Saved by Words: Political Activism & Reconstruction of Narrative as Answers to the Human Condition
Updated: Feb 2
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By Eric A.S. Harvey, J.D.
COPYRIGHT PENDING 2020
In The Republic, classical philosopher Plato uses his teacher, Socrates as a mouthpiece through which he can advance his vision of the ideal Greek government. During an attempt at distilling a perfect definition of justice from the radically inconsistent conceptions of justice that Socrates encounters as he subjects a series of geriatric statesmen to the Socratic method to explore what justice is according to each of them, it becomes quite clear that justice manifests when men do what they were pre-determined to do in the interest of the greater good of their countrymen at the expense of themselves.
For Socrates, it seems that service to the greater good entails selfless separation from the self. But, inarguably a eudaimonism, Socratic political philosophy, as it is presented during the discussions of justice in The Republic, is in essence characterized by the notion that “good” or “right” actions yield happiness. “Good” or “right” actions, geared towards the realization of the highest goals of a collectivity in a way that incidentalizes the needs of any given individual member of that collectivity, remedy the human condition, Socrates would say.
To realize happiness in the context of a harmoniously functioning political machine, men must do as divine providence intended for them to do, and not deviate from that in selfish attempts at personal satisfaction. Men must do this, Socrates says, to manifest the three cardinal virtues that sustain any truly unshakeable society: temperance, wisdom, and courage. In serving one’s community without regard for oneself, and in manifesting these three virtues, one may liberate oneself from one’s experience of the pain that is so fundamentally a part of being human. Happiness is found in self-nullifying immersion in the collective.
In light of The Republic, it is interesting to look at American author Tim O’Brien’s experience of The Vietnam War, as he presents it in The Things They Carried. Though he had qualms with America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, he enlisted once he reached draft age, guided by the firm belief that service to state is the highest calling any human being can experience. He was a student of the classics.
In The Things They Carried, O’Brien explicitly cites Platonic political philosophy as his inspiration for this line of thinking. Ignoring his family’s protestations against his enlistment, he headed off to Southeast Asia. O’Brien fought as an infantryman in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from February 1969 thru March 1970. These years are immensely significant, as they marked some of the darkest days of the war.
In 1968, the American public’s opposition to the war reached unprecedented heights. In the blunder that the Tet Offensive of that year undeniably was, it became clear that America would neither win the war quickly nor even win the war at all. But, presidents from Eisenhower thru Nixon had promised a swift victory over Communism in The Far East for many years. In the wake of the Offensive, however, it was clear that would not be accomplished. When the Vietcong decimated American forces and their South Vietnamese counterparts during this military disaster, and when media men deployed overseas caught graphic footage of the Vietcong’s bloody triumph over American imperialism, and when that footage was cascaded across every Americans’ T.V. back in the safety of the United States, the American peoples’ faith in their government took a turn for the worst. It was as if America were in the end times.
Despite how high the anti-war tensions were at the time of his enlistment, O’Brien still submitted to the draft. But he was not naïve to the ugly futility of the Southeast Asian military campaign. He recognized the American government’s perverted motivation in continuing the onslaught against Communism in Asia, so heavily emblematized by a false breed of patriotism promulgated by administrations since that of Harry S. Truman.
Under Truman, America provided clandestine support, both financial and military, to French imperialists under the notion that inhibiting the spread of Communism would only be accomplished through a suppression (led by France) of The Red Scare in Indochina—the earliest fully-fledged version of “The Domino Theory.” But, bankrolling French colonialists could not put out the fire of Vietnamese Communism. It persisted.
Truman’s policies on Southeast Asia were before O’Brien’s time, but they set the stage for the traumatic political terrain that the author would have to navigate as a young man heading off to a war he didn’t believe in. O’Brien felt compelled to serve his country in order to live in consistency with the tenets of his political science education, so deeply embedded in classical and Platonic notions of right and wrong, at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Not long after he graduated in 1968, he was shipped overseas to come face to face with the possibility of imminent death by North Vietnamese guerillas.
To put salt in the proverbial wound, not more than a decade after Truman had failed to contain Vietnamese Communism via the French, President Eisenhower, too subject to his political ambitions and ego to admit defeat as he tried to deceive the American public into believing that Communism really was the Ginsbergian “Moloch” that he effectively characterized it as, this former Four-Star WWII so-called “hero” general continued Truman’s support of the French in their deprivation of the Vietnamese peoples’ right to self-determination. Eisenhower, like too many other members of the American war machine during the 1950s, tried to convince Americans that victory over Communism was the only way to maintain democracy in the world; it would secure America’s identity as a superpower capable of guiding the course of human history, but not for Eisenhower's professed intention of liberating the victims of Communist dictatorships, but instead solely for the purpose of serving the interests of the United States. It was another chapter in the distorted narrative that American Exceptionalism is.
Making matters even worse, less than six months into his presidency, JFK failed the American public in bringing about the disaster that The Bay of Pigs Invasion was. Two years after Marxist-Leninist Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, the CIA armed and trained 1,400 Cuban exiles that had sought refuge from persecution by El Comandante’s regime, and the Agency sent them into Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Castro. In the wake of the Spanish American War, the United States had become pre-occupied with Cuba as a source of invaluable natural resources. In an attempt to maintain unrestricted access to those resources, they facilitated the rise of military dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, who ruled Cuba prior to his overthrow by Castro. Ultimately, to suppress the Cuban public’s resistance to the puppet for American imperialism that Batista was, Batista instituted draconian measures, including prohibitions on the right to strike. So obviously an assault on the rights of the working class, which Batista abused to augment his own wealth and power and concentrate wealth and power within the circle of elites that served him, Batista set the stage for the destruction of his own government.
Then, in 1961, the CIA initiated its combat with the embodiment of Communism that Castro was. Castro had determined to re-distribute the wealth Batista had so selfishly retained for himself and his seconds-in-command. In line with the underpinnings of Marxist-Leninism, Castro’s initiative was meant to restore universal Cuban prosperity. The planned redistribution of wealth created anxieties in the American government of the early 60s; it meant the likelihood of a complete bar on America’s access to a resource-rich Cuba. In order to re-distribute wealth, Castro would have to restore the Cuban proletariat’s exclusive entitlement to the products of its labor, thus completely depriving the American government of access to those natural resources uniquely abundant in the Caribbean Sea island nation. But the CIA was unsuccessful, and the American-backed army of 1,400 was brutally laid to waste. Only seven years later, the Tet Offensive would taint America’s legacy, as well.
When Kennedy was assassinated 22 November 1963 in Dallas, Texas, Vice President Lyndon B Johnson by default ascended into the office of the presidency—the beginning of the end for America's involvement in Southeast Asia. Exaggerating the threat of North Vietnamese aggression, falsifying information about attacks by North Vietnamese forces on American military vessels off the eastern coast of Vietnam, and motivated by the dual purpose of his professed intention to further America’s Cold War era anti-Communist foreign policy to contain the Red Scare and to maintain America’s access to the valuable natural resources of the Far East, he signed into law The Tonkin Gulf Resolution 7 August 1964. The Resolution gave LBJ criminally broad powers to wage war against North Vietnam. One of the biggest bombing campaigns in American history immediately ensued.
This is the atmosphere of corruption that O’Brien entered into as a young man. And throughout The Things They Carried and in many of his other works, he takes aim at all levels of American society in his acerbic critique of its motivation to pursue victory over Communism in remote regions of the world.
Explaining one of the factors he believed was most dispositive in tipping America toward militant engagement of the Vietcong, he indicts regular working-class Americans, disabled in their lack of political acumen by bucolic ignorance, pointing more specifically to the uneducated masses of his Mid-Western hometown, Austin, Minnesota. In a lecture he delivered 21 April 1999 at Brown University, he said:
"[…] as a town that congratulates itself, day after day, on its own ignorance of the world: a town that got us into Vietnam. Uh, the people in that town sent me to that war, you know, couldn't spell the word 'Hanoi' if you spotted them three vowels."
Available at: http://cds.library.brown.edu/projects/WritingVietnam/obrien.html, Accessed 11 October 2020.
Expressing disillusionment with the corrupt bases upon which he believed not only the Vietnam War was waged, but also all wars are waged, O’Brien, in another one of his works, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, subtly condemns celebration of perverted breeds of false patriotism in saying, “Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.”
Put differently, war in its terrifying brutishness is motivated by ignorance, and it only perpetuates ignorance. A soldier may intimately bear witness to cruelty in the killing fields, but O’Brien worries that so many of the young men driven to participate in the war, goaded into the conflict by the deceptively glorified pictures of the military that Army, Navy, and Marines recruiters painted when they visited high schools to pray upon these young men's naïve, but still insatiable appetite for adventure, would not live through any meaningful experiences they were told waited for them in Southeast Asia. These young men would not bring back earth-shatteringly poignant war stories that fully encompassed the real meaning of the Vietnam War and their experience of it. They would not be able to do this because foot soldiers are merely grunts. They hold no real value for the broader scheme of any military campaign. So, in the meaninglessness of their function, these young men could only bring back stories of their meaninglessness, accounts perhaps exciting in how saturated with battlefield madness they were, but still of no consequence as the foot soldier almost always has no grasp on the reality of what they really are doing. They are merely taking orders. Only out of fear of penalty for subversion, they do as they are told. They're not humans capable of making intelligent decisions; they are just not permitted to be that. They are not self-reflective human beings. They are unconscious tools that the American government abuses for its own selfish reasons. To put it more succinctly, the American war machine romanticized the struggle they said young men would live through on an invariable basis should they go off to Vietnam for the adventure of a lifetime. This is the breed of patriotism that O'Brien despises.
It is at this point in O’Brien’s text, as he comments on the unavoidably flawed nature of storytelling, as he diagnoses it in so many vets’ deprivation of the profound experiences they were promised, that he analyzes the necessary deficiencies of all narratives—a point that will become indispensable later in this article.
According to O’Brien, these deficiencies are the result of human frailties in the forms of terminally weak memory, how subservient to the irrational mind all men are, most men's inability to fully construct their identity in the face of societies that will only permit them to be as their respective societies would have them be, and the residual trauma that so many Vietnam vets preponderantly faced—a perhaps never more acute and widespread incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, which coincided with how a large faction of the mainstream American public made vets into pariahs, wrongfully assigning full culpability for the moral and foreign policy failure that the Vietnam War was to the cogs in the American war machine that all vets were. But codifying his experiences in Vietnam, through the words he uses in The Things They Carried within the context of his classics-oriented education, O’Brien attempts to apply meaning to the absurd. It is a Sisyphean attempt to find redemption in what would otherwise be random brutality of such a magnitude that he could not continue existing within it. I will later in this article explore the ability to find value in pain that literary pursuits provide.
Toward the end of proving O’Brien’s use of war as a metaphor for the severity of the human condition, and toward the end of proving that O’Brien views Platonic notions about service to state as a remedy for the human condition, let’s review another passage from The Thing They Carried. O’Brien writes:
"They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing--these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice.... Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to."
The diction in this passage is key. Grief, terror, love, longing, and cowardice are some of the more potent elements of the human experience. And in how extreme they are, they capture the breadth of that experience. Again, to put it differently, war forces man to face the profundity of his experience as a human animal by fixating his eyes on the most basic drive we viscerally possess—the will to survive. It brings out the best in people, but it also brings out the worst in them. At one time, O’Brien describes the altruistic love that fellow soldiers exhibit towards one another, when, for example, after the legs of one are blown off by a concealed mine, and although the group to which that victim belongs is under overwhelming attack, uninjured soldiers simply won’t leave a man behind. In one of the more disturbing scenes, however, one of O’Brien’s fellow soldiers ties a friend’s puppy to a mine and detonates it. The brutal contrast between these two extremes captures how reflective of the full scope of the human condition that war is.
In a powerful demonstration of any author’s undeniable indispensability in attempts to contextualize human suffering within well-delineated intellectual frameworks (such as that of the Platonic notion of service to state) toward the liberation of people from that suffering, and despite how nasty, brutish, and short a light the Southeast Asian military campaign caste upon American life, O’Brien derived a profound book from his wartime experiences about the burdens man carries simply because he is a man. This is not just a book about war. It is about the struggles man faces as a man, subject to all of his human weaknesses.
The Things They Carried is a profound title. In the most concrete sense, it is merely a reference to the back-breaking burden every infantryman shoulders, as he carries hundreds of pounds of military equipment across vast swatches of brutally inhospitable landscapes. In the other more figurative respect, the title is a reference to the torturous psycho-spiritual burden all men carry simply because they can’t help but be subject to the pain that goes hand in hand with their experience of existence as a self-reflective and conscious human being. But, although it is clear that the brutality of Vietnam haunts O’Brien to the deepest recesses of his soul, and although in Vietnam he often starred hopelessly into the mortal void that aggression from North Vietnamese guerrillas was, he seems at peace by the conclusion of the book. He may have garnered priceless wisdom about how to live well despite the human condition from his experiences in Vietnam only because he comfortingly and meaningfully locates his experience within redeeming, hopeful, and philosophical intellectual frameworks, but use of these frameworks still is the way by which he leads a fulfilling existence in the decades following his service. Unlike so many of the less fortunate souls alongside whom he fought, who returned to the States irreversibly traumatized and doomed to an existence of mental illness, homelessness, drug addiction, and life as outcasts, he re-integrates into American society quite well. Before engaging in a graduate school study of government at Harvard University, he worked as an intern in a journalistic capacity at The Washington Post in 1971—one of the most exciting times for journalists insofar as this was the year of New York Times Co. v. U.S., where the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the government’s attempt at prior restraint on NYT’s release of The Pentagon Papers. As an intern in a journalistic capacity at a time when it may have never been more apparent how powerful an influence the free press can have on combatting government corruption, I would like to believe O'Brien was immersed in the liberal ideology that espouses the notion that fact-based story-telling in the form of news articles is integral to the maintenance of a truly free and democratic state; informing the American public allows the American public to meaningfully oppose any problematic aspects of its government.
O’Brien’s struggle and his triumph over that struggle is like how French author Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus attempted to provide his readers, initially his countrymen, with an alternative to suicide, as they faced extermination by the Nazis in Occupied France. As Camus’ life shows in the years following the liberation of the French from the Nazis by the Allied Forces at the end of WWII, service to state (which, in Camus' case, is how he reinforced his countrymen's sense of their ability to self-determine through narratives that capture how perseverant the soul can be even under the most traumatic of circumstances) drives a traumatized man through his suffering, and it facilitates his recovery from that trauma. It is beautiful that Camus did not succumb to his pain, and instead received the highest honor that any author can be privileged enough to enjoy; in 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and memories of the positive influence he had on his countrymen, and memories of his symbolic victory over the erasure of one’s identity and being that fascists aim to perpetrate are permanently inscribed into the annals of history. For his philosophical and literary service, his countrymen revered him as the epitome of a hero. And his prosperity reflected that of France in general, as the country slowly, but surely regained the robustness of its cultural identity in the years immediately following WWII. The same may be said of French Existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, whose equally as valuable contribution to France's recovery from National Socialism is analyzed in an article on TheReframer.org, titled "The Life-Affirming Political Relevance of Jean-Paul Sartre: An Examination of Sartre Throughout History and in the Context of the Coronavirus."
In Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’ tragic hero, Sisyphus must face the painful reality that he will spend the rest of eternity pushing a massive rock up a hill at the beginning of every day only for the force that guides the universe to send the rock careening back to the bottom of the hill at the end of every day. Soul-crushingly weary after a day of unspeakably hard and seemingly pointless labor, Sisyphus must force himself to sleep at night, though he knows that upon waking he will have no option but to push the rock back up the hill into perpetuity. But, when Sisyphus realizes that allowing his fate to plague him with angst will only transform his experience of life into a Hell on earth of sorts, he submits to his fate. The act of submission engenders in him an existentially fulfilling sense of honor. To put it in colloquial terms, he learns to go with the flow. At the conclusion of his myth, Camus writes:
"I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
Available at: https://www2.hawaii.edu/~freeman/courses/phil360/16.%20Myth%20of%20Sisyphus.pdf, Accessed 11 October 2020.
O’Brien finds value in his suffering through applying meaning to it. In the same way, transforming his mindset around how he conceives of the narrative that his existence is, Sisyphus finds happiness in struggle. Man’s use of words in the construction of his narrative allows him to shoulder the cross that has been forced upon him, and it allows him to carry it even to his crucifixion without a sense of defeat. That is as evident in The Things They Carried as it is in Camus’ myth. To quote former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Reframing their experience of reality through willful revisions to how they subjectively grasp their respective narratives, O'Brien and Sisyphus live well despite their pain by seeing the value of that pain. To put it differently, like the Churchillian optimist, they see "the opportunity in every difficulty." And an opportunity is not a cause of terminal, ultimate, and unbearable suffering. It is something to be grateful for. It is by identifying the value of pain in struggle that man lives well in the face of the absurd. These are the ideas that O'Brien, Camus, and Sartre gifted to their countrymen. And in the relevance of these gifts to overcoming the national trauma each writer addressed, these authors were engaged in political service.
Self-reflexively meditating on the merits and deficiencies of narrative in man's attempts at peacefully co-existing with the pain that is so necessarily a part of the human condition, O’Brien celebrates the value of storytelling throughout The Things They Carried. Let’s re-iterate that it is interesting that he worked as an intern in a journalistic capacity at The Washington Post before proceeding to grad school at Harvard. Fourth president of the United States James Madison once said that, “The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” So, a man destined to write a fictionalized account of his experiences in Vietnam as a way to calm his soul in the wake of the horrors he experienced there began his career as a writer of fiction amidst news columnists. What might that say about the value of the press? At least, for O'Brien, The Post may have been a point of origin for his pursuit of a career in writing fiction, which would yield a powerful framework in the form of The Things They Carried, around which readers could organize their experiences of reality in order not to succumb to the pain of that reality. Man, perhaps most commonly in fiction, can save his own soul through stringing words together. Man can also, perhaps most commonly in journalism, save the soul of his country by stringing words together. The point is that both involve the construction of narratives through the use of words. But, I do not mean to say that fiction only serves the soul of a man, while journalism only serves the soul of a country. The objectives for each may very well be interchangeable.
O’Brien once articulated in a quite matter-of-fact way the notion that story-telling is salvation, when he said, “[…] stories can save us.” At another time, he also remarked that, “Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.” Here, O’Brien seems to nearly quote a statement that the aforementioned Camus makes in a manuscript of The Stranger, suggesting that, although I have never read about whether O’Brien was consciously influenced by the French writer, both men handled their pain in a comparable and literary fashion. In that manuscript of The Stranger, published in 1942, 48 years before The Things They Carried hit shelves in 1990, Camus says, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Camus’ The Stranger both deal with modern man’s sense of alienation from himself as he faces the absurd in the form of an oppressive government to which he is subject or a hollowly constructed society in the form of the all-too-often meaningless relationships he cultivates. The former is explicitly the case in O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and it is implicitly the case in Camus' The Stranger. The latter is not as applicable to O'Brien. However, it is entirely evident in Camus' novel. In other words, both books deal with each author’s existential struggle to realize themselves in a cruel world. Both O’Brien and Camus react to these systems of oppression by finding hope for themselves and their countrymen in their respective constructions of narrative.
That said, it is true that journalism is meant to be fact-based, and in that way, it may not be like fiction. But writing is an act of self-determination. Choosing words, man chooses himself, even when his society tries to make decisions for him; with words that he chooses, man constructs his narrative in a way that allows him to live well despite his humanness, unavoidably terminal and painful. Words and writing serve the soul in its desperate propensity towards realizing itself. For example, NYT’s publication of The Pentagon Papers, despite the government’s attempt to restrain NYT from publishing The Papers, unprecedently heightened American opposition to the Vietnam War. And it has been posited that the public’s exposure to the atrocities of Vietnam as a result of The Pentagon Papers precipitated America’s withdrawal from Southeast Asia, the resolution of one of America’s worst military campaigns. Journalism saves the soul of a country, The Pentagon Papers case suggests. Fiction serves man’s need to realize himself despite angst, O’Brien’s novel suggests.
This brings me to my sense of injustice over what is happening to Wikileaks founder and former editor-in-chief Julian Assange—the quintessential journalist willing to sacrifice everything to bring government corruption to light for the sake of readers’ enlightenment. A publisher and so perhaps a storyteller too, Assange is integral to contextualizing the human condition for the purpose of liberating man from his suffering. He may seem to be merely a political actor. But, as I explored in my most recent article on TheReframer.org, he is a journalist, pure and simple to his core. And in exposing the atrocities that the American government has perpetrated nearly everywhere in the world for far too long, he gives the victims of American abuse hope. He is like any good storyteller in that way, even though he does not pen the documents that Wikileaks circulates.
As Camus and Sartre authored their respective works as a rightfully dissentient response to fascism and as O’Brien penned The Things They Carried as a righteously accusatory answer to America's abuses in Southeast Asia, Assange has engaged in his own breed of publication as a retort to American imperialism, particularly as it has manifested in consistency with American Exceptionalism from the 1990s thru the present. And in this retort Assange has exemplified what a good journalist is supposed to be—a champion of the downtrodden that is willing to put their life on the line to expose abusive practices within government.
But, Assange is rotting in Belmarsh maximum security prison in the UK, experiencing acute symptoms of PTSD, suffering through the resurgence of life-long depression that was under control until the last years of his time in the Ecuadorian Embassy, forced by the English prison guards to take unidentified psychiatric drugs that are curtailing his higher cognitive functions to the point that he cannot really assist in his lawyers’ defense of him, always deprived of visitation with his family, and existing under constant threat of extradition to the United States. To illustrate the gravity of what extradition means for Assange, let’s refer to the claim of Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London Michael Kopelman, who psychiatrically assessed Assange for his defense and testified at one of the recent extradition trial hearings, that Assange will most certainly commit suicide if extradited. I take this assessment of Assange’s mental health from an article on the proceedings against Assange, titled “Your Man in the Gallery: Assange Hearing Day 15,” published 25 September 2020 and written by radically far left academic Norman Finkelstein.
Assange is a hero. But he is being treated like a criminal. He has only ever stood for the liberation of victims since he first engaged in digital political activism in the late 1980s as a teenager. The light Wikileaks shed on corruption within the electoral system in Nairobi in the mid to late 2000s resulted in meaningful, positive, and truly democratic reform to that system. It symbolized the celebration of an oppressed peoples’ human right to self-determination. With the release of “Collateral Murder,” footage taken from a camera inside of an Apache helicopter hovering miles above Baghdad as it blew to bits innocent Iraqi civilians, caused casualties amongst children, and killed two Reuters reporters, Assange drew attention to how awful America’s post-9/11 involvement in The Middle East was. Not too long after that, Wikileaks' publication of “The Afghan War Diary,” provided to Assange by former U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning, exponentially augmented opposition by major factions within America and around the world to the war. The Diary detailed mass civilian casualties, the sexual exploitation of Arab children by U.S. military contractors, the widespread and virtually unrestricted practice of torture in detainment facilities, and far worse. And in protecting the identity of all of its sources through a system that makes it impossible to identify the human point of origin of any given leak, and in relentlessly verifying the truthfulness of the leaks, Assange represents the heights of journalistic ethics.
Assange firmly believes in the need for truth in the construction of the kind of narrative that leads to any oppressed peoples’ self-realization. He articulates this conviction in the following way:
"You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon lies or ignorance can't lead to a good conclusion."
In just as profound a way, Assange is also compelled by a need to liberate and celebrate the rights of victims. He disclosed this as one of the most significant motivations in his foundation and operation of Wikileaks in an interview featured in filmmaker Alex Gibney’s documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. In the interview, he describes himself as “a fairly combative person” driven by the need to “crush bastards.” In line with this philosophy, Assange has also said:
"Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. In a modern economy it is impossible to seal oneself off from injustice."
As I have argued in past articles, Wikileaks is a publication, and Assange is a journalist. In other words, he is a storyteller in a way, and his stories, in revealing the secrets of government, often the cause of acute human suffering, shed light on victims’ traumatic experiences around the world. It is a way to hold abusers accountable so that justice can be done, and the doing of justice is a framework around which people can resist and prevent subservience to the notion that the world is unjust, random, and cruel. In that way, it is quite comparable to the frameworks for effectively existing in reality, which are espoused by the earlier-mentioned classical Greek philosophers and the aforementioned Camus and Sartre. Like O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Camus' Myth of Sisyphus, documents circulated by Wikileaks provide a kind of context to victims that victims can use to understand their experience of suffering. It can be used to apply meaning to it in a way that may give the victim a chance to find, as the Churchillian optimist would, opportunity in difficulty. To put all of this more concretely, the revelations of information that comprise these contexts, the meat and potatoes of the sensitive information that Assange has leaked, have facilitated many positive and democratic changes in the world. Some have pointed to Wikileaks as instrumental in the fruition of The Arab Spring, for example. Again, to put it differently, the widespread and unbridled circulation of information, in many ways like the words that comprise O’Brien’s and Camus’ books in that they provide an answer to human suffering, is salvation. Again, it seems that narratives and the words with which they are built can be used to remedy the human condition. And Assange is on the cutting edge of mechanisms by which words and information may be truly free. I have quoted political activist Ralph Nader before on TheReframer.org, but I will do it again. “Information is the currency of power.” Nader wrote in his 1970 article, “Freedom from Information: The Act and The Agencies.” Assange has done nothing but emblematize this notion throughout his life. And he has tried to empower victims by providing them with "the currency of power" in the form of leaks circulated by Wikileaks.
Just as The New York Times did 13 June 1971, when it released The Pentagon Papers, Assange emblematizes the power of truly free journalism—a relic of the past, when, as I have quoted already, James Madison affirmed that, “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments, and freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.” And that sentiment was famously echoed later in New York Times Co. v. U.S., covered so extensively on TheReframer.org, when Chief Justice William O. Douglas asserted that, “Secrecy in governments is fundamentally anti-democratic […],” as he dismissed the government’s attempt at enjoining NYT from releasing The Papers. Alongside Chief Justice Douglas, the Supreme Court, recognizing how emblematic of true freedom NYT was in its release of The Papers, lauded NYT as engaged in one of the more historically significant attempts at protecting American liberty. To put it more simply, Assange did just what NYT did with the Pentagon Papers in the early 70s, when he released “The Afghan War Diary.” It is interesting to note that The Diary has often been likened to The Pentagon Papers.
But Assange is not just engaged in a kind of storytelling through the publication of news that facilitates man’s triumph over the pain of existence, political or otherwise. He is trying to save himself, too. Assange may not explain his activism in Platonic terms, but striking similarities between his, O’Brien’s, Camus', and Sartre's experiences in life beg attention. All three have suffered through an extreme form of trauma, each in their own unique ways. But all three have experienced powerful relief from it through political activism. And let's re-iterate that their preferred form of political activism has entailed the publication of information in the form of words either in fiction or documents containing sensitive information about what happens behind the closed doors of government. It is of course true that Assange is now in a living hell, but there still was a time when his charisma was undeniably intoxicating and he lived by convictions that drove him passionately through life. It is that period that I am referring to when I say he has experienced powerful relief from his trauma.
After his parents divorced in 1979, Assange’s mother partnered with member of Australian doomsday cult The Family Leif Meynell, sometimes identified as Leif Hamilton. Children in the cult were subjected to heinous corporal punishment, starvation, and forced consumption of LSD and a myriad of other hallucinogens during rites of initiation. Given the vast body of scholarship on how childhood abuse can lead to adulthood mental illness, I would suspect what Assange suffered through as a child contributed to his later-in-life depression. In my own experience, it is the most tortured souls, the souls that most acutely experience the human condition, that are willing to sacrifice everything to serve their fellow men. They are emblems of the Platonic notion that service to state allows one to live well despite the human condition.
Assange has never revealed that he has treated his depression through political service to others. But it is interesting to observe how charismatic and high functioning he was until the last years of his time in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, when surveillance of his work even in his asylum became so invasive it was nearly impossible for him to continue operating Wikileaks as powerfully as he once had. Out in the world before seeking asylum at the embassy and constantly engaged in ardently and responsibly informing the global public for the sake of its liberation from victimhood, Assange was always on the go, almost never having a mailing address in his adult life. He has been known to work well into the night, remaining awake far longer than is typical in order to tend to his work. This is not the behavior of a clinically-diagnosed depressive. By contrast, as restrictions on his work become ever more oppressive in the years leading up to his expulsion from the embassy, he became haggard and again exhibited symptoms of mental illness. Now, in Belmarsh Prison, he is completely sedentary and low functioning. It is true he may not have much of a choice to be otherwise, as Belmarsh is after all a maximum security prison. But many that have visited him have said it seems as though his soul has been ripped from him. As the aforementioned psychiatrist said, he is bound to kill himself if extradited. It is as if the sense of purpose he once felt in his extremely intimate relationship with the most significant and ground-breaking political issues of the 21st century was dashed against the rocks as these bars on his work set in. In other words, I suspect the absence of opportunities to serve his fellow men has caused, either in whole or in part, the resurgence of a pathological version of the human condition—clinical depression.
Assange’s breed of activism is an interesting revision to the Platonic notion of service to state. In line with the aforementioned Norman Finkelstein’s rejection of the delineation of nations by political borders, in line with how Marxist Communism pushes for global unity, and in line with radical academic Noam Chomsky's engagement of anarcho-communism, Assange, the founder and former leader of a stateless news organization, does not recognize borders as the beginning and end points of his service. In other words, it is not service to state that motivates him. It is service to humanity that drives him. He is a benevolent soul, pushing himself into madness for the sake of the oppressed peoples of the world.
To illustrate how intense Assange’s dedication to liberating victims of authoritarianism is, let’s review a 13 April 2019 CNN article by columnist Lauren Said-Moorhouse, titled “Why did Ecuador Give up Assange After Seven Years?” According to Said-Moorehouse, the reason for his expulsion was three-fold:
(1) Wikileaks, obviously guided by Assange at the time, released a tweet 25 March 2019 featuring mention of a corruption probe President Of Ecuador Lenin Moreno was facing;
(2) Assange was engaged in the pursuit of legal action against the Ecuadorian government for its revisions of the embassy’s house rules, which significantly curtailed his operation of Wikileaks via invasive surveillance; and,
(3) In supporting the Catalonian independence movement, Assange was in vehement opposition to Moreno’s policies and attitudes towards the movement, a movement by oppressed peoples to self-determine.
24 hours after Wikileaks provided access to the documents detailing the first element listed above, officials at the embassy revoked Assange's asylum, and he was dragged by British policy out of his safe house. In other words, Assange risked the security of his asylum, likely anticipating the severity of the penalty he would face at the hands of English authorities in his post-asylum life. Risking everything yet again, and then consequently being subject to the heinous abuse mentioned above at Belmarsh, he sacrificed himself for a cause he firmly believed in — the liberation of victims suffering under corrupt and abusive governments.
The Founding Fathers conceived of our government in terms influenced by their anxieties about the reproduction of British tyranny in the nascent United States. At one time, hundreds of years ago in the UK, news publishers were required to obtain licenses to print news prior to publication of it—the English pre-cursor to what the American legal system now calls "prior restraint," mentioned earlier in our discussion of New York Times Co. v. U.S.
In the review process, censorship boards determined what would and would not be printed. The Framers, in having experienced the trauma that results from when a government deprives its citizens of free and unbridled access to information, delineated protections for the press within the First Amendment. That it was a protection provided by the First Amendment is interesting. It must have occupied such a monumental headspace for the Framers that it, alongside freedom of speech, religion, petition, and assembly, seemed so integral to inhibiting the reproduction of British tyranny in early America that it needed to be one of the first constitutionally-guaranteed protections one encounters during a review of The Bill of Rights. Freedom of the press, speech, religion, petition, and assembly occupy an urgent space within the text of our Constitution. And Assange has more urgently, unabashedly, and publicly championed freedom of the press and information than any entity since whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg faced 115 years in prison for leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, I would argue. Assange has designed a platform that entirely circumvents any possibility of interference by an agent or agency of censorship. In how it is spread across so many servers across so many countries everywhere in the world, it is beyond the reaches of tyrannical censorship. It simply cannot be nailed down. It is too de-centralized. In that Assange epitomizes the ideal journalist/publisher in all that he has done with Wikileaks, he is more American than the self-professed emblems of American freedom that The Justice Department and our administration claim to be as they condemn Assange as a terrorist and seek to imprison him for 175 years in ADX Florence, a federal Supermax prison in the middle of nowhere—Florence, Colorado.
For Independent.co.uk, 29 September 2020 journalist Madeline Roth wrote an account of one of the recent extradition hearings, which was titled, “Julian Assange would be sent to America's most notorious prison if extradited, court hears: WikiLeaks founder faces up to 175 years in prison if convicted in the US.” And it is indeed abundantly evident that ADX Florence is the most notorious prison in the United States, known infamously for having the worst conditions of any correctional facility in America.
As Roth reports, former warden at the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in New York Maureen Baird, whose testimony at the recent hearing Roth reviews in her article, says the carceral conditions at ADX Florence "can have serious negative effects on an inmate's mental health.” Under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), Roth says, “inmates spend most of the day confined in their cells with little contact with the outside world or fellow inmates.” By "most of the day," she means 23 hours. These days, the prison is home to some of the world's worst and most violent criminals, including Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Pakistani terrorist and perpetrator of the 1993 bombing of The World Trade Center Ramzi Yousef, and mass murderer "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski. Assange is no violent criminal. To re-iterate, in all that he has done, he has proven himself to be more consistent with the original principles of our democratic republic than any of the other fools preponderantly and offensively occupying positions of influence and power in the American government.
So, why is our supposed democratic republic doing violence to a beautiful and righteous soul not only formerly engaged in an endeavor to liberate oppressed peoples through the widespread circulation of what are effectively news stories or even narratives, but also engaged in a lifelong and desperate attempt to liberate himself from his acute experience of the human condition in the form of clinical depression? Assange has attempted to reveal the darkest secrets of the world in the way that any true journalist should. He has attempted to secure peoples’ rights to construct their own narratives toward the full realization of themselves as human beings and as citizens of the world entirely entitled to respect for their dignity. Like Socrates, Plato, O’Brien, Camus, or Sartre, he has committed himself to the passionate pursuit of true freedom not only from the grips of all abusers, but also from the undeniable truth of what consciousness and self-reflection means for humans—the constant battle to live well despite pain. Insofar as he is a journalist, he leverages for the sake of freedom the power of language in a way that is comparable to any highly skilled raconteur. Assange is an emblem of liberty in his capacity as a publisher. As the publisher that founded Wikileaks, he is a potent medium by which astronomically significant words may reach all men in the form of leaked documents that often detail governments' abuses of its citizens. Victims of abuse may use the words found in these leaked documents to reconstruct their respective narratives. Reconstruction of narrative, in a way that is consistent with how powerful Socrates, Plato, O'Brien, Camus, Sartre, and Assange would say narrative may be in liberating man from the negative aspects of his human experience, will be man's salvation. Man fights not only the tyranny of his all-too-often abusive government. He also is almost always doing battle with the tyranny of his own necessarily-pain-stricken mind. A symbol of hope for the abused peoples of the world, Assange emblematizes the power of man's ability to construct his own narrative toward the full realization of himself. But Assange will likely soon be lost to the oppressors he has fought against for so long. And this is heart-breaking.