Regulating information to the masses has been the cornerstone of power retention throughout the ages, historian Humphrey McQueen told a Support Julian Assange gathering in Sydney. ‘We could do with a WikiLeaks here in Australia’, he says, to sort out bank misinformation and recover confidence in the cabinet office.
WikiLeaks helps interpret, change the world
More than 400 people crowded into a lecture theatre at the University of Technology Sydney on 17 February 2012 for a public forum, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger: WikiLeaks, Assange and Democracy’, organised by the Support Assange and WikiLeaks Coalition.
Speakers included socialist historian Humphrey McQueen, Greens Senator Scott Ludlum, London-based human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson and Christine Assange, the mother of Julian. Former journalist and broadcaster Mary Kostakidis chaired the forum.
Here is an edited transcript based on McQueen’s address, where he put information in general – and WikiLeaks’ information in particular – in context.
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Having been introduced as a historian, I shall spend most of my time relating what is happening now to past struggles, and why they relate to the ways in which information is regulated.
This is the second time I’ve been on a panel with Christine Assange, Kulian’s mother. We spoke together outside Parliament House in Canberra during the Obama visit. On that day we also heard from a group of Congolese who spoke passionately about the nine million Congolese who had lost their lives in the 50 years since their fake independence. They were there to protest against US mining corporations in their country responsible for that slaughter. Many of you would have seen the film documentary by Raoul Peck on the life and murder of the Congo’s first President, Patrice Lumumba. A further question occurs: had there been a WikiLeaks then, we might have had the answer to what happened to the secretary-general of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold whose plane crashed in Africa in 1961.
Japan could do with a WikiLeaks now to get some sense of what is going on around the nuclear reactors. Had WikiLeaks been operating, many of the disasters that have happened over the decades, like the radiation leaks, would have been investigated in public and there may have been more action to prevent the continuing melt-downs.
We could do with a WikiLeaks here in Australia to tell us the extent to which the banks are lying to us about the cost of borrowing money. One thing we all need a WikiLeaks for is to expose this abominable phrase “commercial-in-confidence”, which we know can mean “corruption-in-the-cabinet office”.
As I said, I’m not going to take up the legal issues about Wikileaks. I want to go back and look at how the relationship between information and power has changed in the past. Throughout all human history, the 1% have struggled to make sure that the 99% couldn’t read or write at all, let alone read what WikiLeaks has revealed. Within living memory, French was the language of international diplomacy.
Slaves in America were flogged if they tried to learn to read. They nonetheless resisted, using what was available to them — which was the Old Testament — to compose hymns of protest, such as ‘Let My People Go’.
The Church used Latin to befuddle the masses. John Wyclif tired to translate the Bible into English just before the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. He managed to die before the bishops got to him, but they dug his bones up and burnt them anyway. The authorities were convinced that he was in hell, but they thought they should do the little bit extra that they could.
It wasn’t only the Holy Inquisition that tried to stop people knowing what was going on in their world. No less than a president of the Royal Society from the late 1820s, a Mr Giddy, announced:
Giving education to the labouring classes of the poor will be prejudicial to their morals and happiness. It would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other laborious employments to which their rank in society has destined them. Instead of teaching them subordination, it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets and render them insolent to their superiors.
This is not the skeptical voice of science speaking, but the claim of a social class determined to protect its property.
When Marx was writing Capital, he used the evidence that had been collected by the factory inspectors who interrogated teenage boys working in Satanic Mills six days a week, 12 and more hours a day. They asked Jeremiah Hayes, aged 12, what a king was. He wasn’t a complete ignoramus. He said: ‘A king is him that has all the money and gold.’ Yet he was a bit confused beyond that because he said, ‘a princess is a man’. William Turner was asked where he lived: ‘I don’t think I live in England. Perhaps it’s a country, but I didn’t know it before.’ Another factory-hand, aged 17, had been in church where he learnt that: ‘The Devil is a good person but I don’t know where he lives.’
Marx had some idea of where the Devil lived because, over the page, commenting on the state of miseducation and the abominable conditions in which these English young people were living, he wrote: “Late at night perhaps, Mr Glass Capital, primed with port wine, reels out of his club homeward bound, droning idiotically, ‘Britons never never shall be slaves’.”
By then, the Britons have decided that for themselves. Like the slaves in America, the wage-slaves set about to teach themselves how to read. There is a wonderful document called the ‘Bad Alphabet for the use of the Children of Female Reformers’. When I went to school I was taught ‘A’ is an apple and with the bite taken out, ‘A’ says ‘a’. These children were taught to say: “B is for Bible, Bishops and Bigotry …K is for King, Knaves and Kidnappery.” The power of capital was now up against the self-education of workers and the autodidacts who taught themselves to become champions of a working-class movement and socialist groups.
Around the mid-nineteenth century, capitalists needed a more literate workforce. So they had to start educating more of their workers, which is a very dangerous thing to do, as the president of the Royal Society had warned.
After Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli introduced the second Reform Act of 1867 to give one million working men the vote, a conservative member of parliament remarked “we must educate our masters”. He had no intention, and neither did Disraeli, of allowing these workers to become the masters. Compulsory education became a form of factory discipline, as Charles Dickens spells out in Hard Times. The cultural illiteracy that had horrified Marx continued and took new guises.
The political requirements of capital coincided with its commercial needs. Advertisers dealt with the surface of commodities, deflecting attention from the intrinsic properties. Glamour bathed every product from limos to packaged suet. Mass marketing installed a “culture of distraction”. If people were going to read, they had to be distracted from the causes of oppression in their working lives: sensationalism and crime in the police gazettes and, more recently, the promotion of people who don’t have personalities, like Paris Hilton. The media pictured Julian Assange in terms of his socks and backpack apart from the sex charges, and Bradley Manning in regards to his sexuality rather than on his motivation and the substance of the documents.
My favourite science-fiction writer George Turner in his 1987 novel The Sea and Summer refers to television as “the Triv”. To appreciate why that term is apt, we need to place television in the circumstances in which people live. The head of Channel 9 in 1970 was clear: “If people come home from work wrecked from a hard day what they want is to relax in front of the tele, and that’s quite right.” Well, it’s ‘quite right’ once we understand the exhaustion that modern work puts on people’s lives. But it’s not ‘quite right’ in terms of people’s understanding of why we are in that situation of time-poverty.
A further device for trivialisation from early in the 20th century was to reduce information to “the news”. Even if every item on “the news” were 100% accurate, it would still be a lie because it would misrepresent the world as a blizzard of isolated items. If I’m interviewed and rub two footnoted facts together I’m accused of promoting a conspiracy theory. If you know two bits of information and you try to make sense of the world, this is a conspiracy theory?
So we have to ask ourselves, what is ‘the news’ telling us? If we listened to every news bulletin, every quarter of an hour, since we can have news around the clock, if we absorbed every little bit, what would we understand about the causes of the current global economic catastrophe? If we stress ‘understand’, the answer is…nothing! Our heads would be filled up with scraps which really couldn’t matter less. What we need are ways of understanding what is in the media, of contextualising what WikiLeaks reveals to us instead of boiling their substance down to fractured factoids.
Unless we understand the dynamics of capitalism, why it has got us into this mess, and why it could not do anything else, then all these bits of information are not going to be of much use to us in determining what we are going to do to fight back.
In conclusion, I want to take up a phrase that all of you, I’m sure, have heard…to wit, the difference between interpreting the world and changing it. Sometimes people put this pair up as if we could have one or the other. We can’t. In every aspect of life, whether in science or in politics, the two activities have to go together. The way we interpret the world is by changing it. We work on it, we do something to it, and through that experience we get a better sense of where we are going. And the obverse is true: to change the world, we need to be able to interpret it. Our task is to perform both, not one or the other.
* Humphrey McQueen is an Australian historian and living treasure of the alternate viewpoint. He is a former history professor, and a past and future author. He is a member of CLA. You can access his work at: http://tiny.cc/rgq1aw