WikiLeaks Supporters: Thinking Right?
May 25, 2012 1 Comment
(This post is a response to Professor Christensen vs. WikiLeaks? by Marcello Ferrada de Noli. I have subsequently written a separate post on my specific thoughts on the relationship between WikiLeaks, feminism and Assange.)
WikiLeaks Supporters: Thinking Right?
I have a great job. As a university professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, I am afforded a number of luxuries not on offer to the vast majority of human beings throughout the world. I have a good salary, good working conditions, security and, importantly, a level of intellectual freedom which allows me to look at events in the world and consider them within broader, critical contexts. When I was promoted to the position of Professor at Uppsala, I made my feelings regarding the role of the academic in public life clear in my installation speech (a public lecture given by professors upon their promotion). I concluded my talk with the following quote from Noam Chomsky:
Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.
In my academic work, I have attempted in some small way to live up to Noam Chomsky’s ideals, and mixed my research and writing with more public discussions on the uneven distribution of power in society in general, and the role of the media in this distribution in particular. My work to date has included academic studies on public broadcasting and commercial news in Sweden, the representation of Islam, the use of documentary film as an anti-war tool, concentration of media power in Turkey, the use of YouTube during the occupation in Iraq, and a critique of Swedish government aid to net activists. My popular, non-academic publications have been more wide-ranging, from pieces on Bruce Springsteen to Iran to US journalism, but I have always attempted to maintain a critical focus on commercial media, and the role that these media play in the consolidation of elite power. In all of these pieces I have not hidden my ideological rejection of (1) free-market myths, (2) arguments in favor of US supremacy and (3) structures which enable oppression or inequality.
In my more recent popular pieces (#1, #2, #3), I have turned my attention to WikiLeaks: an organization I considered (and still consider) to be a vital actor in the exposure of lies and abuses of power at the highest levels. While I recognize the importance of WikiLeaks, this recognition has not stopped me from raising questions regarding the activities of WikiLeaks or supporters that could, as far as I see it, have a potentially negative impact upon an agenda I consider worth pursuing (transparency in the service of justice). For anyone who has read these articles, it is clear that I mix a healthy respect for WikiLeaks with a desire to engage in honest discussion about what the organization has done, is doing, and where it is going. Without such debate, claims that the organization and the followers are democratic simply ring hollow.
It is for this reason that I sent out a tweet about a week ago following the re-tweet by WikiLeaks of a link to an article written by Al Burke entitled, “Suspicious Behavior.” In the tweet, I encouraged WikiLeaks to refrain from re-tweeting links to articles promoting a “radical feminist” thesis I described as “nonsense.” My irritation was based on the fact that the feminist line has been pushed by WikiLeaks via these re-tweets (including essays by de Noli). Of course, Twitter is not the best place to engage in a debate on why I felt the thesis was nonsense, so, following Twitter messages from 4 individuals (no more, by the way) challenging my assertion, I decided to write a blog post to explain my position, and why I feel that a promotion of this argument only serves to undercut the broader WikiLeaks political agenda. I fully accept that if I call the position “nonsense” on a public forum that I should be willing to put my reasons into writing.
However, before I could finish my piece, de Noli published a blog entry about me. I must say that I am grateful for this posting, as it made the work of explaining my general position on WikiLeaks much clearer. De Noli’s essay is, to my mind, a crystallization of everything that is intellectually wrong with a certain faction of WikiLeaks supporters, whose arguments are a melange of opinion, selective “facts” and dogma. (De Noli insinuates, based on no evidence whatsoever other than pure chronology, that my tweet was connected to a “message” that was sent to me via my blog from “an American campaigner”. It was not.)
After the post was published I wrote to de Noli on Twitter and informed him that I would be posting my own response, and that his post had re-enforced my feeling that anyone who disagreed with his thesis was automatically painted as anti-WikiLeaks and anti-Assange. De Noli sent me a number of tweets with links to logic websites and claims that he is only dedicated to “facts.” As I say, I was in the process of writing my arguments regarding the WikiLeaks-feminism thesis when de Noli posted his thoughts about me. So, I felt the need to clarify where I stand, and where I see myself in relation to WikiLeaks.
With De Noli’s dedication to “facts” in mind, I would like to address the points he raises, and use them to illustrate the intellectual weaknesses in his arguments.
Interestingly, de Noli starts his piece with an attack on the motto of my university:
“To think free is great; but to think right is greater” (att tänka fritt är stort att tänka rätt är store) Inscription engraved at Uppsala University’s library
“That a University calls on its scholars to think ‘right’ should trouble all who value academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge. In fact, it harkens back to the old days when Universities were not independent centres of learning but were, indeed, constrained by the church and the Monarchy to “think right” or be shut down. Attacks on the scientific process and promotion of non-scientific dogma in some faculties in Uppsala University suggests that this old proclamation (still) reflects the University’s position in thinking according to cannons of political correctness imposed by an authority.” Professors blog
The quotation above was written by Thomas Thorild in 1794 and set in stone above the main university building in 1877. Exactly what this has to do with myself or WikiLeaks is an absolute mystery. Unless, that is, de Noli is under the impression that Uppsala University uses the university motto as a benchmark for all research produced at the institution. Since the university has established itself as a world-leader in the hard sciences, de Noli must be confused as to how this happened with such an anti-science motto. Either that, or de Noli is simply trying to link me, in an intellectually infantile manner, to a motto which I reject and consider to be complete bullshit.
Later in his piece, de Noli has a 720-word section entitled, Uppsala University and Swedish extreme “radical feminists” in which he discusses the hiring and work of feminist scholar Eva Lundgren (as well as a diatribe against qualitative research). De Noli explains:
The relevance of this to this article, is that it refers to the same Uppsala Faculty which has allocated several professors at the Ethical Research Committee of Uppsala that approved the “feminist” cultural-racists study by Eva Lundgren research associates – the theme which Professors blog analysed in “Throw them all out”.
This sentence sounds impressive, if you ignore the fact that it is completely irrelevant to my work. I have never met Eva Lundgren, never read or cited any of her research, never been involved in a research project, article, proposal, course, class, seminar, or lunch meeting with her. Nor has any of my work, to date, gone through the Ethical Research Committee de Noli mentions. Again, what Eva Lundgren’s job at Uppsala, or the Ethical Research Committee, has to do with me or WikiLeaks, and why he chose to spend so much time writing about someone I don’t even know and have never written about, is something only de Noli can explain. Unless, of course, de Noli feels that if Professor X is at the same university as Professor Y, that they must have some form of intellectual bond. Or, if a university hires someone questionable, or approves of their work, this de facto reflects upon all faculty members at that university. That would be like me saying that anyone who studied or worked at Harvard University, as de Noli did, has some type of intellectual connection to anyone else who studied or worked at Harvard. For example, Henry Kissenger, who green-lit the mass slaughter of Cambodians during the VietNam War, and not only wrote his dissertation at Harvard, but was Director of the Harvard Defense Studies Program between 1958 and 1971. Or, a number of documented war criminals admitted to the university after their crimes were committed. So, Harvard is a university that condoned work with the US government and military during Viet Nam and has taken on documented war criminals. Does this make de Noli an intellectual accomplice to these people? No, because to suggest so would be absurd. To me, anyway.
My Background and Work
It is always fascinating to read a description of oneself written by another, especially when that person has carefully and selectively picked portions of your work and life, and offered descriptions of that work, which help them to shape a particular image of you. As noted, de Noli admonished me for a lack of logical rigor, and asked that we stick to “facts” in our discussions. As any scientist should know, the use of facts is by no means a guarantee that an accurate image will come out, especially when a scientist decides to omit certain facts which do not fit a particular agenda. Here is how de Noli described me:
Christian Christensen is an American researcher who graduated from Texas University and who was drawn to my attention for his several twitters and critical articles he has published on WikiLeaks, notably his most recent piece “WikiLeaks vs. Sweden”.
Let’s start here. Yes, I am American and I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. I congratulate de Noli for finding those facts. Unfortunately, his ability to resist the temptation to shape reality takes hold in the second part of the sentence. His use of the term “several…critical articles he has written on WikiLeaks” is important. I have, to date, published four articles on WikiLeaks: two in Le Monde Diplomatique, one academic piece, and one on my blog. After the publication of my first piece in Le Monde Diplomatique entitled, WikiLeaks: Three Digital Myths, my name and contact information were placed on the WikiLeaks webpage as a contact in Sweden who would could “comment” on the organization to journalists. I guess WikiLeaks felt the piece exhibited enough thought to put me down as a commentator, which hardly suggests an antagonistic attitude to the organization on my part. Yet, for some reason, de Noli does not include this in his list of “facts.”
In all four of the articles I make clear my belief in the importance of WikiLeaks to contemporary society, and the ways in which the organization highlighted the failure of mainstream media to adequately tackle issues such as the Iraq War. Again, de Noli avoids these facts. Interestingly, a link to the Sweden vs. Assange article was re-tweeted by the @Wikileaks twitter feed (together with Kristinn Hrafnsson’s piece, which was placed as an “opposing view” to mine); to date, the essay has been viewed 452 times. This isn’t a massive number, but one would assume that if the essay was perceived as unfair or unbalanced, that I would get at least some negative feedback or accusations from WikiLeaks supporters of being anti-Assange or anti-WikiLeaks. I have not.
De Noli continues:
Christensen was academically stationed in Turkey after 2002 where he wrote several pieces on Iran and the role of social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) in, among other areas “enabling the spread of state propaganda and surveillance”. Inferred from his CV, he has been also active in Finland or Norway before moving to Sweden where he has resided since 2006. In 2010 he received a professorship at Uppsala University. The Swedish government’s agency Council for Working Life and Social Research – a Swedish authority under the Ministry of Social Affairs – currently finances Christensen’s research with the equivalent sum of 383,484 USD (2.7 million Swedish Kr, or 300,000 Euro) for the project “The Social Journalist: News Work and News Organizations in an Age of Networked Sociality.” Christensen is professor of media and communication studies and in his personal presentation at the Uppsala University directory, he describes his primary special area being the “use of social media during times of war”.
Apart from the factual errors that I wrote these pieces on social media while living in Turkey (they were written in Sweden), and that I have have lived in Norway (I have not), the key here is de Noli’s description of my research project, which he writes is financed by “the Swedish government’s agency Council for Working Life and Social Research (link added by CC, not in original quote)– a Swedish authority under the Ministry of Social Affairs.”
See the clever rhetorical angle here? I can see the headline: “Professor who hates WikiLeaks and Assange has research paid for by Swedish government.” Yes, but, then again, everyone who is an academic in Sweden works for, and is paid by, the Swedish government, as universities are state institutions. Including de Noli, by the way, who made a career accepting Swedish government money as an academic in Sweden. And, as de Noli decides not to tell readers, the state is one of the largest funders of academic research in Sweden, regardless of discipline, so having a project funded from the state budget is hardly evidence of bias. And, for some strange reason, de Noli has forgotten to mention the very latest last academic article I published: a peer-reviewed critique of the current Conservative administration’s policy regarding Swedish state aid to global net activism (in addition to a large number of critical tweets I have directed at the current administration regarding this policy and other technology-related issues).
Finally, I would like to end by discussing de Noli’s key complaint against me: that I do not understand (or simply reject) the difference between the leaks that WikiLeaks release via their websites, and the information that they relay via, for example, Twitter. And, that I am part of some type of right-wing elite alliance to stifle freedom of speech. On the first issue, de Noli writes:
In sum, the interpretation errors here appear to be two-fold, in form and in content Formally, because it is up to WikiLeaks editors to decide both what to make public in disseminating information at their official sites and with whom and how to interact in their Twitter account; and also because it is erroneous to equate different modes in the societal interaction of WikiLeaks.
Had de Noli bothered to look at what I had written in WikiLeaks vs. Sweden, he would have read the following:
Following the allegations made against Assange, and the rapid deterioration of the relationship between WikiLeaks and their former partners in the mainstream media (such as the New York, Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel), the organization has taken what appears to be a far more aggressive role. Rather than discussing relationships between media and governments, and citizens and governments, it is now necessary to address the direct relationship between WikiLeaks and these groups. In particular, WikiLeaks has made use of Twitter (the organization has over one million followers) as a platform for the spread of information and opinion regarding a wide variety of issues. Via the use of this technology, WikiLeaks has expanded its brand beyond the collection and dissemination of leaked documents, to what appears to be a more direct advocacy-oriented strategy, with the organization mounting a campaign against perceived bias with the Swedish justice system in general, and those involved in the Assange case in particular. (…) What is clear from the Swedish case is that WikiLeaks has become something more than this: it has become an organization that is willing to confront not only governments, but also media outlets and even individuals via a variety of digital tools, not simply via leaked documents.
I am well aware that WikiLeaks representatives have denied that there was or is a deliberate campaign against Sweden; but, as I very clearly state, I suggested a clear campaign against perceived bias and those specifically involved in the case. And, as the section above also indicates – and in contrast to de Noli’s “analysis” of my position – I am also aware of the difference between leaks and what WikiLeaks releases via social media. In fact, that was the entire point of the article: how WikiLeaks was utilizing social media in contrast/addition to the leaks, and asking how this new angle could be considered in light of the organizations brand and raison d’etre. I would like to think this is a valid, important question for anyone genuinely interested in the future of WikiLeaks. It is also worth noting that in the entire article, the word “feminism” is used twice: once where I state that I am “surprised” that feminism was targeted so clearly in the tweets (which I am); and, the other was part of a quotation from the Swedish journalist Karin Olsson’s Guardian piece attacking Julian Assange: an article I described in my post as being “vitriolic.”
There is a real irony here. After 9/11, those of us from the United States who opposed the war in Iraq were often accused by conservatives and pro-war advocates as being un-American, pro-terrorism, anti-democracy and, worst of all, in favor of the troops being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, in this blinkered intellectual view (exemplified by Fox News), it was simply impossible to be a “good American” and be against the war. The lack of rational thinking in the argument made it difficult to counter. Unfortunately, I see many of the same tactics being employed by certain WikiLeaks followers, many of whom are quick to paint anyone who disagrees with any element related to the organization as anti-WikiLeaks, anti-Assange agents of US power. In other words, in this case, it is simply impossible to be a WikiLeaks supporter and critique the way in which the organization has tarred feminism in Sweden with a broad brush (which is the essential critique I will offer in my next post).
A decade of my popular research and writing is available online to be read, and so to be linked with right-wing think-tanks and conservative journalists as part of some kind of pro-US, pro-Sweden, anti-Assange, anti-WikiLeaks campaign would be funny, were it not so sad.