Nearly eight years ago, I wrote a post on the career of Drew Pearson, the muckraker who with his collaborators Robert Allen and Jack Anderson infuriated Administrations from Roosevelt to Nixon, and who successfully defended all but one of many dozens of libel suits along the way. I concluded that post with a lament that there was no one remotely like Pearson writing today, either for newspapers (he was a syndicated columnist) or in the blogosphere. Last weekend I saw We Steal Secrets, a very well-balanced documentary about Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Wikileaks, and I left the theater thinking about the similarities and differences between Assange and Pearson, and between Pearson's time and ours.
Neither Pearson nor Assange had, or have, any respect for government serecy regulations per se. Pearson published lots of classified information and was repeatedly investigated for doing so. Pearson, however, always did so for a very specific purpose--to point out that a particular government official had lied about a particular matter or policy, or to expose a corrupt national, state or local official in some part of the country, or to let the American people know about the concerns of the War Department in the critical summer of 1940, as I found researching my new book. He saw himself, as I wrote in 2005, as a political activist as well as a journalist, and his remarkable diaries show him working hard for or against various appointments or pieces of legislation. He continually balanced his personal reservations about Harry Truman and some of the men around him with his commitment to the broad liberal cause of which Truman was the only representative on the scene. Pearson, in other words, used his platform to expose wrongdoing, but also to participate in the great enterprise of governing the American people and influencing the rest of the world for the better.
Assange's goal, from the time he set up Wikileaks, has been to expose as many secrets as possible, period. At no time does the film about him show him enunciating any political philosophy or policy position--merely a general feeling that governments lie. Nor apparently does he have the patience to go through a treasure trove of documents to figure out which are the most important and what they really mean. And in this respect, he typifies what has happened to our public life in the years since Pearson's death in 1969: any sense of belonging to a common political enterprise that can move us all forward has been lost, replaced by a general distrust of authority of all kinds, an endless,. useless resentment, lacking even any vision of how things might be different, much less of how we might get there. This attitude has put the left at a great disadvantage relative to right wing sites like Breitbart.com, which know exactly whom they want to hurt and why, and which function actively on behalf of the Republican Party--the more organized part of the anti-authority movement.
I have recently been re-reading the early criticism of the film critic Pauline Kael, and she identified the onset of this trend in the mid-1960s, talking about the reaction of younger movie audiences to films like Dr. Strangelove. "Dr. Strangelove," she wrote in 1967, "opened a new movie era. It ridiculed everything and everybody it showed, but concealed its own liberal pieties, thus protecting itself from ridicule. . . .Dr. Strangelove, chortling over madness, did not indicate any possibilities for sanity. It was experienced not as satire but as a confirmation of fears. . . From Dr. Strangelove it's a quick leap to MacBird [a then-current off-Broadway play accusing Lyndon Johnson of assassinating John F. Kennedy] and to a belief in exactly what we were not supposed to find in Dr Strangelove. It is not war that has been laughed to scorn but the possibility of sane action."
There are some ironies in these comments. I saw Dr. Strangelove on the night it opened in New York, and over the last half-century I have discovered that almost every detail in it reflects true facts. Eisenhower had signed off on a real "Wing Attack Plan R," authorizing local commanders to attack the USSR if Washington had been destroyed. McGeorge Bundy had argued (on JFK's behalf) with the Joint Chiefs of Staff about whether a conflict in which the US lost 30 million people while killing 100 million Soviets could be called a victory. A fellow scholar and friend doing interviews with Air Force brass in the 1980s was told that yes, in a real crisis with the Soviets, the pressure for an all-out pre-emptive strike would become intense. But Kael was right to argue that sanity remained possible. Already, JFK's extraordinary leadership and Khrushchev's residual sanity had saved us from holocaust at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. And despite another scary moment during the first Reagan Administration, successive Presidents and general secretaries kept their nerve much better than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did after 9/11, and the nuclear holocaust never took place. But meanwhile, the mindset that Kael--a liberal from the GI generation--identified in 1967 remains very much alive today, dominating much of academia. And Julian Assange seems to share it. There is an enormous, critical difference between publishing secrets to make government more responsive to the public and more beholden to the truth, and publishing secrets because one disbelieves in the possibility of honest government completely. The history of the last forty years should have taught American leftists that people with no faith in institutions will eventually get institutions utterly unworthy of their faith.
We Steal Secrets does at one point try to give Wikileaks some credit for the Arab spring, because Bradley Manning's massive dump of State Department cables included some having to do with Egypt and Tunisia. I suspect that is a stretch. While some of those cables as reported at the time were potential embarrassments to foreign leaders, I doubt any of my readers could remember any of the specifics published in the New York Times now. Bradley Manning's treatment has been disgraceful, but no government could allow a soldier to go entirely unpunished for what he did. (The movie also makes clear that he was a very emotionally troubled young man, one of many drawn into the military during the recent wars.)
It is no accident that Assange comes from Australia, one of the most peaceful nations on earth. A complete disbelief in authority, as Orwell understood, is a luxury that only those who have been fortunate enough to grow up in unusually stable circumstances can afford. The millions of Boomers who have denied the legitimacy of all authority for nearly half a century now have been indulging that luxury thanks to the achievements of their parents and grandparents. Generation X, now assuming positions of power all through our society, has never had any faith in institutions. The question of whether modern society can survive without strong institutions enjoying the confidence of most of the population will be answered over the next few decades.