Broad Oak: your emotional support animal

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Passivity and moral implication

A letter to this week's Spectator magazine by a Thomas Furber of Greenwich directs us to the blog of Charles Stross for materials written by Julian Assange, "editor-in-chief" of Wikileaks. Stross' blog includes excerpts from and links to Assange's essays from late 2006, the period in which Wikileaks was founded.

These essays (3 Dec 2006 here and 10 Nov 2006 here) are a sort of attempted revolutionary rationale and have something of the flavour of the autodidact, which to some extent Assange is. They remind me of the 1970 film "The Strawberry Statement", in which the lead character (Simon) gets caught up in the feeling of revolution before he has any particular reason to revolt; at one stage, Simon composes and reads a revolutionary paper of his own, semi-incoherently, blah-blahing his way over passages that even he is impatient with. Interestingly, Assange himself rehearses the old Zen story after which this film is titled (see the entry for 24 October 2006 here).

There is an enemy in Assange's philosophy, but a very generalized one: "authoritarian power". As a child, my imagination fed on war comics, I would drift off to sleep absorbedly machine-gunning Germans running across a barbed-wired battlefield. I suspect the motivation in his case now is the same as mine was then: testosterone, the urge to have a go. The imagery used in the essays is tellingly violent - "knife", "throttle".

Mixed in with this is a sort of cybernetic analysis of communication systems in political circles and a reaching for ways in which communications can be disrupted to create disorder and the collapse of the tyrannous regime, to be replaced (of course) by "more humane forms of governance". (It's amazing that even self-styled right-wingers like James Delingpole harbour this delusion - his latest Spectator column ends with the words "Until we learn to stop thinking like slaves we shall never have the revolution that will set us free." It's as though neither man has read anything about what really happens in and after revolutions.)

As I said here a few days ago, I think the most likely consequence will be a mutation of confidential communications - more use of encoding, more done by whispers and note of hand, more sofa government but this time on the sofas of special advisers' homes rather than in Downing Street or the White House; that sort of thing. The system will react rather like Hot Lips Houlihan in the "natural blonde" scene in M.A.S.H.: humiliated, but afterwards enduringly careful - and resentful.

And yet... here is a footnote on page 1 of "Conspiracy as Governance":

Every time we witness an act that we feel to be unjust and do not act we become a party to injustice. Those who are repeatedly passive in the face of injustice soon find their character corroded into servility. Most witnessed acts of injustice are associated with bad governance, since when governance is good, unanswered injustice is rare. By the progressive diminution of a people’s character, the impact of reported, but unanswered injustice is far greater than it may initially seem. Modern communications states through their scale, homogeneity and excesses provide their populace with an unprecedented deluge of witnessed, but seemingly unanswerable injustices.

That chimes with me: the sense of being powerless, yet also defiled by inaction when action seems impossible. We see a self-serving and corrupt body of politicians and others - two ex-ministers publicly disgraced and disciplined yesterday; a coalition government of parties that didn't win the last General Election and very likely won't win the next one; the official exoneration of the banker who presided over the vast collapse of his firm and almost the banking system; ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair recalled to the Chilcott Enquiry to give "further detail" about how he led Britain into what many say was an illegal war; big bonuses all round for failure; and so on.

There is certainly plenty to be mended, even though I think Assange is not the man, and his methods not the means, to do it.

5 comments:

Paddington said...

My suggestion to my teen-aged son the other day was to shift to openly corrupt government, and to stop pretending that anything that is done is done in the best ionterest of the countyr.

hatfield girl said...

'Every time we witness an act that we feel to be unjust and do not act we become a party to injustice. Those who are repeatedly passive in the face of injustice soon find their character corroded into servility. ...By the progressive diminution of a people’s character, the impact of reported, but unanswered injustice is far greater than it may initially seem. ... [We have] ..an unprecedented deluge of witnessed, but seemingly unanswerable injustices.'

Do what you can, what you are best at; act where you are least afraid and therefore most powerful; never waste a word, a gesture, or a moment's more attention than is deserved; do not allow a good and fulfilling life to be warped by hopeless railing but aim well and aim to damage.

Never underestimate what you can do, never over-reach. Pick off what you can of what is not acceptable. Never give up.

James Higham said...

Great profile, Sackers - it fills out the details.

James Higham said...

Passivity is something we're induced into by all the little nastinesses we're encountering. This one needs thinking about.

Wolfie said...

What may be confusing many is that I don’t think we need "revolution". What we need is withered government in hand with diminished statute more robustly applied. Today's totalitarianism has been applied over decades to the extent that many have no idea that they are singing from the gilded cage of their own fashioning.