Informed consent; Shop till you drop By Harry Feldman

12 December, 2010 — Bureau of Counter Propaganda

Yesterday I received invitations to sign two online petitions supporting Julian Assange.

One, from the Australian group, GetUp!, addresses Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, aims to publish the petition in a full page advert in the NY Times with 75,000 signatories.  Quoting Thomas Jefferson, ‘information is the currency of democracy’, signatories appeal for due process,

If Wikileaks or their staff have broken international or national laws, let that case be heard in a just and fair court of law.

The other, from, with well over half a million signatures so far, calls on some unspecified ‘you’ to respect democratic principles and laws of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. If WikiLeaks and the journalists it works with have violated any laws they should be pursued in the courts with due process.

I beg to differ.  Much as I support the work Wikileaks and Assange have been doing, due process is not the issue.  If, indeed, they have broken any laws, I applaud their civil disobedience and call for the law’s repeal.

As I understand it, if the US indicts Assange, it is likely to be under the terms of the Espionage Act (1917), which casts quite a wide net, drawing in anyone who ‘copies, takes, makes, or…receives or obtains…any sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blue print, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, document, writing or note of anything connected with the national defence’.  Furthermore, under s. 5, ‘Whoever harbours or conceals any person who he knows, or has reasonable grounds to believe or suspect, has committed, or is about to commit, an offence under this title’ is subject to lesser penalties.  The principal issues are probably whether Assange had ‘intent or reason to believe that the information…is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation’ and whether the leaked information was ‘connected with the national defence’.  I think it is likely that Assange can mount a persuasive defence on the grounds that his intent was not to injure the US or advantage a foreign nation, but rather to inform the public or the like.  But I’m not optimistic that a judge or a jury of his peers would find such a defence convincing.

As Jefferson and others have observed, an uninformed electorate cannot exercise even the parody we call democracy meaningfully.  Some of Assange’s supporters seem tolerant of the state’s need to keep secrets from other states and even from its real adversary — the people it rules.  There is a tension between their need for secrecy and our need for full information, at least if they intend to maintain the pretence that they rule over us with our informed consent.

In a system purporting to represent the governed, there is, I think, an implied right to the information the government bases its decisions on, made explicit in the right to freedom of expression.  It’s frightening that the governed are prepared to countenance such transparent infringements of their most treasured and fundamental rights as the Espionage Act and the even more draconian 1918 amendment, known as the Sedition Act, which makes it a crime to

wilfully cause… or incite… insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall wilfully obstruct… the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall wilfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag… or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States, or any language intended to bring the form of government… or the Constitution… or the military or naval forces… or the flag… of the United States into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute…

Now that Assange is at the mercy of The Criminal Justice System, he is certainly entitled to due process and we need to defend that entitlement.  But to couch the petition in those terms seems to me to miss the point and to elevate compliance with The Law into a matter of principle.  Any law with the capacity to criminalise the work that Wikileaks is doing demonstrates that The Law is not our friend and what we need to support is that work, whether legal or not.
Now elevated to the status of ‘the premier global Jewish advocacy organization’, on 1 December the American Jewish Committee unveiled its latest strategy in the campaign to defeat global anti-Semitism.

“Our collective response to the haters of Israel is to shop,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris, who led a large group to Ricky’s, a store in New York’s Union Square…“Chanukah, when we celebrate our freedom as Jews, is the perfect time to show our support for Israel by purchasing Israeli products,” said Harris.  “We need to speak out and act. Shopping for Israel is the right thing to do.”

In an aside attempting to ridicule the BDS campaign, Harris quipped,

By the way, I can’t help but wonder if the anti-Israel boycotters, for consistency’s sake, also ensure before using their computers and cell phones, or seeking life-saving medical care, that there are no Israeli products or innovations involved.

What doesn’t appear to have penetrated is that BDS is not just a moral gesture.  With the supine International Community powerless to redress the injustice of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the territories it seized by force in June 1967, Palestinian civil society groups have called on supporters to inflict economic and other kinds of pressure on Israel.  It doesn’t matter what wonderful inventions Israelis have come up with.  What matters is what kinds of actions we consider will have the greatest economic impact at the time and what kinds of forces we can mobilize in support of the campaign, along with other tactical issues.

Reducing the campaign to a question of some imagined moral consistency evidences incomprehension of what it’s all about.  To be fair, I suspect that it is beyond Harris’s capacity to understand solidarity, at least outside the tribe.

Stick to what you’re good at, David, and shop till you drop.
In solidarity,

If somebody forwarded this message to you and you would like to receive your own copy of my blog posts directly, please email me and I’ll add you to the list: harry.feldman at gmail dot com.  (You can also subscribe via Feedblitz from the link on the Bureau of Counterpropaganda site.)

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