Wikileaks member Julian Assange has put up an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, decrying the findings of a recent court victory over right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt, by a group of Aboriginal Australians. The court victory is being widely spun as an attack on free speech, because the Aboriginal Australians in question (henceforth, the appellants), won a victory over Bolt under the terms of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). Rightists everywhere love to hate these kinds of laws, and they love to hate them under the cloak of “free speech,” even though anyone who cared about free speech would not have written the blatant lies that Bolt wrote about these appellants.
Anyway, this post isn’t about what Bolt wrote or the court decision – I don’t want to have debates about Australian race relations here – so much as how Assange’s poorly written piece of fluff represents the failed legacy of Cyberpunk, and is a good indication of how intellectually weak it was as a social movement. Obviously first I need to discuss the outlines of the court case, but my main concern here is not the issue of the court case itself.
The Court Case Against Bolt
For my reader(s) who are unfamiliar with Andrew Bolt, race relations in Australia, the court case itself, or free speech in Australia generally, here it is in a nutshell: he’s a wanker, it’s not pretty, he was forced to correct his outright lies, and we don’t have a tradition of free speech. Happy? Here it is in more detail.
Bolt’s a Wanker: Andrew Bolt wrote a piece a while back in which he claimed that some “fair-skinned” Aboriginal Australians were “choosing” their racial “identity” in order to get special privileges denied to white people. He didn’t bother checking the facts of the heritage of the appellants, and wrote the whole piece in a vicious and mean-spirited tone, and used it as a springboard for an attack on Aboriginal identity in general.
It’s not pretty: Australia has a history of attempted genocide against Aborigines, culminating in a 70-year long program of stealing Aboriginal children from their parents in order to “breed out the colour.” Aborigines were granted the right to vote in 1962 and in a powerful referendum in 1967 the Commonwealth was granted the right to pass laws on their behalf. In order to roll back some of the egregious racist ideas floating around in the community, and reverse generations of deliberate social exclusion, many such laws were passed in the following years. The situation of Aborigines in Australia is still bad and much still needs to be done; only in 2007 did the government apologize to the Stolen Generations.
He was forced to correct his lies: Having failed to check the actual heritage of the Aboriginal complainants, Bolt was found against by the Federal Court. The Court found that Bolt’s two articles
contained erroneous facts, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language and that as a result, the conduct of Mr Bolt and HWT is not justified
The court’s recommended relief was not that the articles be banned, and the court explicitly states (in section 461)
It is important that nothing in the orders I make should suggest that it is unlawful for a publication to deal with racial identification including challenging the genuineness of the identification of a group of people
The court simply requires that you get your facts right and not write in a racist tone if you want to talk about people’s racial heritage. The relief the court recommended was very simple: that both of Bolt’s columns could remain online on the newspaper site, but would have to have a correction of his lies published next to them, and that the newspaper would also have to publish a correction near his printed article. The court did not recommend banning the articles themselves or even an apology. No punitive damages were levied and in fact Bolt is lucky – the appellants could probably have nabbed him on a defamation charge and screwed quite a lot of money out of him, as well as getting the articles taken down.
We Don’t Have a Tradition of Free Speech: which is just as well, when you consider what our accents are like. Like most Westminster systems, the Australian political tradition is based on balancing rights, not absolute rights. The judgment on this case is a good example of this tradition in action, and bleating about being denied the right to say anything you like is a very American import to Australian political debate. You might be able to get away with it, but it’s not generally assumed that you should be able to get away with telling lies and saying racist things in public in Australia.
Since he’s a celebrity now, Assange gets to have an opinion on stuff that is well above his pay grade, and this is a classic example of a man with some fairly poorly-formed libertarian views holding forth on stuff he really isn’t very capable of analyzing. Andrew Elder at Politically Homeless gives a fairly solid analysis of Assange’s op-ed and shows it for the flimsy undergraduate thinking it is, so there’s no need to go through it in detail here. Basically, it’s a combination of straw man, slippery slope, and exaltation of the market. But the particular part that bothers me is his complete failure to take into account the way power relations shape the media landscape, and his foolish understanding of the structural barriers to free speech in Australia (or anywhere):
Democracy depends on the free flow of information and ideas. Opinions must be shared in ”a free and open encounter” because it is the competition between ideas that produces the truth. As Fredrick Siebert explained: ”The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other.”
This is just, well, ridiculously naive, and as Elder points out, if only the true and sound survived in an environment of true free speech, why is the notion that Aborigines are inferior to whites so commonly held in Australia? And why has it only begun to decline in popularity since the passing of the racial discrimination act? The key is in the first part of this shallow statement: the free flow of information and ideas.
There is no free flow of information and ideas in Australian public discourse, because the channels through which ideas “flow” are controlled by powerful interests, and some groups have more control over speech than others. This is why Ms. Eaton had to take Bolt to court: because he is a columnist in a national newspaper, with a very popular blog, and she is not. Without this court case, what option does Eaton have to engage in a debate with Bolt? Maybe she could write a newspaper column? No … a letter to the editor? If the newspaper was willing to publish his lies, why would they willingly publish her correction? Perhaps she could turn up on his blog in comments to defend herself? Putting aside the kind of screaming monkeys who inhabit the comments section of Bolt’s blog, and the fact that he deletes comments he doesn’t like, this last option should make clear the nature of power in “free” speech in the modern world: Bolt as lying bastard, running a blog read by thousands; the woman he lied about, supplicant in his comments section being set upon by his readers. Who is going to win this encounter? How will the truth prevail?
The “true and sound” do not triumph in a marketplace of ideas; they drown in the sewage that is pumped out by people like Bolt. The only way the “true and sound” triumph is if someone or something – some instrument – exists to offer redress in the most egregious of cases, and to prevent the powerful from saying anything they want and silencing those they tell lies about. In Australia, this something is called the law and one of its more sensitive instruments is the Racial Discrimination Act. It’s thanks to this system that Bolt can’t get away with telling vile lies about a woman who never did anything to wrong him, and if his newspaper wants to benefit from his controversial positions they will occasionally be forced to publish retractions or corrections, and privately thank their lucky stars that their victim had the decency not to do them for defamation as well. Not that you’ll find Bolt showing so much introspection…
But Assange, undergraduate thinker that he is, thinks that Bolt and Eaton can compete on equal terms, and that any instrument which might serve to actually equalize their power is a dangerous attack on Bolt’s rights. Bolt, the man who still has his highly paid job at the centre of a major media machine, feted by rightists around the world and with his own tv show to boot. A man who gets to this position by snarling lies about ordinary people who cannot say anything in response, is forced to correct some of those lies long after the original damage was done. This, apparently, is the slippery slope to being woken up in your bed by armed thugs (really, this is what Assange says!)
In the 90s there was a lot of talk about cyberpunk’s political and social critique, and even a documentary about the political program underlying it and its connections with the (then new) world of the internet and hacking. It was hailed as a new political idea, with a sense of the zeitgeist, a critical framework for viewing the new world of corporatization and hyper-consumerism, and – perhaps most importantly – a new way of viewing the role of information and media in a diversifying world. I think more than most other elements of science fiction – and definitely fantasy – cyberpunk was seen by its admirers and detractors as having a coherent political basis. Where sci-fi generally could claim pretensions to being “speculative” cyberpunk could be seen as – and indeed sometimes claimed itself to be – a transformative, political and cultural critique. Science fiction was concerned with lessons about humanity that could be gleaned from imagining the far future; cyberpunk was more interested in lessons about the near future that could be gleaned from analyzing the changing power structures of humanity’s present.
If any genre movement can be said to have a real-life political legacy, then cyberpunk’s can be seen in the world of the hackers, the politics of the internet, and new notions of the power of information. Long before health systems were discussing privacy measures, William Gibson was tackling the issue of privatized data with work like Johnny Mnemonic; the hackers and computer collectives of the 90s left a legacy of efforts to decentralize and democratize information, and the early activists of the newsgroup and blog world were hoping to democratize access to information and media. The ultimate expression of this political legacy is wikileaks. Obviously no one can claim that cyberpunk drove this, and we won’t find one day Assange saying “I got rendered to an American prison hulk because I read a William Gibson novel.” But this was the politics of the cyberpunk era, and the concept has currency as a basis for understanding these political movements.
So where have these movements come to? Wikileaks has fallen apart because of disputes about the way it used information, and perhaps now with Assange’s incursion into the mainstream media we can see why: its poster boy has a boy’s understanding of power and information. Cyberpunk’s central view of the future of society was a community where government abrogated its responsibilities and the economy was run by oligarchs; corporations compete ruthlessly in unregulated market places, and people are reduced to consumers, competing in a vicious labour market with no safety net or protections. In general, I think we were meant to interpret this as a bad thing; but it seems like the modern incarnation of cyberpunk’s information gurus are trying to present the same model for the exchange of information as if it were a good thing. Is this what the ideas of those original heady years of cyberpunk have brought us to? A reckless data dumper lecturing us from the bully pulpit about how we should let corporatism’s attack dogs say anything derogatory they like about anyone, because “information needs to be free” – even if the information is less than worthless and its victims have no recourse through a stacked corporate system? Is this what rebellion means, cyberpunk style – demanding that the government reveal everything it knows about everything, while insisting that anyone who is victimized by the world’s largest media corporation should be restricted to defending themselves anonymously in the comments section of their most odious commentator’s blog? Or perhaps Assange thinks that Ms. Eaton should just set up her own zaibatsu and have at it? And that’s not to mention, of course, that Assange tried to get his own unofficial biography pulped.
Cyberpunk was always presented by its defenders as a criticism of unbridled corporatism, but I was never 100% sure about that. Sometimes reading Gibson, you get the impression that he’s just a bit too impressed by what the corporations could do, that he’s carrying a boys-and-their-toys appreciation of hi-tech violence into his writing about their nefarious deeds. Maybe Assange’s problem with the elite controllers of information is that he admires them and wants to be part of their super-groovy world, but wasn’t let in. Maybe that’s what cyberpunk has always been – a bunch of boys crying at the gates to be let in so they can play with the cool toys, instead of having to retrofit the older versions down here in the slums with the rest of us.
A Brief Aside on Cyberpunk and Anarchism
I think that cyberpunk, libertarianism and Assange both have their philosophical roots in anarchist theory, which also posits the role of the state as a kind of magical short circuit on all forms of creativity and expression. Assange – like a lot of cyberpunk’s remnants – appears to be a libertarian, and libertarianism and anarchism share common roots, like elves and orcs. So it’s no surprise to find some support for Assange’s position amongst the semi-anarchist Australian left, though from a slightly different direction. Assange supports data freedom as a kind of creative destruction, in which we all get to find out everything we want to know about everything (I bet he craps in front of his girlfriend, too?); the Australian far left’s position on things like the Racial Discrimination Act appears to be that we should leave it unused, and fight the purveyors of lies on their own ground, through a kind of conflict of information exchange. This would be done through the formation (of course) of a mass movement (anarchists cooperate where libertarians compete). Dr Tad at Left Flank sees this as a chance for the Australian left to
start thinking about how we create facts on the ground that will delegitimize and sideline the likes of Bolt
He sees a chance for conflict, but doesn’t want that conflict settled by the state intervening. Dr Tad shares a similar view about the state intervening in industrial disputes, because without the state to restrain the corporations, the industrial left will get the kind of creative destruction it needs to remake society. I see both Assange and this form of anarchist hard leftism operating from the same ideological roots, though they see the means of winning the resulting battles differently (Assange wants individuals to compete with each other, while the anarchist left wants us to cooperate against the corporate controllers of power) and have different goals (Assange wants an op-ed in the Herald; the anarchist left wants to overthrow the government); but ultimately I think they both believe that their political goals of absolute freedom, though very differently constituted, will triumph only through a form of unbridled competition, even in the world of information. But history tells us that only the rich and powerful win in these situations, and that the most stable and rewarding societies to live in are those where the balance of interests is managed by a small but powerful state, controlled by a well-constituted democratic polity.
The Final Irony
The reality is – and let’s not gild the lily here – that Assange is only able to write that op ed, rather than carving his name in the wall of a US prison hulk somewhere, because of the rule of law. The US doesn’t observe the rule of law that well, but the countries that Assange moves through expect at least a modicum of respect for their own, and so demand some kind of due process before their citizens can be treated like animals. One would think, at this delicate time in Assange’s life, that he would put a little thought and reflection into that fact, and ask himself whether there is some analogy to be drawn between how he would be treated if this protection were withdrawn, and the way people like Ms. Eaton would be treated if their protections were withdrawn. He clearly hasn’t bothered to see in himself any parallels with Ms. Eaton – after all, he has an opinion piece in the Herald, while she has never had any fame and thus had to appeal to the state to secure her rights, like some kind of weakling – but perhaps if he showed a little more introspection it would occur to him that power can be misused in any area of society, and his case is not really so special in the end. Perhaps he could even dwell on that while rich friends fund his multiple legal defenses against what he considers to be egregious misuses of power. But my guess is he won’t get to think properly and clearly about that until he’s inside the aforementioned prison hulk …
fn1: and a focused US campaign of cutting off its funding
fn2: well, mostly