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The Assangic Method

January 4, 2011

I’m sorry if you’re no longer interested in the saga of Julian Assange, but this will be the last piece about him for a while.  It had been half-formed and deformed and reformed over the last few weeks (thanks a lot WordPress), so I just wanted to clear the queue of posts so I could get on with the rest I have started.  But more than anything, I don’t want to keep going on about Julian Assange because, as I’ve said, he is relatively irrelevant to the phenomenon of transparency and exposure that has unfolded around and without him.  But when you have strong parallels between Assange and Socrates going unremarked by anybody, it’s hard to let that post slide by.

Socrates: Truth Leaker

Plato’s account of the trial and death of Socrates would have us believe that Socrates was indicted by Athenian society for the trumped-up charges of “impiety” and “corruption of the Athenian youth,” which Plato equated to Socrates’ public philosophizing.  Plato idolized Socrates for his relentless pursuit of the unvarnished truth, no matter how upsetting that pursuit may be to his constituent Athenians.  And undoubtedly Socrates’ inquiries would upset most of the establishmentarian Athenians because Plato’s inquiries upturned established and comfortable truths, and the arguably “noble” lies that kept Athenian democracy stable (e.g., the exclusion of non-male non-landowners from citizenship).  The act of philosophical inquiry necessarily denies authority or history as determinants of legitimacy in the eyes of Plato and Socrates’ other wealthy patrons, aristocrats who could not overcome the low, democratic masses of Athenian society.  Plato therefore cast Socrates’ public and display-like dialogues with the respectable citizenry of Athens–which more often than not resulted in Socrates’ straw-man Athenian demonstrating hubristic certainty in the conventional wisdom and a lack of real knowledge and pure error–as the acts of “corruption” that formed the basis for society’s charge against him.

Plato put the tension most popularly in the “Allegory of the Cave,” in which he analogized that a philosopher (i.e., a lover of truth) would not shy away from the light of truth once he has viewed the world of real objects outside of the dim cave (i.e., establishment) light.  Instead, the philosopher returns to the cave where his brethren remain chained, and tries to drag them out of the cave to show them that there is more substance to reality than shadows cast by the real objects in the cave. But the people have already grown accustomed to the shadows, convinced that those shadows are reality, and hate the philosopher for the disruption of their lives at first.  The people could eventually acclimate to a world where they regularly stare truth in the face, but not without some serious transitional pains and controversy.

So when Plato’s Socrates refused to apologize for his philosophical inquiries at his public trial and chose the hemlock, Plato declared Socrates’ antipathy toward the lowly, temporal, and materially interested state and his devotion to the higher pursuit of more eternal truths.  Plato martyred Socrates, by pitting him against the unruly masses of a democracy, guaranteeing Socrates an eternal life in the hearts of lovers of wisdom (i.e., philosophy students) for the rest of history.

However, examining more sober third-party accounts like Xenophon’s (or even the more ridiculing accounts like Aristophanes’) reveals a narrative contrary to the revision of history written by Plato.  As a matter of historical fact, Socrates was tried for his seditious support of a group of revolutionary strongmen–the Spartan-supported Thirty Tyrants–who overthrew the Athenian democracy in a bloody coup.  These were folks Plato might have thought would rule more wisely than the Athenian democracy.  Once democracy was restored after another bloody coup, the men of Athens decided that their democracy had allowed too much freedom to someone like Socrates who publicly declared that the current form of government (i.e., majority opinion) did not produce truth or correct public policy, and that government must instead be controlled by the most knowledgeable and professionally competent.  The prosecution of Socrates was, in reality, an attempt to stamp out sedition, even though the public trial that ensued did little to mitigate Socrates’ countervailing arguments about the weakness of a state that does not countenance wisdom above the base desires of a crowd.

Regardless of whose account you prefer, there is no doubt that the relationship between the security of the state and the liberty of the individual to pursue and disseminate the truth is in inherent tension.  Socrates presented that tension clearly by the threat his philosophizing posed to the established order–and indeed, security–of Athenian democracy, but he was at best a figurehead or exemplar of philosophy-contra-state.  Centuries later, professors of political philosophy would claim that only a democracy as open as Athens could allow a Socrates to spread such anti-establishment philosophy in the first place; any more closed form of government would stamp out such dissent beforehand.  The Greeks after Plato, and most notably Aristotle, saw governments overturned many times in a generation, and thought that the best any fleeting government could hope for was glory or eudaimonia (i.e., “human flourishing”).  As such, it would be more worthwhile to arrange government in a way that would allow its citizens to reach their fullest potential, and the conventional wisdom in Greece was that democracy would tend to devolve into a catering to the lowest-common-denominator.  The American founders took their lessons from Aristotle, and determined that a supervening rule of law (rather than rule by the people directly) could prevent against the mistakes that frequently result from the passions of an inexpert or artless majority that care more for their temporary interests and security than more lofty and eternal values like freedom, glory, or truth.  Alexis de Tocqueville would later observe that the American people had a penchant for the tyranny of the temporary majority, which could have an erosive effect on that rule of law.

Assange: Governmental Interlocutor

Fast forward to the present, where the historical dialectic seems to have swung to an opposite end of the pendulum.  Julian Assange, like Socrates, is the scapegoat/figurehead of freedom of speech gone too far.  By exposing the uncomfortable truths and challenging the competence and honor of the institutional elites, under the mantle of free inquiry and pursuit of the unvarnished truth, WikiLeaks has taken on Socrates’ favored mode of challenging the present power distribution of the state.  However, whereas Socrates was attacking democracy in favor of rule by fewer, better men, WikiLeaks is attacking oligarchic and consolidated power (which finds strength in secrecy) in favor of a broader dispersion of power.  WikiLeaks’ ethic is the same as Socrates’ devotion to the discovery of more eternal truths, regardless of their effect on the state’s stability; both reject the proposition that long-term state stability might require some measure of noble lying for the sake of the masses of society.  Both reject suspension of disbelief, and would require facing the cold, hard possibility that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.

The parallels continue into the public’s reaction to WikiLeaks.  While the more fascistic and nationalistic have called for Assange’s execution, some in the media have called for Assange to be given a medal on the premise that the WikiLeaks disclosures have inadvertently proven that the United States is not such a big, evil empire it has been made out to be by its political enemies for decades, just like Socrates inadvertently proved that at least one version of Athens would allow for philosophers.  More relevantly, present day elites are willfully ignoring the truths that have been revealed by WikiLeaks, covering their ears and humming “la la la” as the facades they hid behind crumble.  They (and we, for the most part) ignore the cable that details how US contractor DynCorp sold child prostitute­s to Afghan police officers as part of a bacha bazi party (i.e., real, actual evidence of sexual crimes with victims who could not possibly consent, unlike Assange’s charges).  They ignore the cable that revealed that US and China colluded to derail negotiations at the climate conference in Copenhagen last year.  The stories just continue: Obama worked with the GOP to kill the torture probe; U.S. authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers; China was behind the online attack of Google; the Obama administration shipped arms to Yemen even as it denied any role in the conflict; Pope Benedict impeded an investigation into alleged child sex abuse; McDonald’s tried to delay US legislation in order to help fight a lawsuit in El Salvador; and the list goes on (h/t adamvasco).

But instead of asking about the validity of our governmental arrangements, if all of this can be hidden from public view or approval, everyone is wringing their hands about Julian Assange, and these real stories are getting lost in the noise.

The problem with the public’s reaction, as it was in Athens, is that the leaks essentially question the validity of the distribution of power, but instead actually discussing the correct distribution of power, the elites’ reaction has been to attempt to stamp out the inquiry entirely, thus setting themselves up in opposition to lovers of freedom or inquiry.  Where Western democracies used to be aligned with free inquiry (like the democracy that would allow a Socrates to arise in its midst), the United States’ government has positioned itself as its opponent or licensor.  By setting up Julian Assange as the martyr who stands for free inquiry, comment, and dissent, anyone who supports these values must necessarily oppose the government’s totalitarian reaction.  But that’s not to say that no government is better than any government.  All it means is that by stamping out free inquiry, we continue to fail to learn from the lessons of history.  No wonder Assange is reaching for the hemlock.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2011 3:55 pm

    Nicely composed piece, slickrick.
    The closing paragraph is evocative of Winston Churchill’s observation:
    “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

    BTW, “The Goldilocks Effect” is now a free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website

  2. January 9, 2011 2:09 am

    Thanks for this post. I evidently agree with what you are saying. I have been talking about this subject a lot lately with my father so just maybe this will get him to see my point of view. Fingers crossed!

  3. January 9, 2011 2:36 am

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who completely knows what they’re talking about on the internet. You amazingly know how to bring an issue to light and make it applicable. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

    • SlickRickSchwartz permalink*
      January 12, 2011 7:51 pm

      Thanks for the kind words!

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