Slavoj Žižek has decided to weigh in on the recent cases of national security leaks and their leading protagonists in an article for the Guardian, entitled Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange: Our New Heroes. It is linked here so you can read it, but for a couple of reasons, I wouldn't recommend it. Firstly, Žižek is absolutely rubbish at explaining himself; he takes four paragraphs to say what could be said in a sentence. I did a philosophy degree, I'm conversant in public and private reason and some Kantian philosophy, and he totally lost me in the middle of his 'explanation.'
Secondly, the basis of the article itself is obviously flawed. Conflating Snowden, Manning and Assange is highly questionable. These are three different people, doing three different things, for different reasons.
Manning, it seems clear, is the only one among those who you could not accuse of being self-serving. She, at least, brought to light a specific tragic event, that horrified viewers with the 21st Century cowboys culture of the US armed forces. I was horrified by the video of innocent civilians being slaughtered so casually, so gleefully and without any censure.
Manning decided to make this video public along with a tranche of other documents, most of which she did not read. Given the political climate of the time, the lies that resulted in the Iraq war, the horrifying attitude of both the airmen in the video and their leaders in Washington, her decision was quite honourable - not legal, not heroic, not very well thought out, but one I can understand and sympathise with - it was a decision made with honourable intent.
Assange provided the forum for this through wikileaks, which just yesterday released a whole slew of private e-mails that I wouldn't read on principle (i.e. they're private). If wikileaks contained themselves to being a forum that releases information or recordings of actual specific events or tragedies, or specific instances where the public had been lied to, I wouldn't dismiss them so easily. They'd be a forum for good people to correct obscenities and cast light on injustice - in short, they would be who they say they are - not a place designed to embarrass mid-ranking diplomatic service employees. Assange seems determined to constantly affirm his own relevance with unfocused, vanity releases - and thus ends up looking like an ego-maniac.
When Žižek opines: "We need Mannings and Snowdens in China, in Russia, Everywhere." One comment helpfully points out:
"Well, Snowden is in Russia. But somehow he stays silent. I wonder why that might be...
"A Manning in Russia would be a bad idea, since he would very soon become a victim of neo-Nazis, encouraged by Putin's anti-LGTB laws.
"You are a smart person, Mr Žižek, for not mentioning that we also needed Assange in Russia. He was in Russia some time ago. They immediately gave him a talk show on Kremlin's propaganda Channel, Russia Today."
This fact rather completes my vision of Assange: Under the bleached hair, behind the neediness and the attention seeking, lurks the soul of Richard Madeley. It was this that made it possible for him, rather than to selectively release video and information of real consequence and remain out of the spotlight, to turn it all out into the public domain in a move guaranteed to generate personal publicity for himself, and see Private Manning in jail for all the years left to her.
Snowden, despite being pretty good with computers, and knowing that he was among tens of thousands of people with access to the information he divulged, was terribly unsuccessful in remaining anonymous too, while telling us what we already knew from reports in 2008 and before about the extent of online surveillance. Maybe I am harsh, but this guy comes across as an air-headed libertarian whose individualism is an excuse for narcissism.
His libertarianism is a peculiar American form of hatred for governments and desire for laissez-faire capitalism where any regulation is an affront to freedom, any governance is tyranny. It is an idealistic individualism devoid of ideas of common sacrifice, welfare for all and empathy in general. In short, it's the sort of thing only a healthy guy in his twenties can really convince himself of. It is a philosophy that says "I've got everything going for me, so don't restrict my blossoming with your rules." Narcissism and this kind of libertarianism go hand-in-hand, but when he talks about "the architecture of oppression" one must take into account that he might think the clean water act is oppressive, or public service broadcasting is oppressive, or simply having a police force is oppressive.
The information he leaked was no surprise to anybody who has been paying attention to this stuff for a while, merely fleshing out reports from the last decade. Yes, guess what, if I write "Al-Queda allahu akbar airport bomb" I might get an extra reader for my blog, and while I'm grateful to the sorting computer for putting me through to you, my dear foot soldier of Babylon, I fear your time has been wasted. I may also go on a database, which is troubling of course, but I knew this before Snowden - so did everybody. He put a face on it which we recognise and connect with the story. He then took that face to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where it can, presumably, be 'free'. Maybe they'll give it its own show on Russia Today.
It is a shame that we are not having proper debates about the monitoring of all public information and the need for a new set of laws governing both the access to and use of information dredged up in this way. No, instead we've got this pair of blue-eyed boys playing Don Quixote as retold by Paul Greengrass, with Slavoj Žižek as the carnival barker.