WikiLeaks can help us interpret and change the world

By Humphrey McQueen

More than 400 people crowded into a lecture theatre at the University of Technology Sydney on February 17 (2012) a public forum, “Don’t shoot the messenger: WikiLeaks, Assange and Democracy”. The forum was organised by the Support Assange and WikiLeaks Coalition.

Speakers at the forum included socialist historian Humphrey McQueen, Greens Senator Scott Ludlum, London-based human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson and Christine Assange, the mother of Julian Assange. Veteran journalist and broadcaster Mary Kostakidis chaired the forum.

The transcript based on McQueen’s address is below.

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I don’t have to tell you why we are here. Instead, having been introduced as a historian, I shall spend most of my time relating what is happening now to past struggles, and why they relate to the ways in which information is regulated.

This evening is the second time I’ve been on a panel with Christine Assange. We spoke together outside parliament house during the Obama visit. She apologised for not being a public speaker. I have to say that you should look forward to hearing her. Hers was a speech that would put any public figure in Australia to shame. Nothing that the leader of the opposition or the prime minister could say could carry not only the conviction but also the content. What made the difference with Christine’s speech that morning was she had something to say.

We also heard from a group of Congolese who spoke passionately about the nine million Congolese who had lost their lives in the fifty years since their fake independence. They were there to protest against the US mining corporations in their country that are responsible for that slaughter. Many of you would have seen the documentary by Raoul Peck on the life and murder of the Congo’s first President, Patrice Lumumba. A further question occurs: had there been a WikiLeaks then, we might have had the answer to what happened to the secretary-general of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold whose plane crashed in Africa in 1961.

Japan could also do with a WikiLeaks to get some sense of what is going on around the nuclear reactors. Had WikiLeaks been operating, many of the disasters that have happened over the decades, like the radiation leaks, would have been investigated in public and there may have been more action to prevent the continuing melt-downs.

We can do with a WikiLeaks here to tell us the extent to which the banks are lying to us about the cost of borrowing money. One thing we all need a WikiLeaks for is to expose this abominable phrase “commercial-in-confidence”, which we know means “corruption-in-the-cabinet office”.

As I said, I’m not going to take up the legal issues about Wikileaks. I want to go back and look at how the relations between information and power have changed in the last couple of hundred years. Throughout all of human history, the one percent have struggled to make sure that the 99 percent couldn’t read or write at all, let alone read what WikiLeaks has revealed. Within living memory, French was the language of international diplomacy.

Slaves in America were flogged if they tried to learn to read. They nonetheless resisted, using what was available to them — which was the Old Testament — to compose hymns of protest, such as ‘Let My People Go’.

The Church used Latin to befuddle the masses. John Wyclif tried to translate the Bible into English just before the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. He managed to die before the bishops got to him, but they dug his bones up and burnt them anyway. The authorities were convinced that he was in hell, but they thought they should do the little bit extra that they could.

It wasn’t only the Holy Inquisition that tried to stop people knowing what was going on in their world. No less than a president of the Royal Society from the late 1820s, a Mr Giddy, announced:

Giving education to the labouring classes of the poor will be prejudicial to their morals and happiness. It would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other laborious employments to which their rank in society has destined them. Instead of teaching them subordination, it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets and render them insolent to their superiors.

This is not the skeptical voice of science speaking, but the claim of a social class determined to protect its property.

When Marx was writing Capital, he used the evidence that had been collected by the factory inspectors who interrogated teenage boys working in Satanic Mills six days a week, twelve and more hours a day. They asked Jeremiah Hayes, aged twelve, what a king was. He wasn’t a complete ignoramus. He said: ‘A king is him that has all the money and gold.’ Yet he was a bit confused beyond that because he said, ‘a princess is a man’. William Turner was asked where he lived: “I don’t think I live in England. Perhaps it’s a country, but I didn’t know it before.’ Another factory-hand, aged seventeen, had been in church where he learnt that: ‘The Devil is a good person but I don’t know where he lives.’

Marx had some idea of where the Devil lived because over the page, commenting on the state of miseducation and the abominable conditions in which these English young people were living, he wrote: “Late at night perhaps, Mr Glass Capital, primed with port wine, reels out of his club homeward bound, droning idiotically, ‘Britons never never shall be slaves.’

By then, the Britons have decided that for themselves. Like the slaves in America, the wage-slaves set about to teach themselves how to read. There is a wonderful document called the ‘Bad Alphabet for the use of the Children of Female Reformers’. When I went to school I was taught ‘A’ is an apple and with the bite taken out, ‘A’ says ‘a’. These children were taught to say: “B is for Bible, Bishops and Bigotry …K is for King, Knaves and Kidnappery.” The power of capital was now up against the self-education of workers and the autodidacts who taught themselves to become champion a working-class movement and socialist groups.

Around the mid-nineteenth century, capitalists needed a more literate workforce. So they had to start educating more of their workers, which is a very dangerous thing to do, as the president of the Royal Society had warned.

After prime minister Benjamin Disraeli introduced the second Reform Act of 1867 to give one million working men the vote, a conservative member of parliament remarked “we must educate our masters”. He had no intention, and neither did Disraeli, of allowing these workers to become the masters. Compulsory education became a form of factory discipline, as Charles Dickens spells out in Hard Times. The cultural illiteracy that had horrified Marx continued and took new guises.

The political requirements of capital coincided with its commercial needs. Advertisers dealt with the surface of commodities, deflecting attention from the intrinsic properties. Glamour bathed every product from limos to packaged suet. Mass marketing installed a “culture of distraction”. If people were going to read, they had to be distracted from the causes of oppression in their working lives: sensationalism and crime in the police gazettes and, more recently, the promotion of people who don’t have personalities, like Paris Hilton. The media pictured Julian Assange in terms of his socks and backpack apart from the sex charges, and Bradley Manning in regards to his sexuality rather than on his motivation and the substance of the documents.

My favourite science-fiction writer George Turner in his 1987 novel The Sea and Summer refers to television as “the Triv”. To appreciate why that term is apt, we need to place television in the circumstances in which people live. The head of Channel 9 in 1970 was clear: “If people come home from work wrecked from a hard day what they want is to relax in front of the tele, and that’s quite right.” Well, it’s ‘quite right’ once we understand the exhaustion that modern work puts on people’s lives. But it’s not ‘quite right’ in terms of people’s understanding of why we are in that situation of time-poverty.

A further device for trivialisation from early in the 20th century was to reduce information to “the news”. Even if every item on “the news” were 100 percent accurate it would still be a lie because it would misrepresent the world as a blizzard of isolated items. If I’m interviewed and rub two footnoted facts together I’m accused of promoting a conspiracy theory. If you know two bits of information and you try to make sense of the world, this is a conspiracy theory.

So we have to ask ourselves, what is ‘the news’ telling us? If we listened to every news bulletin, every quarter of an hour, since we can have news around the clock, if we absorbed to every little bit, what would we understand about the causes of the current global economic catastrophe? If we stress ‘understand’, the answer is – Nothing! Our heads would be filled up with scraps which really couldn’t matter less. What we need are ways of understanding what is in the media, of contextualising what WikiLeaks reveals to us instead of boiling their substance down to fractured factoids.

Unless we understand the dynamics of capitalism, why it has got us into this mess, and why it could not do anything else, then all these bits of information are not going to be of much use to us in determining what we are going to do to fight back.

In conclusion, I want to take up a phrase that all of you, I’m sure, have heard, to wit, the difference between interpreting the world and changing it. Sometimes people put this pair up as if we could have one or the other. We can’t. In every aspect of life, whether in science or in politics, the two activities have to go together. The way we interpret the world is by changing it. We work on it, we do something to it, and through that experience we get a better sense of where we are going. And the obverse is true: to change the world, we need to be able to interpret it. Our task is to perform both, not one or the other.

A second and related point in conclusion is in regard to the Pentagon Papers and the comparisons with WikiLeaks. There can be no doubt that the release of the Pentagon Papers helped the peoples of Indochina to defeat the US invaders. Nothing can take away from the work that Daniel Ellsberg did.

But we need to remember that Ellsberg did what he did because the US was losing the war on the battlefield. That is what he had learned by going there as a true believer. He knew that the reality of defeat was documented in these official reports and felt he had to get this information out. The reality had changed, and so had his understanding of the war. The crucial factor in ending the war was not the publication of the Pentagon Papers, as useful as many of us found them, but the refusal of the Vietnamese to surrender.

That’s what ended the war, at the cost of two million Indochinese, and 60,000 Americans and other allied troops. It was that armed struggle that changed the world in Indochina, and indeed, in many ways, changed the entire world, because the Indo-Chinese showed that even the US, the greatest power on earth, could be broken and driven into the sea.

The combination of interpretation and change that the Vietnamese and their allies demonstrated is the vision that we can take from WikiLeaks and away from this meeting.

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