Anarchists are back in the news again. I haven’t tracked down the first newspaper columnist to use the A-word with reference to Julian Assange, or liken him to “the anarchists of the early 20th century,” as Chas Freeman did in his New York Times editorial this past weekend. But the word has suddenly gained new currency. An old specter is once again haunting the world’s ruling powers.
One of the happier, unintended consequences of Cablegate may turn out to be a public history lesson about anarchists and the role they played in American (and European) political life before the First World War. But right now that outcome seems much less likely than another — that all the hysteria over the new anarchist threat may lead to severe restrictions on the flow of information: Palmer Raids for the twenty-first century, with the Security State raiding and policing its own Cyber-State.
This is the view L. Gordon Crovitz takes in a Wall Street Journal editorial today, labeling Assange an “Information Anarchist”:
The irony is that WikiLeaks’ use of technology to post confidential U.S. government documents will certainly result in a less free flow of information. … The Obama administration now plans to tighten information flows, which could limit leaks but would be a step back to the pre-9/11 period.
Mr. Assange is misunderstood in the media and among digirati as an advocate of transparency. Instead, this battening down of the information hatches by the U.S. is precisely his goal. The reason he launched WikiLeaks is not that he’s a whistleblower—there’s no wrongdoing inherent in diplomatic cables—but because he hopes to hobble the U.S., which according to his underreported philosophy can best be done if officials lose access to a free flow of information.
Crovitz goes on to liken Assange to “Ted Kaczynski, another math-obsessed anarchist,” and connects the “philosophy” of Assange’s writings on authoritarian conspiracy to the Unabomber Manifesto. He has to admit that Assange hasn’t mailed any bombs or killed anyone; but Kaczynski is “serving a life sentence for murder.” Ergo – nothing, really; but it sure sounds alarming, doesn’t it?
(The best Crovitz can do along these lines is to argue that Assange has put lives at risk. This is something everyone likes to say; it adds to the drama and stirs people. To his credit, Crovitz offers the example of Dr. Hossein Vahedi, an American citizen who now fears that his relatives in Iran will be targeted as a result of a leaked cable.)
In this view the state would seem justified in concealing its secrets in order to protect lives. The idea here seems to be that the American state is, mutatis mutandis, benevolent, and those who criticize the state or even seek to thwart the power of the state are likely sinister, violent or evil.
Over at the New York Times, David Brooks does not go that far, but he sees Assange as “an old-fashioned anarchist who believes that all ruling institutions are corrupt and public pronouncements are lies.” I doubt Brooks would really want to defend the counter-proposition, namely, that all ruling institutions are not corrupt and public pronouncements are true. But that’s really beside his point, and not what has him and all his fellow columnists so agitated about anarchists.
It’s really very simple. In Assange and in those who revel in the confusion and embarrassment of Cablegate, these self-appointed guardians of the public welfare see someone who wants to “disrupt the established order,” to quote Freeman. Here you may be forgiven for asking whether it is the job of the fourth estate to defend the established order. An “anarchist” like Assange forces them to declare allegiance; and their allegiance is to the power of the American super-state: these are the champions of the Pax Americana.
Still, that doesn’t keep them from reveling in the confusion and embarrassment of Cablegate. Maybe all the antidisestablishmentarianism is merely a hedge.
Be that as it may, there’s nothing terribly wrong with defending the Pax Americana: in many cases, our lies and corruption are certainly preferable to those of others. The trouble comes when those who have been entrusted with keeping the state honest by investigating its secrets and reporting on its activities turn out to be the State’s most ardent defenders, and present us only with a stark choice between raison d’etat and anarchy.