would have been—please don’t take me for being crazy— 24. Yeah, yeah, Jack Bauer and all that. The last season of 24, I watched it with pleasure. It’s, for me—my god, again, as you approach it the way you approach those shots, it’s, for me, much more consequential in criticism. You get Jack Bauer, who is in total despair. His whole world crumbles down. He has to admit this way, what he tried do in previous seasons of playing this role of somebody should do the dirty job, torture the prisoners, I will do it. He says, "No, I cannot live with it. It has to come public." His liberal counterpart, called Allison Taylor, the president, also steps down. You know what’s the true message of it? The message is simply, within the existing ethico-political coordinates, you are just stuck into a deadlock: there is no way. It’s a very pessimistic message, much more honest than all that uplifting Hollywood Marxism, what a great country we are, and so on and so on.
So, yes, at all levels, even not only in journalism as such, I agree with you, and I would even say that all leftist tradition knows this. For example, already Marx said—I’m no fetishist of Marx, but nonetheless—he said that we can often learn more from honest conservatives than from liberals, because what honest conservatives do is that they don’t try to sell you at the end some uplifting bullsh*t; they are ready to confront a deadlock. And that’s what’s important today.
AMY GOODMAN: I don’t want to look distracted looking down, but I wanted to get these quotes accurate, so I have them on my phone.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Nothing threatening. I just hear it that way.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House in the United States, said, “Julian Assange is engaged in warfare. Information terrorism, which leads to people getting killed, is terrorism. And Julian Assange is engaged in terrorism. He should be treated as an enemy combatant, and WikiLeaks should be closed down permanently and decisively."
Bill Keller of the New York Times said "arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial." Judith Miller, who together—who often wrote or co-wrote articles that appeared on the front page of the New York Times alleging weapons of mass destruction without named sources, said, “Julian Assange isn’t a good journalist," "didn’t care at all about attempting to verify the information [that] he was putting out, or determine whether or not it would hurt anyone."
Joe Biden, the Vice President of the United States, said, “Julian Assange is a high-tech terrorist.” Congress Member Peter King of New York called for Assange to be charged under the Espionage Act and asked whether WikiLeaks can be designated a terrorist organization.
Not to just focus on the U.S., Tom Flanagan, a former aide to the Canadian prime minister, has called for Assange’s assassination.
And former Alaska governor Sarah Palin called—
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: He’s an interesting person. I first heard about him.
AMY GOODMAN: —called you, Julian, an "anti-American operative with blood on [your] hands." Can you respond to these charges?
JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, you know, after Bill Keller said that I was thin-skinned, it doesn’t really leave much ground to reply, does it? Sarah Palin also, once on Twitter, complained about my grammar, which is really the biggest insult for me. I mean, calling for a drone attack is perfectly understandable, but correcting my grammar, from Sarah Palin, that’s a real insult.
That event in the United States was very interesting to me. Obviously, the calls are wrong and outrageous and so on. But the social and political event in which they occurred was fascinating. So, within a few months, we saw a new McCarthyist hysteria arise within the United States in December and January—January this year, December last year. And that is quite worrying that a new McCarthyism can come up so quickly.
On the other hand, yes, there are a lot of opportunistic politicians playing to their base, playing to their pals in the military-industrial complex. On the other hand, you know, power that is completely unaccountable is silent. So, when you walk past a group of ants on the street and you accidentally crush a few, you do not turn to the others and say, “Stop complaining, or I’ll put a drone strike on your head.” You completely ignore them. And that is what happens to power that’s in a very dominant position. It does not even bother to respond. It doesn’t flinch for an instant. And yet, we saw all these figures in the United States coming out and speaking very aggressively.
Bill Keller, in a recent talk, as a way of sort of perhaps legitimizing why he was speaking about me, said that “If you have a dealing with Julian Assange, you’re fated to sit on panels for the rest of your life explaining what you did.” But actually, no, that’s a choice by Bill Keller, a choice to go around and try and twist history and whitewash history and adjust history on a constant basis. Why? Why expend the energy doing that? Why not just knock off another front page of the New York Times? Because, actually, these people are frightened of the true part of history coming up and coming forth. So I see this as a very positive sign.
And I’ve stated before that we should always see censorship, actually, as a very positive sign, and the attempts toward censorship as a sign that the society is not yet completely sewn up, not yet completely fiscalized, but still has some political dimension to it—i.e. what people believe and think and feel and the words that they listen to actually matters. Because in some areas, it doesn’t matter. And in the United States, actually, most of the time, it doesn’t matter what you say. We managed to speak and give information at such volume and of such intensity that people actually were forced to respond. It is rare that they are forced to respond. So, I think this is one of the first positive symptoms I’ve seen from the United States in a while, that actually if you speak at this level, the cage can be rattled a bit, and people can be forced to respond. In China, the censorship is much more aggressive, which, to me, is a very hopeful symptom for China, that it is still a political society, even though it is fiscalizing, even though everything is being sewn up in contractual relationships and banking relationships as time has gone by. At the moment, the Chinese government and public security bureau are actually scared of what people think.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Can I just add something? Again, I hate myself, because I wanted—what is that movie called? There Will Be Blood, no? But unfortunately, there will not be a lot of blood between the two of us, because I again agree.
Speaking about China, let me tell you—maybe you know it—a wonderful—it’s not an anecdote, which perfectly makes—confirms your point. Do you know that about two or three months ago, a Chinese government—I don’t know which—agency passed a law, which formally prohibits in public media—they mean press, books, comics, TV, movies—all stories which deal with time travel or alternate realities. Literally. I checked it up with my friends in China. The official justification was that history is a great matter. It shouldn’t be left to such trifling games and so on. But, of course, it’s clear what they really are afraid of: for people to even imagine alternate realities, other possibilities.
Now, again, to repeat your point, I think this is a good sign. They at least need the prohibition. With us, we don’t need a prohibition, most of the time. If somebody proposes a radical change, we simply accept this spontaneous everyday ideology, but we all know what our economic reality is like. You propose to raise for one percent healthcare spending. No, it would mean loss of competition and so on and so on. So, again, I totally agree with you here.
And just a final comment on the persons that you, Amy, mentioned. Listen, Newt Gingrich is, for me—sorry to use this strong word—kind of a scum of the earth. I don’t have any great—no, no, no, I will be very precise. I don’t have any great sympathy for Bill Clinton, but I remember when there was this campaign, Monica Lewinsky campaign. Newt Gingrich was making all these moralistic attacks. And then it was confirmed in media—I listened to interview with him where he confirmed it, that when his wife was dying in cancer two or three years before, Newt Gingrich visited her in the hospital, forcing her to sign—not even having the decency for letting her die—forcing her to sign a divorce agreement, so that he could have married another woman. And he was, at the exact time of Lewinsky affair, already cheating her with the secretary of him there, and so on and so on. Listen, these are people who simply—my god, I become here a kind of moral conservative. There should be some kind of ethical committee which simply claims people like this are a threat to our youth; they should be prohibited from appearing in public, whatever.
Now, I will make a more important point as to this terrorism stuff. Let me make it clear—but I’m not crazy. I mean this in a positive sense. Yes, in a way, you are a terrorist. In which sense? In the sense in which, as I like to repeat, Gandhi was a terrorist. What you are doing, let’s face the facts. It’s not just something that can be swallowed—"Oh, oh, look, all the interesting news in the newspapers. Here, this is happening. There, Slavoj Žižek is dating Lady Gaga. And here—totally not true. And here, there’s WikiLeaks. You effectively have, in a good sense—
AMY GOODMAN: Do we have a denial there on that one?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: Do we have a denial, an official denial, on the Lady Gaga one?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Absolute denial on everything. I mean, everything. I didn’t even listen to not even one of her songs, and so on. I mean, my god, I listen to Schubert and Schumann songs. I’m sorry. I’m in a conservative.
AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know. Her representative was not that defiant. They just said, "No comment."
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: My friends were telling me the same: “You stupid, you should have said ‘no comment,’ and then you will enjoy much more glory and so on.” OK.
AMY GOODMAN: OK.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Let’s go on. No, no, no, I have a more serious point to make about—but what does this mean? Of course, you are—in which sense was Gandhi a terrorist? He effectively tried to stop, interrupt the normal functioning of the British state in India. And, of course, you are trying to interrupt the normal, which is very oppressive, functioning of the information circulation and so on.
But the way we should answer to this point, I claim, is simply by another—I repeat myself here, I know—endless paraphrase of that wonderful line from Brecht’s Beggar’s Opera: “What is robbing a bank compared to founding a new bank?” What is your, under quotation marks, “terrorism” compared to the terrorism which we simply accept, which has to go on day by day so that just things remain the way they are? That’s where ideology helps us. When we talk about violent terrorism, we always think about acts which interrupt the normal run of things. But what about violence which has to be here in order for things to function the way they are? So I think, if—I’m very skeptical about it—we should use—in my provocative spirit, I am tempted to—the term “terrorism,” it’s strictly a reaction to a much stronger terrorism which is here. So, again, instead of engaging in this moralistic game—“Oh, no, he’s a good guy,” like Stalinists said about Lenin—“You like small children. You play with cats. You wouldn’t"—as Norman Bates says in Psycho, “You wouldn’t hurt even a fly.” Now you know. No, you are, in this formal sense, a terrorist. But if you are a terrorist, my god, what are then they who accuse you of terrorism?
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Julian, about Bradley Manning. Mike Huckabee, who also was a presidential candidate, the governor of Arkansas, said that the person who leaked the information to Julian Assange should be tried for treason and executed. He said, "Whoever in our government leaked that information is guilty of treason, and I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty." Bradley Manning is a young U.S. soldier who was in Iraq, has been held for more than a year, much of that time in solitary confinement in Quantico in Virginia. It was exposed that his treatment was tantamount to torture. P.J. Crowley, the White House—the State Department spokesperson, spoke to a group of bloggers at MIT and said his treatment is stupid. For that, he was forced out of the State Department. Bradley Manning was then moved to Fort Leavenworth because of the outcry, but he remains in prison. He remains not tried. What are your comments on him?
JULIAN ASSANGE: First of all, Amy, thanks for asking this question, but it is difficult for me to speak in detail about that case, and—but I can speak about why it is difficult for me to speak about it. So, Bradley Manning is an alleged source of WikiLeaks who was detained in Baghdad, and then, although there was very little—no mainstream press publicity at the time, shipped off to Kuwait, where he was, if you like, held in an extrajudicial circumstance in Kuwait, in a similar manner to which detainees are held in Guantánamo Bay. Eventually, through some legal—creative legal methods, he was brought back to the United States, and he’s been in prison now for over a year. He was being kept in Quantico for eight months under extremely adverse conditions. Quantico is not meant for long-term prisoners. Other prisoners, the maximum duration over the past year has been three months. And people that have been visiting Bradley Manning say—and we have other sources who say—that they were applying those conditions to him because they wanted him to confess that he was involved in a conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States with me. That pressure on Manning appears to have backfired. So, by all reports, this is a young man of high moral character. And when people of high moral character are pressured in a way that is illegitimate, they become stronger and not weaker. And that seems to have been the case with Bradley Manning, and he has told U.S. authorities, as far as we know, nothing about his involvement.
Now, there has concurrently been a secret grand jury taking place six kilometers from the center of Washington. That grand jury involves 19 to 23 people selected from that area. Now, why was it in Alexandria, Virginia, six kilometers to the center of Washington, that that grand jury was placed and those people drawn? Well, it has the highest density of government employees anywhere in the United States. The U.S. government was free to select the place, and they selected this place in order to bias the jury from the very beginning. This is, in fact, wrong to call a jury. This is a type of medieval star chamber. There are these 19 to 23 individuals from the population that are sworn to secrecy. They cannot consult with anyone else. There is no judge, there is no defense counsel, and there are four prosecutors. So, that is why people that are familiar with grand jury inquiries in the United States say that a grand jury would not only indict a ham sandwich, it would indict the ham and the sandwich. And that’s a real threat to us.
A grand jury, which was removed from U.K. jurisprudence because of abuses, combines the executive and the judiciary. So this old common law notion of the separation of these branches of power is removed in a grand jury. U.S. government argues that these captive 19 to 23 individuals are the branch of the judiciary, if they perform a judicial function, where of course actually they are just captive patsies for the Department of Justice, the United States and FBI. So they have been going out, and they have coercive powers. They can force people to testify. And they have been pulling in all sorts of people that are connected to WikiLeaks and people that are not. They have recently—a number of individuals that have been pulled to the grand jury understand what is going on, and they have refused to testify and have pleaded the First Amendment, Third Amendment‚ and the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, to—well, I’m not sure the purpose, I don’t have direct communication, but from the outside it appears to nullify that political witch hunt in the United States against us.
Now, in response, the grand jury has been instructed to send out immunity certificates. So these are certificates that go to subpoenaed individuals that say that if you come to the grand jury to testify, your testimony cannot be used against you, and therefore you have no right to plead the Fifth. What this means in practice is coerced, compulsive interrogation in secret with no defense counsel. There’s not—not even lawyers for the subpoenaed witnesses are permitted into the grand jury. It is just the prosecutors and these people from six kilometers away from the center of Washington. That’s something that should be opposed.
There is another grand jury that has sprung up in the United States and is investigating antiwar activists, engaged in the same sort of witch hunt. So these are really a classical device that was looked at very critically in the U.K. 400 years ago, and the result in the U.K. is this concept of the—if justice is to be done, it must be done publicly. And that has been a concept that is waylaid. It’s interesting why or how it has been waylaid, so that on the surface this device of—well, you want the police to have an investigation. The executive says it wants to conduct an investigation into some group of people. Well, we get people from the community, 19 to 23 people from the community, and they monitor the investigation. They make sure it’s not overstepping and so on. But actually this has been turned on its head and used as a way to completely subvert the judicial system in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Your comments on Bradley Manning?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Yeah. Now, first, again, I would like to say that crucial are the terms that I think you both mentioned, all this extralegal space, unlawful combatants, and so on and so on. The paradox is that I think we should read these terms as strictly connected to universal human rights. To what—I have nothing against universal human rights. What I’m opposed to is how the reference to universal human rights is de facto used in today’s ideological struggles, that in order to sustain support within the space of ruling ideology, universal human rights, you have to construct a space which is no longer the space of the enemy—in this sense, enemy to whom the rules apply, either Geneva Convention and so on—but you have to create what the great American thinker and politician Dick Cheney referred to as the “grey zone” once. You know, like, we have to do something discretely; don’t ask us about it, and so on and on.
Here, I would say things are even more complex than it may appear, because what I find really terrifying is that concepts like unlawful combatants are becoming legal categories. Now, I’m not a utopian here. Let me be—and I will maybe shock some of you—brutally open. I can well imagine a situation where, well, I cannot promise you in advance that I wouldn’t torture someone. Let’s imagine this ridiculous situations where a bad guy has my young daughter, and then I have in my hands a guy, and I know that that guy knows where my daughter is. Well, maybe, out of despair, I would have tortured her or him, whatever. What I absolutely opposed to is to legalize this. I think if, out of despair, I do something like this, it should remain something unacceptable, you know, that I did out of despair. What I’m afraid of is that this system gets institutionalized, as it were, where all this will—you know, because we know what is at the end of the road.
I had a polemic, just an exchange in New York Times with Alan Dershowitz, who wants legalization of torture. And I read one of his proposals. It’s an obscenity. You will have doctors. Let’s say, just a friendly, to scare you a little bit, example. Amy and me are the torturers. You—somebody has to play this role—will be tortured. So, let’s say we call a doctor who—it’s an obscenity, who—
AMY GOODMAN: Speak for yourself, Slavoj.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: Speak for yourself.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Oh, sorry, yeah, yeah, OK.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re the sole torturer.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: No, but you know what I’m saying. Who investigates you and determines you can torture him to that degree if, and so on and so on. For me, what’s horrible is not—of course, it is torture and such. But it’s even more obscene, this normalization of torture, which is why, yes, more than you—I mean this respectively—Manning is, for me, the hero, because you have a certain moment of glory and so on and so on. That poor guy, who, for me, is—did something extraordinary. You know how difficult are these decisions, that simple, elementary morality prevails over legal considerations and so on.
I think that—I hope I’m not a utopian. I even, like—don’t you have any of these organs who propose candidates for Nobel Peace Prize? That would be a nice, crazy movement. If there is a person who deserves Nobel Peace Prize today, it’s Manning, or people like that. Know why. No, no, I’m not bluffing here. Simple, ordinary people—and I’m not even idealizing him. There are many examples that I know of ordinary people who are not anything special, they are not saints. But all of a sudden, they see something, like probably he, if he is the one, saw all these documents, and something told him, “Sorry, I will not be pushed more. I have to do something here.”
This is so precious today, because it also goes against a note which is in a way true, but it’s exploited by our enemies, this idea ideology today is cynical, people are totally duped, and so on. No, they are not. I prefer her to play a little bit of simple moralism. From time to time, there are ethical miracles. There are people who still care, and so on and so on. This is very important because, you know, like, let’s not leave this domain of a care for simple, dignified, ethical acts to agencies like Catholic Church and so on. Who are they to talk about it? We, the left, should rehabilitate this—I know it doesn’t sound very postmodern or cynical—this idea that there are out there quite ordinary guys, nothing special, but who all of a sudden, as if in a miracle, do something wonderful. That’s almost, I would say, our only hope today.
Sorry for that. Sorry for that, you can’t do. Don’t be too mad at me.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Speaking on that, one of the difficulties for alleged sources—and actually, we have another one in prison, which has received very little recognition, which is the case of Rudolf Elmer, who’s in prison in Switzerland for allegedly revealing secret banking information; there’s no trace to us, but that is the allegation that is being investigated—is that if they put up their hands and say, “Yes, yes, it was me,” it makes it very easy to defend them in a moral way, and it makes it very easy to shower them with awards, but until they do that... Their defense is that they didn’t do it, so it is very hard for us to start praising people, because inherent in that praise is we would be alleging that they are guilty of the offense.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of banks, Julian, you mentioned a while ago that you had a good deal of documents on Bank of America, but they haven’t been released. Are you planning to release them?
JULIAN ASSANGE: There’s a complication with those documents and another group of documents, so we are under a type of blackmail in relation to these documents, that is very—that will be dealt with over time, but it is quite difficult to deal with at the moment. So, I don’t want to specify what type of blackmail that is, because it might make it harder to address the situation, but it is—it is perhaps something like people might guess. You know, there’s a range of possibilities, and it’s probably the first or second possibility, if you’re guessing, at least.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about the beginning of WikiLeaks. Tell us about how you founded it, named it, and what your hopes were at the time, and if at this point you have been disappointed by what you’ve been able to accomplish or amazed by it. WikiLeaks, how it started.
JULIAN ASSANGE: I think I am amazed by it, of course. I mean, who couldn’t be? It’s an extraordinary time that I have lived through, and to see many of your dreams and ideals come into practice.
That said, I think we’re only about a hundredth of the way there, in terms of what we have to release and discover and collect and put into people’s heads and solidify in the historical record. We need a Cablebate for the CIA. We need a Cablegate of the SVR. We need a Cablegate of the New York Times, actually—all the stories that have been suppressed and how they’ve been managed. And once we start getting that sort of volume and concretize and protect the rights of everyone to communicate with one another, which, to me, is the basic ingredient of civilized life—it is not the right to speak. What does it mean to have the right to speak if you’re on the moon and there’s no one around? It doesn’t mean anything. Rather, the right to speak comes from our rights to know. And the two of us together, someone’s right to speak and someone’s right to know, produce a right to communicate, and so that is the grounding structure for all that we treasure about civilized life. And by "civilized," I don’t mean industrialized. I mean people collaborating to not do the dumb thing, to instead learn from previous experiences and learn from each other to pull each other, pull with each other together in order to get through the life that we live in a less adverse way.
So, that quest to protect the historical record and enable everyone to be a contributor to the historical record is something that I have been involved in for about 20 years, in one way or another. So that means protecting people who contribute to our shared intellectual record, and it also means protecting publishers and encouraging distribution of historical record to everyone who needs to know about it. After all, an historical record that has something interesting in it that you can’t find is no record at all.
So, that long-term vision is something that I developed in various ways. And I saw, in around 2006, that there was a way of achieving justice through this process that could be realized using the intellectual and social capital that I had available. And so, that’s quite a complex plan. You should perhaps read—there’s a couple of essays on WikiLeaks that go into this in more detail. So, to pull all this together was a difficult thing to do, and to plan it out and to marshal the resources and to build not only an ideology that people could support and were encouraged by, and that sources were encouraged by, but that people would defend.
And it’s one of the—I think it’s extremely interesting that although twice this venue was cancelled—not this venue, sorry, twice this—the venue that we had rented for this was cancelled, including at the Institute for Education from the University of London, under the basis it would be too controversial. And so, that’s why we ended up at the Troxy, at this venue. That despite that, that actually, Slavoj Žižek, myself and Amy Goodman have managed to pack out nearly 2,000 people in London on a Saturday at 25 pounds a seat. So, I see that as extremely encouraging. On the one hand, we have the sort of—the everyday, tawdry institutional censorship of saying that something is too controversial, and therefore you can’t hold it in an institute of education. On the other hand, all of you came. And I’m not sure that that would have happened five years ago. In fact, I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened five years ago and that both of those things wouldn’t have happened five years ago. So that when I said before that censorship is always an opportunity, and censorship reveals something that is positive about a society, and a society with no censorship is in a very bad state, that, if you like, the censorship of not giving us this venue so easily is also related to why you’re all here. It is the other side of the coin, that people are worried that change is possible. And you’re here because you think that change is possible, and you’re probably right. So that’s been a very interesting journey to see that.
And I thought I was pretty cynical and worldly five years ago, and of course I was simply a very young and naive fool, in retrospect. And learning how to—from being with inside the center of the storm, I’ve learned not just about the structure of government, not just about how power flows in many countries around the world that we’ve dealt with, but rather how history is shaped and distorted by the media. And I think the distortion by the media of history, of all the things that we should know so we can collaborate together as a civilization, is the worst thing. It is our single greatest impediment to advancement. But it’s changing. We are routing around media that is close to power in all sorts of ways, and—but it’s not a forgone conclusion, which is what makes this time so interesting, that we can wrest the internet and we can wrest the various communications mechanisms we have with each other into the values of the new generation, that has been educated by the internet, has been educated outside of that mainstream media distortion. And all those young people are becoming important within institutions.
So, maybe this is something I’ll speak about with you later, Amy, but I do want to talk about what it means when institutions—how the most powerful institutions, from the CIA to News Corporation, are all organized—all organized using computer programmers, using system administrators, using technical young people. What does that mean when all those technical young people adopt a certain value system, and that they are in an institution where they do not agree with the value system, and yet actually their hands are on the machinery? Because there has been moments in the past like that. And it is those technical young people who are the most internet-educated and have the greatest ability to receive the new values that are being spread and the new information and facts about reality that are being spread outside mainstream media distortions.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: I feel now like that Stalinist commentator, you know. The leader has spoken; I provide the deeper meaning, and so on, with pleasure. No, first I would really like to begin with what you said. It’s extremely important. I have a philosophical term for it. When you moved from right to speak, right to know, communication and so on, I think that, as many of you know, in the history of modern thought, the first one to formulate this was Immanuel Kant in his wonderful distinction between private and public use of reason. This distinction is so wonderful because, for Kant, private use of reason is not I gather with my friends in the kitchen of my apartment or a pub. No, private use of reason is, for Kant, theological faculty, legal faculty, political sciences, where what you are thinking, debating, developing serves a goal set up in advance by a power structure or ideological structure and so on. For Kant, we here, at a distance from this hierarchic political—in the sense of establishment, of course, of establishing power structure, space—we are the public use of reason.
And why is this so important? Because what—I see WikiLeaks as part of a global struggle which doesn’t concern only in the narrow sense this domain of right to know, in the sense of right to information and so on, but even education. You know, you—by "you," I mean U.K. citizens here—what horrors are being made now in the U.K. university reform, new privatizations and so on and so on. This is all one concerted attack on the public use of reason. It goes on all around Europe. The name is so-called Bologna high education reform, and the goal is very clear. They say it. It’s to make universities more responsive to social life, to social problems. It sounds nice. What it really means is that we should all become experts. As a French guy, later minister, explained to me in a debate in Paris. For example, cars are burning in Paris suburbs. What we need is psychologists who will tell us how to control the crowd, urbanists who will tell us how to restructure the streets so that the crowd is easy to break up or whatever. Like, we should be here as a kind of a ideological or specialist serviceman to resolve problems formulated by others. I think this is the end of intellectual life as we know it.
And we should go here to the end, you know, when all those right-wing, anti-immigrant, bullsh*tters are talking about—sorry, I used the word I shouldn’t, yeah. Do it in a Stalinist way: put some music of some heroic working-class song there. Sorry, but more seriously, when we hear about “Oh, immigrants, Pakistanis, Muslims, a threat to Judeo-Christian civilization”—no, sorry, the greatest asset of Judeo-Christian civilization, which you can even detect it in notions of holy spirit as the community of believers outside established structures, it’s precisely this independent space of public reason. So I’m saying that if there is something really to defend of the so-called—I hate the word also—Judeo-Christian legacy, this idea of democracy not only as this masturbatory right to cast a vote totally isolated, but, as you said, public space of debate, communication and so on. Then that should be our answer to all those populist, anti-immigrant, and so on, anti-immigrant politicians and so on—not this white liberal guilt. "Oh, you are defending Judeo-Christian legacy. And no, we feel guilty. My god, how many bad things we did. All the bad things in the world are the result of European imperialism." OK, maybe, but what we should say to them is “Who are you to even speak about Judeo-Christian legacy?” This university reform today in U.K., this is the greatest threat to Judeo-Christian legacy and so on. Anti-immigrants, they are the nightmare. Imagine Le Pen in power in France and so on. That’s the end of Europe for me, in the sense of what is progressive in Europe.
So, again, this is, for me, part of a much larger struggle, especially with the problems today, ecological problems, for example. It is so crucial. Let me give you an example, which I think is so beautifully clear. Recently—and that’s why I would also like to ask you, if I may, through you, right, actually.
AMY GOODMAN: Directly.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: You and China. Not you you. WikiLeaks and China, because Chinese people will pay such a price for precisely the oppression of public space of reason, where? My Chinese friends told me this. In China now, a month or two ago, even the government admitted the catastrophic ecological consequences of those Three Gorges Dam. You know, it’s the greatest artificial lake in the world for 250 miles, 400 kilometers long. Now, they, the government, admitted that the problem is this one: that lake is just above some subterranean faults, which they move when there is an earthquake. So they admitted that the big—you remember three years ago when the big Sichuan, or where—earthquake was, if not triggered, definitely rendered much stronger because of this. And this is not along the lines of what—you must have some proverb like, you know, “After the battle, everyone can be the wise general.” No, friends, when I visited Beijing four, five years ago, my friends there told me majority of geologists were already warning the government about these dangers.
Second thing, because of this collection of water there, the effects of drought are now much stronger felt. Point two, because the water is to low, the whole—you know, the Yellow River is the main transportation line venue in China. And the traffic there is practically stopped and so on and so on. All this is the end of public reason.
So now, just to conclude, just one more thing. Nonetheless, this is not a critical point toward you, but a point to clarify what WikiLeaks can do. We should not fetishize truth as such. We live in times of incredible ideological investments, of times when ideology is very strong precisely because it’s not even experienced as ideology.
And what can happen? Let me tell you a story from Israel, my friends told me there. Some five, six years ago, one of their historians wrote a more truthful account, you know, of how also in the independence, ’48, ’49 war, the Israeli army did burn some Palestinian villages and so on and so on—a more balanced view. And first, all the leftist critics had a kind of intellectual orgasm. "Oh, wonderful," and so on. And then they got a shock of lifetime, when this guy said, “No, no, no. What I meant, that was necessary to do. We should have done it even more.” The line of this guy was “We should have thrown all the Palestinians from the West Bank, and we wouldn’t have any problems today.”
So, you know what I’m trying to say, that I disagree not with you, but, for example, with another person for whom I have respect: Noam Chomsky. A friend of mine told me that Chomsky told him recently at a lunch they had together in New York that today all the obscenities are so clear that we don’t need any critique of ideology, we just need to tell to people the truth. No, truth must be contextualized in the sense of what does it justify, what does it say, what does it deny, and so on and so on.
So, to really conclude, this would have been my point about WikiLeaks, that you are not just simply telling the truth. You are telling the truth in a very precise way of confronting explicit line of justification, rationalization or whatever—the public discourse with its implicit presuppositions. It’s not just about telling the truth. And this is very important.
Why? Now I conclude, don’t be afraid. Because you know this wonderful Marx Brothers joke, which I think serves perfectly as a model of today’s ideology. Why? Because, like, if you listen to—if you have listened to someone like, you know, that failed businessman who then ruined the American army as the defense minister, Donald Rumsfeld, called, no? I read a biography of him. They prove it conclusively that, my god, he was even a very stupid, bad manager when he was a—it’s a total myth that he was a business genius. But OK, to the point, when—how—basically, his cynical line about Iraq, when it was discovered that there were no weapons of mass destruction and so on, was that, “OK, we were lying, but we were lying in a truthful way with a good intention. We manipulated you, but this was part of a larger strategy and so on.” This is maybe the most, OK, intelligent, tricky and effective, cynical defense of a liar, when he said, “OK, I’m lying, but so what? I openly confess that I was lying, so, in a way, I’m truthful.”
Here we should repeat that Marx Brothers saying, and this is what you de facto are doing, I claim. You know that wonderful phrase from Groucho Marx, I think, when he’s playing a lawyer defending his client, and he says, “This guy looks as an idiot and acts as an idiot. This shouldn’t deceive you. This guy is an idiot.” We should say to Donald Rumsfeld, “OK, you admit you act as a liar. You are a cheater and a liar. But this will not deceive us. You effectively are a cheater and a liar.” We should not allow them this space of selling their lies themselves in a cynical way as a deeper truth. This is how ideology today functions.
AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange, I wanted to ask you about the Arab Spring and about what you see as WikiLeaks’ role in what started in Tunisia, on to Egypt, we’re seeing in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya. What role did WikiLeaks play?
JULIAN ASSANGE: It’s hard to disentangle, but the story that we have back from people who were in Egypt and from the newspaper Al Akhbar, one of the great newspapers published in the Middle East out of Lebanon.
AMY GOODMAN: You lived in Egypt for a time.
JULIAN ASSANGE: I lived in Egypt during 2007, so I’m familiar with the Mubarak regime and the tensions within the Egyptian environment. Actually, I was staying at that time, a rather unusual circumstance, where I was staying in Miss Egypt’s house. And Miss Egypt’s house, other than having paintings of Miss Egypt all throughout, was clustered right between the U.S. embassy and the British High Commission, with a van outside fueled with 24 soldiers in front of my front door. And so, for the sort of work we were doing, this seemed to be sort of the ultimate cover, if you like, to be right nested amongst this.
But, you know, it’s an interesting—Egypt is a very interesting place. At that time, you didn’t feel, in most areas of Cairo, the presence of the dictatorship. In fact, if you look out on the streets, men go to work. They go to the cafés to have shisha in the afternoon. The pigeon boys come out onto the roof. And there’s weddings on a Saturday and a Sunday. And in fact, the economic basis and the technological basis to Cairo seemed pretty much the same as London, if you compare it to Australian aboriginals. So, to my mind, actually, if we say that it is democracy that rules and manages the United States, or it is democracy, electoral democracy, that manages and rules London, this is completely ridiculous, because when we look at countries that are dictatorships, or soft dictatorships as in the case of Egypt, the day-to-day life and the technological activities and the patterns of behavior for most people are exactly the same. But it’s when you stray into those areas of Egypt and areas of Cairo, where the Interior Ministry is or where the Foreign Ministry is, that the level of paranoia and fear and the number of people guarding with submachine guns, and so on, increases. At that time, there was around 20,000 political prisoners of different types in Egypt. But remember, Egypt has a population of around 80 million.
So, this is always something that I am aware of, when you have an intelligentsia that writes, and writes about its problems, because this is the mirror image of the problem we now have with the mainstream press, which is, writers always write to their own favor and their own considerations and their own self-interests. So, a country which goes from a position of—can go from a position of not treating writers well to treating writers well and not treating everyone else well. By writers, I mean people who have ability to project a voice. So, for those 20,000 political prisoners in Egypt, they could gain no traction in the Western press. And yet, others, such as in Iran, we hear about all the time. It’s very interesting that Egypt was perceived to be a strong ally of Israel and strong ally of the United States in that region, and so all the human rights abuses and political abuses that were occurring every day in Egypt simply did not get traction.
And there was one moment where—rather actually unusual for Egypt, but perhaps a sign of the cleverness that came to be represented in the Arab Spring, where these 20,000 prisoners started a strike demanding conjugal rights, demanding that their wives be permitted to visit them in prison for sex, and then got some prominent muftis to come out and say, "Look, it’s bad enough that these people are political agitators, let alone homosexual political agitators." And that is then something that was picked up by the Western press, because it had this extra salacious flavor. And so, that was my—some of my experiences with Egypt when I lived there.
Later on, when we worked on Cablegate, we selected a French partner, Le Monde, in order to get the cables into French, because we knew that they would have an effect in Francophone Africa. Also, cables were published in early December by Al Akhbar in Arabic from Lebanon, and also Al-Masry Al-Youm in Egypt, although material that was published in Egypt back in December, under Mubarak, was pretty soft, because of the threats that that newspaper was under. But Al-Masry Al-Youm pushed hard, and there was—a number of critical cables came out about the Tunisian regime and about Ben Ali.
Now, of course, the argument that has often been used, including, for example, in the electoral result that we were involved in in Kenya in 2007, is you just tell the people what’s going on, and then they’ll be angry about it, and they’ll oppose it. But actually, the real situation is much more rich and interesting than that. Rather, yes, the demos knows, the population starts to know, and they start to know in a way that’s undeniable, and they also start to know that the United States knows, and the United States can’t deny what was going on inside Tunisia. And then the elites within the country and without the country also know what is going on and know they can’t deny it. So, a situation developed where it was not possible for the United States to support the Ben Ali regime and intervene in a revolution in Tunisia in the way that it might have. Similarly, it was not possible for France to support Ben Ali or other partners in the same way that they might have been able to.
Also, in our strategy in dealing with this region, and our survival strategy for Cablegate was to overwhelm. That is, we have Saudi Arabia, for example, propping up a number of states in the Middle East, and in fact invading Bahrain even to do this. But when these states have problems of their own to deal with and political crises of their own to deal with, they turn inwards, and they can’t be involved in this prop-up. So, Cablegate, as a whole, caused these elites that prop each other up in the region, within the Arab-speaking countries, and within—between Europe and these countries and between the United States and these countries, to have to deal with their own political crises and not spend time giving intelligence briefings on activists or sending in the SAS or other support. And activists within Tunisia saw this. Very quickly, I think, they started to see an opportunity.
And that information, our site, a number of WikiLeaks sites, were then immediately banned by the Tunisian government. Al Akhbar was banned by the Tunisian government. A hacker attack was launched on Al Akhbar. Many were launched on us, but we had come to defend against them. Al Akhbar was taken down. Their whole newspaper was redirected to a Saudi sex site. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a Saudi sex site. And they wrested it back through involvement of the foreign ministry in Lebanon. And then, what I believe to be state-based computer hackers because of the degree of the sophistication of the attack, came in and wiped out all of Al Akhbar’s cable publishing efforts.
The cables about Tunisia were then spread around online, in other forms, translated by a little internet group called Tunileaks, and so presented a number of different facets that sort of—that everyone could see, and no one could deny, that the Ben Ali regime was fundamentally corrupt. It’s not that the people there didn’t know it before, but it became undeniable to everyone, including the United States, and that the United States, or at least the State Department, could be read, that if it came down to supporting the army or Ben Ali, they would probably support the army, the military class, rather than the political class. So that gave activists and the army a belief that they could possibly pull it off.
But this wasn’t enough. So, all that was intellectual and was making a difference and was stirring things up in Tunisia. And then you had this action by a 26-year-old computer technician, who set—who self-immolated on December 16 last year.
AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Bouazizi.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah. And was hospitalized and died on January 4th. And that taking a sort of intellectual frustration and irritation and hunger for change and undeniability to an emotional, physical act on the street is then what changed the equation.
But there’s other things that sort of—a more systemic issue that was gradually breeding up, which is you had aging rulers in the Middle East that—whose regimes, to that extent, were becoming weaker, and that the intellectual management of them was decreasing. You also had the rise of satellite TV and the decision by Al Jazeera staff to film and broadcast protest scenes in the street.
So, most revolutions kick off in a crowd situation like this one, where everyone can—you know, all the time the regime is saying, "This voice is an outcast voice. This a minority. This is not popular opinion." And what the media does is censor those voices and prevents people from understanding that actually that what the state is saying is in the minority is in the majority. And once people realize that their view is in the majority, then they understand they physically have the numbers. And there’s no better way to do that then in some kind of public square, which is why Tahrir Square in Egypt was so important, because everyone could see that they had the numbers.
And that’s—you know, I often perceive that there are moments like that politically—yes, the Middle East was one—that we might be going through. You know, you saw, just before the Berlin Wall fell, everyone thought that it was impossible. Why? I mean, if—it’s not that people suddenly received a lot of new information. Rather, what—the information that they received is that everyone, a large majority of people, had the same beliefs that they had, and people became sure of that, and then you have a sudden switch, a sudden state change, and then you have a revolution. So, I often feel that we’re on the edge of that and that alternative ways of people becoming aware of what their beliefs are, what each other’s beliefs are, is something that introduces that truly democratic shift.
I’ve often lambasted bloggers as people who just want to demonstrate peer value conformity and who don’t actually do any original news, don’t do any original work, when we release original documentation on many things, although the situation is, very interestingly, improving. Often we find that all these left-wing bloggers do not descend on a fresh cable from Panama, revealing, as it did today, that the United States has declared the right to board one-third of all ships in the world without any justification. They do not descend on that. Rather, they read the front page of the New York Times and go, “I disagree” or “I agree” or “I agree in my categories.” And that is something that has sort of—that hypocrisy of saying that you care about a situation, but not actually doing the work, is something that has angered me. But it does serve an important function. The function that it serves is the function of the square. It is to show the number of voices that are lining up, on one side or another.
AMY GOODMAN: Before you respond, I just wanted to ask, since you talked about what you released today, you also have just sued MasterCard and Visa. Can you explain, this weekend, why you did that?
JULIAN ASSANGE: You know, when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers—actually, I spoke to Daniel Ellsberg last night. He told me an incredible story about that. But did you know the New York Times had a thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers one month before Daniel Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times? Fresh news. Amazing stuff. Yeah, I’ll leave that aside.
Sorry, what was the question? Oh, yes, MasterCard. So, when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, did they suddenly change things? Actually, Nixon was reelected after Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. The Vietnam War didn’t stop. The information was very important in all sorts of ways, and its importance over time was very important.
The most important thing to come out of the Pentagon Papers was the reaction to the Pentagon Papers, because the Pentagon Papers described a situation in the past, what the past was like, but the reaction to the Pentagon Papers described what was going on right now, and it showed a tremendous overreach by the Nixon administration, various attempts to cover things up. And actually, the New York Times really probably wouldn’t have published the Pentagon Papers unless they thought it was going to be published anyway, which they did. It was scheduled to be published in four months’ time in a book. Very, very interesting.
So, on December 6th last year, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, the Bank of America, Western Union all ganged up together to engage in an economic blockade against WikiLeaks, and that economic blockade has continued since that point. So, it’s over six months now we have been suffering from an extrajudicial economic blockade that has occurred without any process whatsoever. In fact, the only two formal investigations into this, one was on January 13 last year by Timothy C. Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury, who found that there was no lawful excuse to conduct an economic blockade against WikiLeaks, and the other was by a Visa subsidiary, who was handling our European payments, Teller, who found that we were not in breach of any of Visa’s bylines or regulations. Those are the only two formal inquiries. And yet, the blockade continues. It’s an extraordinary thing, that we have seen that Visa, MasterCard, Western Union, and so on, are instruments of U.S. foreign policy, but instruments of U.S.—of not U.S., as in a state operating under laws foreign policy, but rather instruments of Washington’s patronage network policy. So there was no due process at all.
And so, over the past few months—you know, we have a number of cases on, so we have been a bit distracted. But over the last few months, we have built up the case against Visa and MasterCard, under European law. And Visa and MasterCard together own about 95 percent of the credit card payment industry in Europe, and therefore they have a sort of market dominance, and that means, under European law, they cannot engage in certain actions to unfairly remove people from the market.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of other legal cases, I just wanted to ask you about what you face next week, the extradition case on July 12th. The Nation magazine has done two pieces. One is forthcoming. And they quote your new lawyer, Gareth Peirce, who is very well known for representing prisoners at Guantánamo, a renowned human rights attorney. And Tom Hayden, who writes the piece, interviewed many people in Sweden and the United States and sort of talks about a feeling in Sweden of an attack, very much represented by your past lawyers, on the Swedish justice system and on the integrity of the women in Sweden. And he quotes Gareth Peirce saying, "The—
JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, our lawyers never attacked any integrity of women.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, he quotes Gareth Peirce saying, “The history of this case is as unfortunate as it is possible to imagine. Each of the human beings involved deserves respect and consideration.” And I just wanted to ask if you are seeing this as a change of approach with your legal team in dealing with your possible extradition to Sweden?
JULIAN ASSANGE: Possibly. I mean, the situation—what has happened to Europe and what has happened to Sweden is fascinating. I mean, it’s something that I have come to learn because I’ve been embroiled in it. But it is intellectually extraordinary. So, we see, for example, that the European Union introduced an arrest warrant system. And that arrest warrant system to extradite from one state of the E.U. to another state of the E.U. was put in place in response to 9/11 to extradite terrorists, to have fast extradition of terrorists. And it introduced this concept, or rather recycled a European Union concept of mutual recognition. This is sort of a very feel-good phrase, that one state in the E.U. mutually recognizes another state in the E.U., and that sunk down into mutual recognition between one court in the E.U. to another court in the E.U. But actually, what it seems to be talking about, if you think about it, given the reality that three people a day are extradited from this country to the rest of Europe, is a mutual recognition of the elite in each country in the E.U. It is a method of being at peace. So, the elite in each country in the E.U. has, if you like, made literally a treaty with each other to recognize each other and to not complain about the behavior.
Now, you might say that, well, OK, we have justice systems in the E.U. and various countries. Yes, they vary in all sorts of ways. Some are better, some are worse, depending on your values system. But we have sunk so low that it’s not even like that anymore. The European arrest warrant talks about the mutual recognition of judicial authorities—so, courts. But it has permitted each country to define what they call a judicial authority. And Sweden has chosen to call policemen and prosecutors judicial authorities. And the whole basis of this term being used, in the original introduction of the European arrest warrant, was that you would keep the executive separated from the judicial system, that it was meant to be a natural and neutral party who would request extradition. And it’s not.
So, there are many things like this that are going on in that case. I haven’t been charged. So, is it right to extradite someone to a state where they do not speak the language, where they do not have family, they do not know the lawyers, they do not know the legal system? If you don’t even have enough evidence to charge them, you won’t even come over, as we have offered many times, to speak to the people concerned.
So, previous complaints about these sort of problems have led to some inquires in Sweden. For instance, the biggest Swedish law magazine, that goes out to all the lawyers, had a survey on this, and one-third of the lawyers responding said that, yes, that these complaints about the Swedish judicial system, they truly are a problem. On the other hand, it has also engendered a situation where the Swedish prime minister and the Swedish justice minister have personally attacked me and said—the Swedish prime minister said that I had been charged, to the Swedish public, when I hadn’t been.
So it is a delicate situation. The Sweden—the Sweden we have now is not the Sweden of Olof Palme in the 1970s. Sweden recently sent troops—recently passed a bill to send marines into Libya. It was the fifth country out to send fighter jets into Libya. This is a different dynamic that is happening now, and we have to be careful dealing with it. So it’s one thing to sort of be considerate of differences in the way various justice systems are administered, but it is another to tolerate any difference. And I don’t think any difference should be tolerated in the E.U.
You know, what is it that prevents the justice systems of E.U. states from fundamentally collapsing and decaying? We say there’s mutual recognition. It’s mutual recognition between the U.K. and Romania. And what if the Romanian justice system collapses more and more and more? Who’s going to account for that? Who’s going to scrutinize it? Is it going to be some bureaucrats in the EC that are going to scrutinize the Romanian justice system? No. The only sustainable approach to scrutinizing the justice systems of the E.U. is the extradition process. So, it is extradition lawyers and defendants who have the highest motivation to scrutinize the quality of justice in the state that they are being extradited to. And that’s a healthy system that permits outside scrutiny, and so it can stop European states from decaying. But the European arrest warrant system removes that possibility. It’s not open to us to look at any of the facts in the case in the extradition at all. That is completely removed. All we’re arguing about is whether the two-page request that was filled out, which literally has a box ticked "rape," is a valid document.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll end with Slavoj Žižek.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: OK, first, I’m so sad we don’t have time to go into it, because I found this, again, yet another this. By "this," I mean this strange mutual recognition and this absolutely—think about it, what you’ve heard—this properly Kafkaesque paradox of being extradited without even being charged. I mean, are we aware where we are? But let’s not take that path. First, I cannot but restrain from making an obscene—lovingly obscene—remark of how, when you said you were staying with the Miss of Egypt, no, I hope there will be some American fundamentalist who will say, “Ah, now everything is clear. There, you were seduced by that Miss who was really al-Qaeda agent, and then you were turned into a terrorist agent through her to do your terrorist activity. Now things are clear now." OK, so let’s go on with more—
AMY GOODMAN: We have one minute to go.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: OK, yeah, yeah, but one minute in this broader Christian sense, where time is eternity and so on. Very briefly, first, I’ll—that also those Palestinian Papers, that kind of you triggered the movement, I wonder if you agree. I’ve read them. What made me so depressive is that my liberal Israeli friends were telling me all the time, "Listen, we admit it. We are doing bad thing on the West Bank. But you cannot negotiate if they bomb you like." Let’s just—and if you, of course, examine Gaza, on the West Bank, there was practically total peace the last five, six, even more years. The image you get from these papers is that there was an incredible compromising spirit from the Palestinian side, offering them practically entire Jerusalem and so on. And it was absolutely clear that it’s Israel which is not interested in peace.
Second—just a couple of points. Second point, I think it’s so important the exact words you use, which make my point, which confirm my point—namely, how undeniable‚ they could no longer deny it, and so on. That’s important. You know, again, we are in this situation where it’s I know you know. I know that you know; you know, that I know. But we can still play the cynical game, "Let’s act as if we don’t know." The function of WikiLeaks, even more important, I claim, in concrete ideological, political situations, then learning us—then learning through WikiLeaks something new is to push us to this point where you cannot pretend not to know.
Which is why—let me give you another example. Again, I’m not a total fan of Obama, although I still have certain respect for him. But this is cynicism at its purist. You remember this outcry in Zionist circles where Obama made the simple point that—not even exact frontiers—that the basis of peace should be the borders, the ’67 borders. My god, the critical reaction was as if Obama said something—I don’t know—following orders from al-Qaeda or what. But this was the official U.S. policy accepted. Only the obscenity of the situation was that, although this was officially the U.S. policy, it was part of the unwritten deal not to talk about it, to ignore it. That’s our situation here.
Step further, Egypt. I know—you know what’s for me—and you had here a lot—the truth about Egypt. We, western Europeans, had this normal spontaneous racist attitude: no, we would love to see a secular democratic movement in Arab countries; unfortunately, all they can do is some stupid anti-Semitic, fundamentalist, nationalist, whatever, outburst. Now, officially, we got exactly what we wanted, a purely secular uprising and so on, and you know how we behaved? My last loving, obscene example. Did you see François Truffaut, Day and Night? Where a guy wants to sleep with a girl, tries to convince her for a long time, then finally they are alone because of an accident by a lake, and again he starts, “Please, let’s do it quickly. We are alone here,” and the girl says, “OK, let’s do it,” and starts to unbutton her trousers. And the guy says, "OK, but how do you mean? My god, just like that?” or whatever, like he is shocked. We were a little bit like that. Officially, we wanted secular democracy. The Egyptians said, “OK, I pull down my trousers. Here you have your stupid secular democracy." And, "Uh-uh, you cannot get it just like that." It was such a clear example of hypocrisy.
Now, really to finish, maybe the most important thing, what you already said, I think, Amy. I think maybe this is one of the ways, if we are approaching the end, to conclude it. Even if you ignore WikiLeaks, it’s changed the entire field. It’s, again, even at the level of publishing, spreading informations, you pushed things in a very formal way, to a point of undeniability. Nobody can pretend that WikiLeaks didn’t happen. And it would be very interesting to classify all reactions to WikiLeaks. You know, as different forms of, in psychoanalytic terms, repression, denial, whatever, some people say formally, “Yeah, yeah,” but try to neutralize it, like, “Ooh, another chapter in freedom of the press, investigative journalism." Others says directly terrorism. I wonder the approach I would have followed if I were to be on the other side, would have been something like, "It’s basically a good thing. It’s just misused by some extremists, you know." And then you kind of say, precisely to save the safe core of—good core of WikiLeaks. So, what I am saying is that, again, to conclude—don’t worry—this is the moment of truth. WikiLeaks is an event, not only because of what exists as in itself, but because nobody can ignore it, it changed the entire field. The point is not to allow to be renormalized, to remain faithful to it.
AMY GOODMAN: Just a note: Slavoj and I will be out signing books on the left in the lobby right afterwards and would love to talk to you. Definitely pick up a flyer.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: I don’t want to talk to people.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, you do. And end on—I wanted to end with this question. Julian, tomorrow, July 3rd, you turn 40 years old. What are you hopes for the future?
JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, there’s the big future, there’s the deep future, that one can long for. So that is a future where we are all able to freely communicate our hopes and dreams, factual information about the world with each other, and the historical record is an item that is completely sacrosanct, that would never be changed, never be modified, never be deleted, and that we will steer a course away from Orwell’s dictum of "he who controls the present controls the past." So that is something that is my life-long quest to do. And from all—from that, justice flows, because each—most of us have an instinct for justice, and most of us are reasonably intelligent, and if we can communicate with each other, organize, not be oppressed, and know what’s going on, then pretty much the rest falls out. So, that is my big hope. In the short term, it is that my staff stop hassling me to tell me to go.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK What I wish you to, all the best, is another, even more beautiful Miss Egypt.
Recent Shows More
The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to
democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions,