Assange's profession doesn't give him right to theft

December 11, 2010
Calgary Herald

Wikileaks evokes a moral crisis that far outstrips the passing antics of a schmendrick such as Julian Assange. It is a moral crisis mired in the conviction that what we call right and wrong is purely a function of whether it is ascribed to foe or friend. And it is at the heart of the horror of history forgotten.

Any Canadian who remains confused about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may find clarity in the words of Canada's only Nobel Prize winner for literature.

Saul Bellow, Chicago raised but born in what he called the "paradise" of Lachine, Que., was unequivocal about those who treacherously undermine the very Western nation states that uphold freedom of speech as an inalienable right.

As a just-released collection of Bellow's letters makes plain, he was ready to take on heavyweights like William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway if it kept the poet Ezra Pound locked up in the 1950s.

Pound was committed to an insane asylum after the Second World War for his broadcasts from Rome that poured anti-Semitism and pro-Axis propaganda over the airwaves.

A decade after the war, leading writers sought his release on the grounds that while he might have been a menace in the 1940s, he was still one of the 20th century's great poets.

"In France, Pound would have been shot," Bellow snorted in a 1956 letter to Faulkner. "Free him because he is a poet? A fine mess!"

Bellow's evident glee at twitchy French trigger fingers making short work of traitors might comfort U of C political scientist Tom Flanagan who, ridiculously, is under police investigation for joking that he thought the founder of WikiLeaks should be assassinated.

(Among the abundant absurdities of the WikiLeaks drama is the way its majestic justifications of free expression trumping western security quickly slipped into the farce of an intellectual such as Flanagan being subjected to police scrutiny for daring to express a jocular thought. That way madness lies.)

Whatever fate befalls Assange, however, the real take-away in Bellow's letter about Pound is his objection to letting vocation excuse vexation.

Nothing about being a poet, he argues, justifies a get out of the booby bin free card for someone complicit in the undermining of democratic governments busily trying to stop mass murder.

The very assertion that someone's status life should spare them the consequences of their active life, Bellow points out, is itself a form of complicity in their deeds.

It's an appropriate reminder in the face of the WikiLeaks fiasco in which cultural icons stand complicit in abetting Assange simply because he purports to be a journalist and a crusader for free expression. From the Dead Tree Media that first published the stolen WikiLeaks documents to Amazon, which gave technical support to the website, to the pay sites that allowed Assange to fundraise to make his skulduggery financially worthwhile, no one seemed to care about what would actually be done. All appear to have been overawed by iterations of the identity he claimed for himself.

Such awe let them (and many others) overlook Assange's willingness to fulfil his self-styled vocation of exposing the purported lies and deceit at the heart of western foreign policy in the following ways.

1) By engaging in massive and indiscriminate theft. 2) By vile violation of professional as well as personal privacy and property. 3) By the elevation of himself to arbiter of ends justifying any means.

No one anywhere seems to have bothered to ask a variation of Bellow's rhetorical question about freeing Pound just because he was a poet, e.g.: " Profit from the theft of stolen property just because it comes from a journalist?"

Failure to ask something so plain spoken represents more than a lapse of good taste, protocol or even ethics.

It evokes a moral crisis that far outstrips the passing antics of a schmendrick such as Julian Assange. It is a moral crisis mired in the conviction that what we call right and wrong is purely a function of whether it is ascribed to foe or friend. And it is at the heart of the horror of history forgotten.

As Bellow pointed out to the literary luminaries of his day, it leads us, again and again, into evil's confidence trick of seductive personal image and facility with language masking the most odious outcomes.

"What staggers me," Bellow wrote to Faulkner, "is that you and Mr. Steinbeck, who have dealt for so many years in words, should fail to understand the import of Ezra Pound's plain and brutal statements about the "kikes" leading the "goy" to slaughter. Is this -- from (Pound's) Pisan Cantos -- the stuff of poetry? It is a call to murder. . . .

"The whole world conspires to ignore what has happened, the giant wars, the colossal hatreds, the unimaginable murders, the destruction of the very image of man. Is this what we come out for, too?"

There was clearly no doubt in the mind of Canada's only Nobel Prize laureate for literature (where else could he have been born but in the "paradise" of Lachine, Que.?) that the only answer was no.

We can all share his moral clarity if we choose.