Without whistleblowers, the West is lost
The biggest threat to Western democracies is not Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the transparency that he represents. It is the nihilism and self-indulgence that have come to characterise their politics
Earlier this month, CNN reported that a British court has denied Wikileaks founder Julian Assange “permission to appeal an order to extradite him to the United States, where he faces criminal charges under the Espionage Act.” Although Assange’s legal team will continue to explore its options, the snare around his neck is clearly tightening. Time is not on his side. The US and British authorities who are pursuing him can afford to wait for any remaining public interest in his case to dwindle in the face of wars, climate change, anxiety about artificial intelligence, and other global issues.
But if we want to manage such challenges, we will need people like Assange. Who else will expose all the abuses and inconvenient truths that those in power want to keep secret – be it war crimes or social-media companies’ internal findings about what their platforms are doing to teen girls?
The recent small-scale drone attack on the Kremlin is a case in point. While the Ukrainian government denied any involvement (attributing it to the Russian opposition forces), Russian President Vladimir Putin promptly denounced it as a “terrorist act,” and some Western observers complained that the Ukrainians were pushing the war too far. But what actually happened? The fact that we do not know means that events are playing out under a dangerous fog of war.
But one is also reminded of the last lines in Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera: “And some are in the darkness / And the others in the light / But you only see those in the light / Those in the darkness you don’t see.” How better to describe today’s media age? While mainstream media are full of news about Ukraine, notes journalist Anjan Sundaram, “enormous wars” in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere receive almost no attention.
This asymmetry does not mean we should offer anything less than full support for Ukraine. But it does oblige us to think about how we frame that support. We should reject the idea that Ukraine merits assistance mainly because “such things should not happen in Europe,” or because we are “defending Western civilisation.” After all, Western civilisation not only ignores the horrors occurring outside its borders; it is often complicit in them.
Instead, Europeans and other Westerners should recognise that, with the invasion of Ukraine, we have gotten a taste of what has been playing out elsewhere all along – just beyond our scope of concern. The war forces us to consider what we do not know, what we do not want to know, and what we know but do not want to care about. We need people like Assange to force such reckonings – to make us see “those in the darkness.”
Of course, one can criticise Assange for focusing exclusively on the liberal West and ignoring even greater injustices in Russia and China. But those injustices are already highly visible in our media. We read about them all the time. If Assange is guilty of applying a double standard, so, too, are Westerners who condemn Iran while turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia.
As Matthew 7:3 asks: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Assange has taught us to acknowledge not only the plank in our own eye but also the hidden connections between it and the sawdust in our enemies’ eyes. His approach allows us to see anew many of the big struggles that consume our media and politics.
Consider the conflict between the new populist right and the woke left. In late May, the Davis School District in Utah removed the Bible from its elementary and middle schools after a parent complained that it “has ‘no serious values for minors’ because it’s pornographic by our new definition” under a book-ban law passed last year. Is this just a case of Mormons waging a culture war against Christians? On the contrary, the district has since received a request also to review the Book of Mormon for possible violations of the law.
So, who is behind these demands? Is it the woke left seeking revenge for bans on material about race and LGBT+ issues? Is it the radicalised right applying strict family-values criteria to its own cherished texts? Ultimately, it does not matter, because both the new right and the woke left have embraced the same logic of intolerance. For all their ideological animosity, they mirror each other. While the woke left wants to dismantle its own political foundation (the European emancipatory tradition), the right may finally have mustered the courage to question the obscenity contained in its own foundational texts.
In a cruel irony, the Western democratic tradition of self-criticism has descended into absurdity, sowing the seeds of its own destruction. What issues are languishing in the darkness while this process hogs all the light? The biggest threat to Western democracies is not Assange and the transparency that he represents, but rather the nihilism and self-indulgence that have come to characterise their politics.
Slavoj Zizek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London and the author, most recently, of Heaven in Disorder