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A New McCarthyist Hysteria: WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange Responds to Espionage, Terrorism Allegations

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in London July 2 for an unusual conversation with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, moderated by Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman. Assange is currently under house arrest in Norfolk, outside London, awaiting a July 12 appeals hearing on his pending extradition to Sweden for questioning on sexual misconduct allegations. He has not been charged with a crime in any country. In this excerpt from Saturday’s discussion, Žižek and Assange respond to critics who say Assange should be charged in the United States under the Espionage Act of 1917 and that WikiLeaks should be shut down. “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,” says Assange. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go to London, where Democracy Now! was this past weekend for an unusual gathering. Almost 1,800 people gathered in an old theater in the East End of London to watch a rare public conversation between WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange and the renowned Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. I moderated the event.

Julian Assange is currently under house arrest in Norfolk, outside London, pending a court hearing on July 12th. He’s appealing extradition to Sweden for questioning in a sexual misconduct case. Assange has not been tried—Assange has not been charged for any crimes.

Yesterday we played part one of the conversation. Under his boot, Assange was wearing an ankle bracelet, an ankle monitor. Today, we turn to part two.

AMY GOODMAN: 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?


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.


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: Renowned Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, author of Living In the End Times, and Julian Assange, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, in conversation this weekend in London. We’ll return for another part of the conversation in a minute.

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