2012-06-28 What #JA41 means to me (Ben)

Ben is journalism student at Edith Cowan University in Perth Australia. One in a series.

A couple of weeks ago, travelling south toward Perth under foreboding grey skies with a good wingman of mine, conversation turned to WikiLeaks, and in particular Julian Assange.

"The thing I am worried about", my wingman explained, "is how can I trust WikiLeaks to filter information?"

"Assange has become the new gatekeeper!"

It was, I thought, a very good question.

I didn't have an immediate answer to it. Some matters require a bit of thought and, though I tried to waggle my tongue around it, it is only in hindsight that the answer has properly articulated itself.

It's all too easy to valorise Julian Assange. There's a certain rebel romance around him. He is above and beyond the ken of most journalists.

A convicted hacker, an idealist, an Internet evangelist and now, just over two years since he founded WikiLeaks, a potential sacrificial lamb for the military industrial complex.

The United States of America, arguably the greatest empire the world has ever known, wants him on the altar - whatever it takes.

There he is: an International Man of Mystery, a white-haired fox, a pop icon who has appeared on everything from the 500th episode of The Simpsons to the big screen at the Splendour In The Grass music festival.

Footage exists on YouTube of Assange tearing up the dance floor in a Reykjavík nightclub. There is an overwhelming sense, no doubt fostered by the man himself, that he is one of us.

It seems entirely plausible that if it wasn't him taking on the system, it would be someone else. Indeed, as his birthday rapidly approaches it's worth suggesting that he is very much a product of his time.

The 41 years since his birth have given ordinary people the greatest voice they have ever had.

As the US government and corporate America have tightened their stranglehold on the world, quietly in the background grassroots forces have arisen that transcend the modernist, material thought that produced the very system that Assange challenges.

The Internet is the obvious one, and it has become the greatest ally of democratic political movements, such as the community-minded global Greens and their ostensible obverse, the libertarians.

There is a great deal of disagreement between them, but to a greater or lesser extent both ideologies repudiate the power nodes that have become ubiquitous since the onset of the Cold War: unaccountable governments, and unaccountable corporations.

For Julian Assange, who developed his worldview as the Cold War came to a close, those corporate and government power structures are one and the same. They both must be transparent, and held to account. They must not be allowed to lie and deceive the public, because ultimately their decisions affect all of us.

It is easy to see why these two schools of political thought - one old and traditionalist, one new and progressive - have been arguably the only people in government to defend him.

But these are strange times indeed.

Even the American paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, who - for goodness' sake - served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, has called vehemently for the American Empire to be reigned in, rolled back - to get their military noses out of the business of the world.

Assange's worldview is that of the zeitgeist. People of all stripes are tired of being lied to, and fed the same old lines about 'democracy' and 'freedom'.

It would be utterly unfair to foist upon him any ideological standpoint other than his own, but what Assange has essentially done is to cut through these myths like a hot knife through butter.

The current witch-hunt is case in point, and the reactions of the British, Swedish and American authorities - and indeed the non-action of their Australian counterparts - only serve to validate his position.

In putting his own life on the line, he has both confirmed the suspicions of a generation, and given us hope for a better world.

I'm a journalist, of sorts, and also a musician, and there is one other parallel that I think bears a mention: the growth of independent music.

As the teenage Julian Assange hacked away in the late 1980s, underground musicians created networks across America - and indeed, around the world - in which corporate control was entirely eschewed.

This changed, briefly, in the mid-1990s, but with the rise of the Internet and simultaneous to the utterly unjust and transparent wars of the new century, the notions of independent thought and artistic expression have come back with a vengeance.

Not for everybody, of course, but for the educated - the middle class - the ideas are flowing. And Assange is the stylish nerd on the front line.

Thinking back to that day, driving south, under grey skies, I'm drawn to the context of the trip.

We were returning from a visit to Moore River, where successive Western Australian governments and private businesses have colluded for decades to push a real estate development which would be unsustainable, unnecessary, environmentally disastrous and quite simply not wanted by the local community.

The issue is small-fry, compared to Assange, but again it pits the interests of the community against governments and businesses with no accountability.

At this time in history, the themes are universal.

So, as we pushed on into the approaching darkness, conversation between my wingman and myself turned to the mainstream media. They would have us believe that Assange is a dangerous threat to democracy, an outlaw, and quite possibly a rapist. The Americans want him dead.

Surely everyone on the planet sees through that?

"I guess", offered my wingman, an ever-insightful gentlemen, "I have spent my entire adult life listening to [1980s American underground punk band] the Dead Kennedys. I question everything I hear. Other people might not."

As all these themes converged, much like the mainstream media itself continues to do, the answer to the question of WikiLeaks' role as just another information gatekeeper began to emerge.

In the age of Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch, of the military industrial complex and privatised prison systems, duopolies, gutted unions, surveillance societies, social control, militarised police forces and perpetual global war, Julian Assange has offered us the one thing that democracy desperately needs for its survival: plurality.

He has given us options.

WL Central are currently collecting tweets (#JA41) and email greetings to Julian Assange to be published 2 July, the day before his birthday.

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