JULIAN ASSANGE’S ‘THOUGHT’ ON PJ HARVEY’S ‘TODAY’ 2ND JAN 2014
PJ Harvey asked Julian Assange to bring the final word – a Thought for the Day – to her beautifully envisioned guest edit of the Radio 4 morning news and current affairs programme Today on Thursday morning (2nd Jan 2014), the new year’s first working day. (For an overview of the whole programme with timings of selections see this post.)
And the message he chose was one which rounded off what had gone before with a measured yet incisive reminder of who we can be (if we choose) in the face of the injustice we’d just been exposed to within the featured stories in this extraordinary guest edit.
MAKING IT MEMORABLE AND INSPIRING
I’d say a successful Thought for the Day is one which manages, in the short time available, to convey a quintessential understanding of a subject currently in the news, showing how we can, today, respond incisively and relevantly to it. The listener would probably be inspired by a sufficiently idiosyncratic use of language and presentation to ensure that the imagination retains the key points for the intellect to revisit and rework.
This succeeded in that. It was closely argued and neatly referenced, but not too complex, giving an historical, political and philosophical context. Though the connections were entirely relevant, they weren’t obvious and for most people paying attention, the unexpected would have added interest and provoked further thought and research.
In particular, it managed to convey a hopeful and brave understanding of the issue, lifting the spirits because it felt authoritative. It worked as a kind of grounding for the rest of the programme’s content, drawing the strands together in a reflection that offered a way forward, a way to respond, a way to not be overwhelmed, but to take action with hope and courage and an understanding of where we’d be coming from.
HRUMPHS AND SCHMEDIA
Confusion from the misconstruing/representation of the Swedish issue, (misinformation about which has been widespread in the media, though less of late) and the political asylum granted to Assange by Ecuador as a result of his being in the line of fire from the USA (where a grand jury convened back in 2010 still shows no sign of winding down), together with some people’s perception that he didn’t fit with the remit of the slot, which is intended to be
a unique reflection from a faith perspective on topical issues and news events,
resulted in a certain amount of hrumphing and the usual schmedia opportunism in some quarters, not to mention some off the wall descriptions (listen to it yourself and see if you think it sounds like ‘railing’) and incorrectly reported words (there’s a lot of history in a tense, chaps…just sayin).
BUT, ACTUALLY, IT FITS THE BILL
But, in fact, Julian managed, albeit in a broader sense, to bring just such a Thought as the definition above prescribes.
It was a unique reflection, placing the issues of transparency and privacy at the heart of a brief history of the currency of knowledge, rooted in the context of the power which that knowledge bestows.
If it didn’t come from a Faith perspective, it did come from a faith perspective, inasmuch as it was personally applicable and specifically ‘of’ the faith/beliefs’ JA manifestly lives his life by and has put himself in jeopardy for (as evidenced by his groundbreaking and sacrificial work in establishing and sustaining WikiLeaks).
And it came home to topical issues (information apartheid and the need for whistleblowing, though he didn’t expressly use those terms) and news events (Edward Snowden and the issue of govt spying).
And just for good measure, appropriately in what has been a traditionally ‘Faith’ oriented slot, along with a word from Aristotle, he quoted from the Book of Proverbs and the words of Jesus recorded in the gospels; texts which spoke directly and illuminatingly to his chosen subject, doubtless surprising many of the professed adherents of same, at least some of whom presumably listen to Thought for the Day to be inspired by the words from the scriptures they look to for guidance.
SETTING INFORMATION FREE
And this raises what was surely one of the most amazing things about the whole programme – something which contributed to it feeling like an event of great promise evoking a degree of reverence – and this is that many in the audience it went out to may never previously have been exposed to the vital information and ideas it managed to contain.
And hopefully the programme actually managed to do the opposite of ‘containing’ the information inasmuch as it ‘released’ it, setting it free – blowing the seeds of all these ideas outwards. For, as we often say, information wants to be free!*
Go info! Go blow in the wind…
APPLICABLE QUOTES – CONTEXT SUPPORTS
But getting back to Thought for the Day; aside from the explicit references in Proverbs that he read, the words of Jesus JA quoted were:
There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed or hidden that will not be made known.
What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed at last from rooftop to rooftop.
Just taken at face value the verses in question reinforce some of the imperative in Julian’s talk, and you may have already seen the bumper stickers &c stating ‘Jesus heart WikiLeaks’ which reference Mark 4.22, concurring with this. (They seem to have first surfaced in Catholic Worker groups in the US circa Jan/Feb/Mar of 2011?).
But some have objected to the use of these verses to underline what he was saying, considering this to be a simplistic interpretation.
Whereas, in fact, the context of the quoted texts is also supportive of the point Julian is making.
The sayings he quotes are recorded in some form in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and all of them obviously refer to truth and transparency, though there are some differences in context. The text used in this talk is a mixture of what is recorded in Matthew and Luke (NIV). In the extract recorded in Luke’s gospel, the preceding verse is
Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.
You may recall that elsewhere Jesus is recorded as slating this outwardly respectable (and respected) group of some power within the religious hierarchy, specifically for their hypocrisy:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.
How apposite. This is all about the contrast between the appearance and the reality. The pretence and the reality. The covert and the transparent. And the parallels are surely obvious.
Further, in Matthew’s gospel, the preceding phrase is:
So, have no fear of them, for…
and it then goes on to say the stuff about that which is covered up being exposed.
The situation here (into which this ‘have no fear’ is spoken) is that of a commissioning for a ‘project’ under the circumstances whereby it is particularly anticipated that the powerful, whose world it threatens, will violently resist those who take up the commission; hence the ‘Fear not!‘ – not meaning that there is nothing to fear, but that, regardless of the inequalities of power and status, since your concern is transparency and truth, take courage! Because the duplicity and covert agendas of those who threaten you will be exposed.
And again the parallels should be obvious.
In Mark’s gospel it’s also about listening (take heed/pay attention to what you hear), discerning and seeking after Truth, and bringing it to light in the dual senses of ‘proclaiming’ it, and, where applicable, ‘exposing’ it.
And JA characterises the authorities as usurpers of power – illegitimate and dangerous – for, in an attempt to make slaves of us all by laying bare the essence of our very selves to the faceless entity of ‘government’ so that we effectively are at risk of losing our self-determination and humanity, this dangerous hydra, this government-in-secret, this sprawling power, is ‘playing God’…
Documents disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show that governments dare to aspire—through their intelligence agencies—to a God-like knowledge about each and every one of us.
But the keynote of the short message has to be this:
Today, remember that it is good to seek to empower the powerless through knowledge..
..and to drag the machinations of the powerful into the daylight.
Because that is the litmus test.
It is dangerous for the powerful to be covert.
It is dangerous for the powerless to be exposed.
Power needs the accountability of transparency; powerlessness needs the protection of privacy.
It is ‘good’ for both the powerless and the powerful (oppression damages and dehumanises the oppressor as well as the oppressed) for the powerless to be empowered by knowledge and this information apartheid to give way to equality. This, says WikiLeaks, is the issue of our times.
For in our society the powerful amass all the possessions of knowledge behind closed doors and publicly distribute a counterfeit currency with which they flood the market place to fool the unsuspecting and hold the powerless, stripped of their rightful status and influence by being denied their rightful possessions, in thrall.
And what is ‘good’ is to do all that is within us to affect that which is without us – to do whatever is in our power to redress the balance in this unequal society where lies are traded for truth.
To quote Proverbs again:
Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.
BLESS YOU, WIKILEAKS…
WikiLeaks is many things, but one thing that it steadfastly, faithfully continues to be is a kind of hub, rallying point; a voice, as PJ Harvey said, that helps us make sense of it all. And Julian himself obviously has a remarkable breadth of knowledge and a particular talent for retaining, sifting and analysing a vast amount of information, but, more, because we know he is tested and tried, and not just skilful, we hear him teach with authority, not academically.
The Thought for the Day which he brought us for the first official working day of a brand new year was both a rallying cry and a kind of benediction for a programme which felt somewhat sacramental, and which, were we to respond with resolve, could be a commission.
And it’s Amen to that.
“All men by nature desire to know.”
Aristotle, when he wrote this, was saying that the thing that makes human beings different from other creatures, the thing that defines us, is the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge. This is not just to say that we human beings are curious creatures; it is to say that our ability to think about and to act on the world around us is bound up with our ability to know it. To be alive as a human being is to know in the same way as it is to have a heart that beats.
We all understand this in mundane ways. We understand, for instance, that part of being a fully independent adult, making choices about life, is learning about the world around us and informing our choices with that learning.
In the Book of Proverbs it says:
“By wisdom a house is built and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.”
But there is something more to all of this. The very next saying in Proverbs is:
“The wise are mightier than the strong.”
This is the earliest occurrence known to me of the now well-known idea: Knowledge is Power. To keep a person ignorant is to place them in a cage.
So it follows that the powerful, if they want to keep their power, will try to know as much about us as they can and they will try to make sure that we know as little about them as is possible.
I see this insight everywhere: both in religious writings, which promised emancipation from political repression, and in the revolutionary works promising liberation from the repressive dogmas of the Church and the State.
The powerful throughout history have understood this. The invention of the printing press was opposed by the old powers of Europe because it spelled the end of their control of knowledge and therefore the end of their tenure as power brokers. The Protestant Reformation was not just a religious movement, but a political struggle: the fight to liberate hoarded knowledge through translation and dissemination. Through the confessional system, the Catholic Church spied upon the lives of its congregants, while Latin mass excluded most people who could not speak Latin from an understanding of the very system of thought that bound them.
Knowledge has always flowed upwards to bishops and kings, not downward to serfs and slaves. The principle remains the same in the present era.
Documents disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show that governments dare to aspire—through their intelligence agencies—to a God-like knowledge about each and every one of us. But at the same time they hide their actions behind official secrecy.
As our governments and corporations know more and more about us, we know less and less about them. The policy, as always, is to channel the decisive information upwards, never downwards.
Today, remember that it is good to seek to empower the powerless through knowledge and to drag the machinations of the powerful into the daylight.
We must be unapologetic about that most basic of humanities: the desire to know.
The powerful would do well to remember the words of one of history’s great activists as recorded in the Book of Matthew:
“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed or hidden that will not be made known.
What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed at last from rooftop to rooftop.”
Julian Assange 2nd Jan 2014
Thanks to m_cetera at WikiLeaks etc for transcript
Thanks to Eric Bowers for the image above and ‘LEGALIZE TRUTH’