Thirty years ago, the typical right-wing person would have held a dim view of whistleblowers and their media accomplices. Those whistleblowers were always left-wing people with the strong odors that come with it. They were motivated by left-wing morality rather than republican virtue. Their complaints about the government were motivated by their opposition to America. These stories usually made those who stood for republican order look like the villains.
Probably the most famous example is Daniel Ellsberg. He is the man who released the top-secret Pentagon study of the U.S. government decision-making in the Vietnam War to The New York Times and Washington Post. This was in 1971 and Ellsberg was a fanatical left-wing antiwar protestor. He violated a number of laws in releasing those documents, but he was on the Left, so it was okay. Left-wing lawbreaking was always okay as long as it served left-wing interests.
That was another country ago. Today, the typical right-wing person has a new respect for the government whistleblower. You see this with Julian Assange, who is being transferred to the United States for a show trial. The only people speaking out about his treatment are conservatives. Here is a story in Breitbart that manages to tie Assange to an old paleocon concept. It is one of those times when you know they do not know the source of the phrase, as otherwise they would never use it.
The Assange story is a good example of how partisanship within the mainstream makes rational discourse impossible. When Assange was leaking information damaging to the Bush crusades, they were not fans of Assange. Of course, the Left loved Assange and treated him like a modern day Che Guevara. When WikiLeaks embarrassed the Democrats then the Left suddenly hated Assange. It took a while, but eventually the conservatives figured out how to back the whistleblower.
Interestingly, those same conservatives have nothing but contempt for Chelsea Manning, the sexually confused former Army soldier who provided documents to Julian Assange back in the Bush years. For a lot of reasons, Chelsea Manning makes for a troublesome hero for them. Of course, Democrats moved heaven and earth to get their favorite crossdresser out of prison. Then “she” turned on them, as it were. Saying bad things about the police state is no longer left-wing.
These cases, and you can probably put Edward Snowden in there as well, present some interesting dilemmas. The biggest conundrum is the role of the media in these sorts of affairs. They are the platform for disseminating the information being leaked by the whistleblowers. They also shape the narrative around the leaks to paint the person doing the leaking as a hero. The TV tabloid 60 Minutes recently did a puff piece on the leaker, Reality Winner, painting her as a hero.
In a rules-based society, people who break the rules should suffer consequences commensurate with the damage done by the rule breaking. A general principle of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence is that the punishment fits the crime. If the crime, however, prevents a much larger crime from occurring, the rule breaking ceases to be a crime and becomes a public service. While this theory makes sense to a sensible person, its abuse by the deranged and dangerous suggests a serious flaw.
Then there is the issue of the media. In the old analog days, it was easy to make an exception for the press. In these cases, they were treated like neutrals. Even though they knew the material they were reporting was illegally obtained, they were allowed to report on it because a free press trumps government secrecy. In the digital age where we no longer have a free press or actual reporters, this no longer makes sense. The media is just the marketing arm of the unofficial ruling party.
Can we have a civil society in the digital age when billionaire public relations firms are able to work with the state to embarrass opponents? This is what we saw with Trump when the New York Times got his tax returns. Clearly, someone in the IRS or Trump’s accounting firm stole the documents. Then they handed them to the press. This is trafficking in stolen goods. If the item in question was a piece of art from Trumps’ office, everyone involved would be in prison.
This is what makes the Assange case interesting. Whether the rulers know it or not, they are putting this idea front and center. If WikiLeaks is not allowed to publish leaked material, then how can the New York Times do it? There are only three solutions to that puzzle and one of them is the farce of a free press is now over. In other words, if only regime supportive media is protected, then we no longer have an independent media with constitutional protections.
On the other hand, if the courts decide Assange gets the same protections as the New York Times or Washington Post, then the age of secrets is over. In the digital age it is simply too easy to spill the beans on official shenanigans. This then spills into personal areas, as rich people make for good headlines. The NDA’s famous people make their staff sign suddenly mean very little. The only solution for the ruling class is to pump out even more disinformation through official organs.
The third option is the courts begin to nibble away at this media exceptions, which is something the Supreme Court has hinted at recently. If possession of stolen goods is the same for the media as it is for everyone else, then these sorts of cases become very complicated for the media. Suddenly, the SPLC publishing e-mails from one of the people they are harassing becomes a criminal case. At the minimum, it becomes the basis for a civil case against the outlet.
Taken together, all of this points to a central question that lurks beneath all of the recent troubles in America. Can a large culturally authoritarian society like American maintain itself in the digital age? The Assange case is only possible in the digital age and the contradictions it reveals are also only visible in the digital age. In fact, much of what ails modern America is made possible by the Internet. It may be that a secular theocracy like America is impossible when information flows even semi-freely.
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