Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 10, 2017

Risk

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:42 pm

On July 22nd, Showtime will be premiering Laurie Poitras’s “Risk”, a deeply flawed and controversial film about Julian Assange that he has described as a “severe threat” to his freedom. Despite Assange’s words, the best way to describe the film is as a study in ambivalence. As the director of a documentary on Edward Snowden (“Citizenfour”), Poitras and Glenn Greenwald made clear that their sympathies were with the whistle-blower. In making what amounted to a companion-piece to that film, Poitras adopted a cinéma vérité style that was punctuated by her own commentary in very small but highly critical doses. The problem is that her negative feelings toward Assange are not exactly supported by the footage, which cover familiar territory. Most importantly, you are left wondering whether she agreed with James Comey and the Hillary Clinton camp that Wikileaks acted as a “cutout” for the Russians who provided hacked emails from the candidate’s campaign that supposedly elected Donald J. Trump.

As highly useful background to the film, a June 29, 2017 Guardian article  hints at why this might have been the case:

While Poitras is no fan of Hillary Clinton, she does question the timing of the Podesta emails (John Podesta was chairman of Clinton’s election campaign), thought to have been hacked by the Russians and published by WikiLeaks in October/November 2016 just before the election.

But the major cause of her disaffection was the charges brought against Assange for sex crimes in Sweden. In one of the more disturbing scenes in the film where Assange was hung on his own petard, he is discussing a PR campaign to help his cause with a Labour Party politician named Helena Kennedy who warns him against referring to a “feminist conspiracy” for his own sake. He shrugs this off and alludes to a “tawdry, radical feminist” plot instigated by a woman who launched a lesbian nightclub. Like Bill Maher and Donald Trump, Assange seems to lack what Freud called the super-ego, a mechanism responsible for conscience. Or it could equally be the case that as Assange built up a cult around himself, he lost the capacity for self-criticism. Considering how the British SWP shot itself in the foot over a leading member’s Assange-like behavior, it appears to be a communicable disease.

Stupid enough to say these things on camera, Assange continued on his bumbling ways throughout. In one of the more grotesque scenes, we see Lady Gaga making a pilgrimage to the cult figure in the Ecuadorian Consulate where she seems a bit put off by his appearance in a suit and white shirt. Pointing to a closet with his piled up laundry, she says he should wear a “dirty, fucking T-shirt” so he’ll look like a rebel. She follows up with questions like “what’s your favorite kind of food”. It’s enough to inoculate you against Gaga, if her awful music wasn’t reason enough.

It seems that Assange has a preference for healthy food since another female sex symbol (erstwhile, admittedly) made another pilgrimage in December 2010 to bring him a vegan meal and words of support. That was Pamela Anderson, the 49-year old former star of “Baywatch” who condemned the “made up sexual allegations” against him.

Another sexual predator who has second billing to Assange in the film is one Jacob Appelbaum, a hacker who was a key lieutenant to Assange and a highly placed technician in the Tor Project that was designed to build a secure communications channel for activists. In June 2016, he was accused of sexual abuse by women working in the Tor Project. Like Assange, he has denied all the charges. Poitras mentions casually in passing that she had been “involved” with Appelbaum.

As might be expected, Assange still has his supporters, especially those who see him as a man on horseback in the geopolitical chess game that pits the West against Russia and its allies. Thomas S. Harrington, a professor of Iberian Studies in Trinity College in Connecticut, wrote a piece for CounterPunch titled “Risk”: a Sad Comedown for Laura Poitras that he described as “self-involved, reachingly [sic] melodramatic and filled with unfounded innuendo.” Harrington concludes that Gandhi was also a pretty awful guy in his own way but steers clear of assessing Assange politically. Since fools rush in where angels fear to tread, we might have expected WSWS.org to take up the fight against “Risk” on political grounds. They opine:

The various critics, wealthy and conservative, hardly make a secret of the fact they perceive Assange to be a disrupter of the social order and political system they hold dear. The most hostile of all are those remnants of the old protest generation, who still perhaps expressed opposition to the Iraq invasion in 2003. What they can never forgive Assange is that, for all his political limitations, he did not fold his tent, like they shamefully did in the mid-2000s, and join the pro-war, pro-imperialist camp.

Did I mention that they describe the sexual charges against Assange as “voiced by a noxious alliance of feminists, pseudo-leftists, establishment media figures, right-wing tabloid scum and various mouthpieces, acknowledged or unacknowledged, for the US State Department and CIA”? Well, at least they are consistent, having written profusely in defense of Roman Polanski when fled the USA to avoid arrest for having sex with a 13-year old girl.

Unlike Poitras, I have no problems with the Russians hacking Democratic Party emails and using Wikileaks as a cutout. If American politicians don’t want to be embarrassed by things they say privately, they’d better think about what they were saying in the first place.

The USA does this sort of thing on a scale that dwarfs Putin. It unleashed the Stuxnet worm on the Iranian computers used in atomic energy research that led to infections of computers in other countries as collateral damage. After the NSA developed malware to be used against its “enemies”, hackers got a copy and used it for a ransomware attack that infected computers used in critical care applications in hospitals around the world. This is not to speak of how it interferes in elections around the world, including Nicaragua when it was governed by the Sandinistas. The NED pumped millions of dollars into their opponents’ election campaigns without even bothering to cover it up. This takes the kind of brass that not even Putin would display.

Poitras’s documentary is very much worth seeing but it doesn’t begin to penetrate into the inner contradictions of Wikileaks that would have been present even if Assange had not been such a flaming asshole and sexual predator. A documentary should be made but not in the cinéma vérité style that suited Poitras’s someone subjective needs.

That documentary should cover matters such as how Wikileaks promoted a dump of hacked emails from Turkey that supposedly exposed wrongdoing by the ruling AKP. It turned out that no such information was present in the emails. Instead, as former Marxism list subscriber Zeynep Tukfeci pointed out, it contained “spreadsheets of private, sensitive information of what appears to be every female voter in 79 out of 81 provinces in Turkey, including their home addresses and other private information, sometimes including their cellphone numbers.”

It would also address Assange’s questionable personnel decisions such as designating Israel Shamir as its spokesman in Russia. Shamir is a disgusting pig who fits neatly into the emerging Red-Brown alliance being consolidated across Europe with generous support from the Kremlin. You have to ask yourself why Wikileaks would want to be associated with someone like Shamir who wrote an article on immigration and race that is filled with nativist trash like this: “In order to defend their policy of destroying society by influx of strangers, they invented and propagated a new blood libel, that of ‘racism’. People who resist the imposition of mass immigration are deemed ‘racists’ and precluded from participation in the scripted television discourse.”

Shamir urges immigrants to defer to the sensibilities of those whose turf they have penetrated: “Admittedly, I never tried to annoy the native inhabitants by playing loud foreign music, practicing strange customs in public, or purposely behaving in offensive ways.” When Shamir wrote a CounterPunch article 5 years ago supporting the Kremlin for cracking down on Pussy Riot for its “offensive” behavior, I answered him in my very first article on CounterPunch. As someone who first discovered himself culturally by reading William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, reading Shamir makes me wonder how such people can ever think of themselves as rebels. For me, the attitudes of people like Shamir remind me nothing more than the ignorant and racist garbage I heard from people in my very backward village that was accurately described once by Karl Marx as “rural idiocy”.

If you really want to understand Assange in political terms, the best place to look is not in the batshit crazy WSWS.org but in his first attempt to participate directly in electoral politics in the name of the Wikileaks Party that ran him for Senate in Australia in 2013. The party had a six-member executive committee that included Assange.

Another member was John Shipton who gave an interview to Sputnik News that sounded very much in line with Israel Shamir. When asked about Russia’s role in Syria, Shipton replied:

The Russian diplomatic skills are a triumph, and with the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, the BRICs last year in Far East and this year Syria and the Ukraine. There is diplomatic triumph second to none, and in our view the Russian President and Foreign Ministry people wish to bring peace to allow development.

But for me the biggest problem with Wikileaks is how it has fostered the growth of conspiracist thinking on the left ever since its inception in 2010. In November, 2006 Alexander Cockburn wrote an article titled “The 9/11 Conspiracists and the Decline of the American Left” that accurately sized up a malaise on the left attributable to the decline of Marxism:

These days a dwindling number of leftists learn their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules. Into the theoretical and strategic void has crept a diffuse, peripatetic conspiracist view of the world that tends to locate ruling class devilry not in the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition, but in locale (the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg, Ditchley, Davos) or supposedly “rogue” agencies, with the CIA still at the head of the list. The 9/11 “conspiracy”, or “inside job”, is the Summa of all this foolishness.

What Cockburn neglected to mention, and what has been unfortunately reflected in CounterPunch all too often both under his editorial direction and Jeff St. Clair who succeeded him, is a reliance on the “smoking gun”, which is more often than not a Wikileaks cable from a US policy analyst or diplomat that supposedly proves that the Syrian revolution was hatched in Washington. You don’t need to learn political economy from Marx if you can find a cable that says something to the effect that Assad “has to go” or some such formulation. Also, how much difference is there between the “inside job” analysis on 9/11 and the “false flag” explanations of the two major sarin gas attacks in Syria? Is there that much difference between the WTC controlled demolition nonsense and Seymour Hersh blaming a bomb dropped on fertilizer for the death of 80 people and the wounding of 600 in Khan Sheikhoun?

Even a publishing house that is virtually synonymous with Marxist political economy eroded its own credentials by publishing a book like “The Wikileaks Files: The World According to US Empire” with an introduction by Assange himself. Verso sent me an advance copy of the book that I found totally useless for understanding the US Empire since I tend to prefer the sort of class analysis found in David Harvey or the late Peter Gowan, who was a veteran of a Trotskyist groupuscule when he joined the New Left Review editorial board just like Tariq Ali, who unfortunately has succumbed to conspiracy theory himself.

You can get a flavor of this book by reading professional liberal Robert Naiman’s chapter on Syria that was reproduced on Truth-out in 2015 as “WikiLeaks Reveals How the US Aggressively Pursued Regime Change in Syria, Igniting a Bloodbath”.

Showing much less interest in class relations in Syria than in US State Department cables, Naiman cites one dated December 13, 2006 that was written by William Roebuck, the chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Damascus. Roebuck alluded to “actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send” that will bolster the opposition to Assad, including the Saudis providing media openings to Abdul Halim Khaddam, leader of the opposition-in-exile National Salvation Front.

This and other such Wikileaks material leads Naiman to conclude:

We are told in the West that the current efforts to topple the Syrian government by force were a reaction to the Syrian government’s repression of dissent in 2011, but now we know that “regime change” was the policy of the US and its allies five years earlier.

What’s missing from Naiman’s chronology is the period immediately preceding 2011, when American policy had reversed itself from Bush’s much more aggressive policies. If you look at the two years just before the Arab Spring, there is every indication that Syria had come in from the cold.

On March 26, 2009, Robert Worth wrote an article for the NY Times titled “With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk” that was about as far from the spirit of Roebuck’s cable as can be imagined.

Only a year ago, this country’s government was being vilified as a dangerous pariah. The United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Syria, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the region through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Today, Syria seems to be coming in from the cold. A flurry of diplomatic openings with the West and Arab neighbors has raised hopes of a chastened and newly flexible Syrian leadership that could help stabilize the region. But Syria has its own priorities, and a series of upheavals here — including Israel’s recent war in Gaza — make it difficult to say where this new dialogue will lead.

It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”

At the root of these changes is Syria’s alliance with Iran. Saudi Arabia and the other major Sunni Arab nations once hoped to push Syria away from Iran through isolation, and now — like President Obama — they appear to be trying sweeter tactics. For the Syrians, the turnabout is proof that their ties with Iran are in fact useful, and accord them an indispensable role as a regional broker. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries “have great stakes in maintaining good relations between Syria and Iran, because at difficult times they will find Syria helping them,” said Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s vice minister of foreign affairs, during an interview here.

The picture accompanying the article speaks louder than a thousand words, including all of those that appeared in Naiman’s stupid article.

Finally, let me conclude with a nod to Chase Madar’s review of “Risk” that appeared in the London Times, which although behind a paywall can be read on Madar’s FB page. Madar is the author of the “The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower” and would never be confused politically with someone like me. Here is a telling excerpt:

Poitras has been filming Assange for more than six years, from his press conferences to his (elective) confinement in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, after Interpol put out a warrant to question him on sexual assault charges in Sweden. She has turned from in-house video­grapher to critical journalist who has fallen out with Assange (though as she tells it in her voiceover, he asks her not to say that they have fallen out). Poitras has now been attacked by Assange’s lawyers for not allowing their client to review the final cut and for putting him at additional risk by bringing the raw footage to the United States where it might be subpoenaed.

The main narrative arc is how Assange went from being an icon of the global Left to becoming – temporarily, and surreally – the saviour of the American Right. “I love WikiLeaks!”, candidate Donald J. Trump grinned at a campaign rally last October when reading from the emails that some hacker had stolen from the Democratic National Committee and passed on to the website. (Trump mentioned or quoted Wikileaks’s Clinton leaks some 160 times in the last month of his campaign.) Assange, once the scourge of the American nationalist Right for publishing classified logs from the Afghan and Iraq wars as well as a quarter of a million classified State Department cables, suddenly became, in eye-rubbingly oneiric scenes, the bosom ally of Fox News media figures such as Sean Hannity.

Assange’s flirtation with the American Right didn’t stop there. His Twitter feed passed on the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was running a paedophilia ring in the basement of a Washington, DC pizzeria and he oxygenated rumours that Seth Rich, a young Democratic National Committee intern who was murdered in an apparent botched robbery, had been the source of the DNC leaks – and paid for it with his life. This was eagerly taken up and, despite explicit entreaties to stop spreading the rumour from Rich’s grieving family who had to fend off the vigilante “help” of conspiracy loons, the “story” continued. The story of Julian Assange is in some ways a depressing study in how quickly Enlightenment heroes can turn into conspiracy-freak sideshow acts.

16 Comments »

  1. “His Twitter feed passed on the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was running a paedophilia ring in the basement of a Washington, DC pizzeria…”

    Source?

    Comment by David Green — July 12, 2017 @ 7:01 pm

  2. Followed the link, but don’t see the evidence. Please explain.

    Comment by David Green — July 12, 2017 @ 9:38 pm

  3. You need to ask Chase Madar, who I was quoting. He is on Twitter and Facebook.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 12, 2017 @ 9:44 pm

  4. Nothing but dead ends; the link to the FB page is broken, and google doesn’t lead to the source of that quote, perhaps because it’s behind a paywall as you say. Nevertheless, this is a pretty serious accusation to be passed along so casually, either by him or by you. I would think that he would value his credibility, although I’m not surprised that you would make such a secondarily and vaguely sourced claim. You need to do the work, not ask your readers to. I’m being as tentative as I can here, but it’s hard not to think that you are so confident of your righteousness in negatively characterizing others that you just don’t care.

    Comment by David Green — July 12, 2017 @ 10:19 pm

  5. Also kind of strange for Madar, who has published many articles at the American Conservative (and I have no problem with that) uses that kind of language about Assange. In any event, it doesn’t seem in character for a civil rights attorney to resort to guilt by association to make his argument.

    Comment by David Green — July 12, 2017 @ 10:26 pm

  6. Ever since Vietnam, what passes for the Left in this country has relied on an almost supernatural reverence for whistleblowers and virtuous leakers of all kinds. This has resulted in a kind of senior establishment of leakers/whistleblowers who seem to reach the ends of their respective ropes and strangle themselves in an effort to go further, while anything they publish is crooned over as unimpeachable holy writ.

    Thus we have Sy Hersh and Theodore Postol–indispensable unmaskers of official falsehood in their time–peddling outright lies–or at least the fruits of senile dementia–about Syria, and now, it would seem, Julian Assange–without whom there would have been no Chelsea Manning revelations–skidding around without traction while he continues to live under virtual house arrest in the Embassy of Ecuador in spite of the fact that the Swedish government has dropped the rape investigation against him. (Be it noted, he was never actually charged with a crime under Swedish law.)

    I do think that the ultimate reason for Assange’s virtual detention is the determination of the United States government to get this man at any cost–and to get him not for his recent errors in judgement or for being played by Putin or for unacceptable relations with women but for the things he has assuredly done right over the years–for example, publishing massive and incontrovertible evidence of American war crimes. I find this stunningly unjust no matter how much of a shit Assange may eventually prove to be personally–or how unreliable Wikileaks may become as he declines. Assange may be a swine, or a partial swine, but he is indisputably being persecuted and that is a crime no matter what the s.o.b. may be guilty of in his private life, if anything.

    But this may be increasingly irrelevant politically.

    My takeaway is that we may be seeing the unraveling of a desperate alliance that for decades has granted the Left a lingering death at the cost of the one thing without which it cannot win in the long run; class-based politics aiming at the expropriation of private property in the means of production and the establishment of socialism.

    The Vietnam antiwar movement and the continuation of the civil rights movement after the sixties both relied politically to a very significant extent on a loose alliance with American libertarianism of which Assange, Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Counterpunch under the late Alexander Cockburn were or are all, in somewhat different ways, typical. It relied on the exaltation of the individualist moral sense, based on apodictic intuition, above everything else, leading to a frame of mind in which the unmasking of lies and conspiracies was the only outlet for social discontent.

    Ever since Occupy finally succeeded in putting social inequality on the political map, however falteringly, this extemist moralistic and individualistic perspective has been growing steadily more and more irrelevant. The world still needs truth-telling journalism and scoops, but increasingly this must come in the context of social and economic justice or fall into the swamp of empty conspiracy-mongering.

    The real story about Assange, perhaps is less the one that says he has become a Hersh or Postol-style pawn or catspaw, than the one that says what he was–and may still be–at his best is no longer as crucially important as it once was. Either the left rises to this challenge, or barbarism wins. At all events, IMHO, not only Assange but Poitras and all others of that stripe must now take a back seat to socialists who, if they do not for their part step forward to take up the challenge, may lose decisively once and for all, and who cannot be saved by any form of red-brown alliance that may arise to replace the lost love affair with libertarianism.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — July 13, 2017 @ 2:27 am

  7. Zero evidence of Chase Madar review of “Risk” on his FB page. Strange.

    Comment by David Green — July 13, 2017 @ 3:23 am

  8. OK, the review is at TLS: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/julian-assange-wikileaks/, but nothing on his FB page.

    Comment by David Green — July 13, 2017 @ 3:27 am

  9. re dave green:

    The wikileaks twitter account linked to a video that was “asking questions” about pizzagate.

    To be fair, wikileaks also routinely tweets crap like endorsements of Hersh’s theory about Khan Shaykhun and they never get flack for it. At least pizzagate is real and factual, relative to Hersh anyway.

    The only thing to keep in mind is that Assange has his own account, and does not appear to run @wikileaks. Assange does not appear stupid enough to be capable of composing the @wikileaks tweets. There difference in styles should be obvious.

    Comment by max l — July 13, 2017 @ 2:22 pm

  10. @Max; so you’re confirming that Madar’s statement, repeated by LP without comment, “Assange’s flirtation with the American Right didn’t stop there. His Twitter feed passed on the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was running a paedophilia ring in the basement of a Washington, DC pizzeria”, is completely baseless. Assange “passed on” no such thing, but now it has been “passed on” from Madar to Proyect. Strange especially, considering Madar’s advocacy for Chelsea Manning.

    Comment by David Green — July 13, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

  11. I imagine that Assad supporter David Green had trouble reaching Madar’s post because he was not friends with the FB account it was linked to, which was not Madar’s. In any case, here is the entire review:

    c/o Chase Madar, a review of Risk, Poitras’ latest on Assange.
    The Julian Assange of Westminster and Pentagon imaginings is a pale Mephistopheles; the real Assange, however, turns out to be as awkward and painfully unsuited to media scrutiny as most of us. In Risk, Laura Poitras’s unflattering new documentary film portrait, Assange often comes off less like a satanic or saintly genius (take your pick) than like David Brent, with the camera’s confiding close-ups revealing indignant sexism comically free of self-awareness. It plays like lo-fi sketch comedy when Assange and a WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison call up the US State Department in 2011 to announce the impending online publication of a few hundred thousand unredacted State Department cables . “Hello, can I please speak to Hillary Clinton?” asks Harrison.

    Risk is in many ways a counterpart to Citizenfour, Poitras’s Oscar-winning portrait of Edward Snowden. But whereas that effort was a stylish heroic bust, with clear exposition of what her subject did and why he did it, told by a variety of talking heads, none more articulate than Snowden himself, this is something at best ambivalent. “I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They are becoming the story”, says Poitras in her raspy, unemphatic voiceover. The film is short, only ninety minutes – nowhere near enough time to digest the enormous issues at play here but long enough to tell a few tragic stories.

    Poitras herself is one of the most eminent documentarians working today, and a formally sophisticated and deeply committed artist. Unbeknown to her, she was spotted by the US military filming on a rooftop in Baghdad in 2004, on the same day as a nearby ambush of American servicemen. After this she endured several years of border-crossing interrogations, FBI investigation and even a grand jury probe. (She turned documents from her copious FBI files, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, into part of an installation piece at her one-person show at the Whitney Museum of American Art last year.) Not for nothing did Snowden single her out to receive his secret tidings.

    Poitras has been filming Assange for more than six years, from his press conferences to his (elective) confinement in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, after Interpol put out a warrant to question him on sexual assault charges in Sweden. She has turned from in-house video­grapher to critical journalist who has fallen out with Assange (though as she tells it in her voiceover, he asks her not to say that they have fallen out). Poitras has now been attacked by Assange’s lawyers for not allowing their client to review the final cut and for putting him at additional risk by bringing the raw footage to the United States where it might be subpoenaed.

    The main narrative arc is how Assange went from being an icon of the global Left to becoming – temporarily, and surreally – the saviour of the American Right. “I love WikiLeaks!”, candidate Donald J. Trump grinned at a campaign rally last October when reading from the emails that some hacker had stolen from the Democratic National Committee and passed on to the website. (Trump mentioned or quoted Wikileaks’s Clinton leaks some 160 times in the last month of his campaign.) Assange, once the scourge of the American nationalist Right for publishing classified logs from the Afghan and Iraq wars as well as a quarter of a million classified State Department cables, suddenly became, in eye-rubbingly oneiric scenes, the bosom ally of Fox News media figures such as Sean Hannity.

    Assange’s flirtation with the American Right didn’t stop there. His Twitter feed passed on the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was running a paedophilia ring in the basement of a Washington, DC pizzeria and he oxygenated rumours that Seth Rich, a young Democratic National Committee intern who was murdered in an apparent botched robbery, had been the source of the DNC leaks – and paid for it with his life. This was eagerly taken up and, despite explicit entreaties to stop spreading the rumour from Rich’s grieving family who had to fend off the vigilante “help” of conspiracy loons, the “story” continued. The story of Julian Assange is in some ways a depressing study in how quickly Enlightenment heroes can turn into conspiracy-freak sideshow acts.

    How significant were WikiLeaks’s October revelations about Hillary Clinton and her circle in the DNC? Certainly the US media class feasted on the backbiting and palace intrigue, but it’s doubtful that the rest of the country found them that noteworthy. Given that Trump’s margin of victory was so razor-thin, however – just 80,000 votes spread over three states – everything mattered, and there is no avoiding the fact that Assange helped to elect Trump. Perhaps it was a decision made with the comforting assumption that Hillary Clinton would inevitably win; that was, after all, what nearly every poll showed.

    And so Julian Assange ended up casting his lot in with the most reactionary forces in the US, who have already cracked down on press freedom – banning cameras from press briefings, assailing the mainstream media as “fake news” at every opportunity, describing journalists as virtual enemies of the republic, with one journalist rounded up alongside a group of alleged rioters at the inauguration now slapped with a felony indictment. Nor has Team Trump felt obliged to pay back Assange any favours, with Trump’s director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, announcing in April that WikiLeaks would now be treated as a nonstate intelligence service hostile to US interests, along with renewed rumblings from the Department of Justice that a federal prosecution of Assange would be a top priority. Trump has remained silent about WikiLeaks itself after his earlier lovefest but he has thundered against unauthorized disclosures as a security threat, even accusing James Comey, the former FBI director whom he controversially dismissed, of being a “leaker”.

    Following WikiLeaks’s decision in 2009 to publish hacked emails of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (a move that pleased climate-science deniers, or “sceptics” as they call themselves), Assange justified the move in revealing terms: “What we want people to do is fight with the truth. If people shoot truth at each other, then after the bodies are cleared away all that remains are the bullets of truth and the historical record, then we can get somewhere”. What this misses is that truth is usually the first thing to perish in such combat, always a plaything of political power – not vice versa, as Assange seems to believe.

    Leaking political information will never be neutral in the way that publishing research in the Journal of Organic Chemistry is. Leaks inevitably carry a political edge moving along a political vector. And Assange, despite his precocious hacking skills – he was first arrested at the age of fourteen for breaking into an Australian telecom company’s system – never seems to have possessed any political vision or judgement beyond the most naive proceduralism, devoid of any sense of how power really works.

    Despite Assange’s confinement over the past five years, Poitras’s film is anything but claustrophobic, zipping around frenetically with establishing shots locating us in London, Norfolk, Cairo, Tunis, Berlin, Washington and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where the WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning was confined.And Risk has no shortage of true-life operatic contrivances: Assange dying his hair red and putting in coloured contact lenses to flee incognito on a motorcycle to the Ecuadorean embassy in Knightsbridge, Lady Gaga dressed like the Wicked Witch of the West lounging at the embassy and interviewing him inanely. (“What’s your favourite kind of food?” “Do you ever feel like fucking crying?”)

    One wishes there were more time to ruminate on larger themes. The major theme of manipulative sexism and misogyny does get full treatment, not only from its close-up on Assange. Jacob Appelbaum, a former WikiLeaks technologist and journalist, is featured throughout: dressing down Egyptian telecom executives for acquiescing to the Mubarak regime’s orders to shut down various websites and training Tunisian activists in how to use Tor, a platform for purportedly hack-proof communication. It was abruptly announced in June 2016 that Appelbaum had left the Tor project after a series of allegations of sexual bullying and misconduct. No criminal charges were brought against him – so much awful behaviour does not meet criminal standards – but the manipulativeness of both Assange and Appelbaum stands in for ongoing sexism in the tech industry in general.

    Alas, Poitras does not have time in this too-short film to ruminate on the true roles of secrecy and technology in political life. How important, really, was the choice of communication medium in the now-long-ago Arab Spring – and was it the lack of secure networks that allowed the Egyptian junta to sweep away the elected Muslim Brotherhood government? How much emancipatory power can new technology have when old political and social conflicts are inflamed? How much does it matter, as the journalist Yasha Levine has pointed out, that the Tor project is mostly funded by the US Department of Defense?

    While secret information and new gadgets make for great MacGuffins in film and paperback thrillers, the real-life impact of intel and new tech is often perverse or hard to detect. Like a nerve cell firing away energetically into a weak or nonexistent muscle, revelations about (for instance) US foreign policy are of little consequence unless there is organized political force ready to make use of them. Knowledge is a much weaker catalyst than intellectuals often like to admit. When I attended the annual conference of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations last year, WikiLeaks revelations were in nearly every bibliography dealing with the recent past – yet no one expected any major changes in US foreign policy. As one depressed-seeming younger scholar of US relations with Saudi Arabia told his fellow panellists: “the more I know, the less relevant I am”.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 13, 2017 @ 4:27 pm

  12. Thanks Louis, but what took you so long? Sincerely, David Green (Assad supporter)

    Comment by David Green — July 13, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

  13. re David. you can’t pretend like @wikileaks has nothing to do with Assange. He obviously tolerates it, while micromanaging a lot of other business, the question is why? Because he I realize that twitter is not exactly an scholarly conference, but @wikileaks is pretty trashy even by twitter standards, despite being “scientific journalists”.

    Louis, do you know what that exactly that SWP was accused of doing? I thought it was was worse than what Assange did, no?

    Comment by max l — July 13, 2017 @ 11:42 pm

  14. Yes, it was worse but I consider all of these predatory acts beyond the pale. My attitude has always been than an unwilling sex partner is no fun.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 14, 2017 @ 12:15 am

  15. Speaking of “pradatory” — @ #7 Farans correctly writes: “Ever since Vietnam, what passes for the Left in this country has relied on an almost supernatural reverence for whistleblowers and virtuous leakers of all kinds” but that’s only because both the Old Left & the New Left were at their base deeply Reformist in political outlook and loath to admit that the USA is fundamentally a predatory society.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 23, 2017 @ 2:14 pm


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