Citizenship: Assange versus Socrates

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, February 11, 2014

IF Tony Abbott thought his pep talk would evoke an outburst of patriotic rejoicing in Ultimo and Southbank he was sadly mistaken.

Asking ABC staff to demonstrate their affection for the home team is like asking a chameleon to show its true colours. Today’s intelligentsia, as true citizens of the world, no longer know who the home team is, let alone how to cheer for it.

The postmodern, post-nationalist being is a sovereign agent, a jurisdiction of one, who respects humankind but can’t abide the neighbours.

The joy of being a nomadic global citizen, Julian Assange once told The Sydney Morning Herald, is that it “allows you to see the structure of a country with greater clarity”. “You’re not swept up in the trivialities of a nation. You can concentrate on the serious matters. Australia is a bit of a political wasteland, a suburb of a country called Anglo-Saxon.”

Assange now barracks for Ecuador, an unexpected choice given that there are more than 164 embassies or high commissions in London on whose mercy he could have thrown himself.

A cursory snoop at the diplomatic traffic in and out of Quito would have told him that the humourless, illiberal South American republic is no place for a humanitarian anarchist, as Robert Manne once described him.

Last month the country’s formidable media regulator, Supercom, threw the book at El Universo newspaper for failing to ensure that Bonil, its cartoonist, properly checked his facts.

Bonil’s “despicable” satire was denounced by President Rafael Correa. El Universo was ordered to publish a correction. Honourably, it has refused to do.

While Assange has spent the last 600 days couch-surfing, his supporters have been bad mouthing Australia on Voice of Russia radio.

“The Australian government’s treatment of Julian is appalling and savage,” WikiLeaks Party’s chief executive, John Shipton, told a Muscovite shock jock recently. “It embarrasses me entirely, the way the Australian government just obeys whatever the US requests of it.”

Republican advocate Greg Barns told the station: “It is extraordinary the inhumanity of the British government, the Australian government and the US government that they would leave someone in that situation. It is a human rights abuse, there is no doubt about that.”

Like the US defector Edward Snowden, Assange cuts a ridiculous figure, yet both enjoy the sympathy of large sections of the post-nationalist intelligentsia who reject traditional notions of borders, loyalty and patriotic civic duty.

For Assange and Snowden, the holding of a passport is a matter of convenience, akin to the Moldovan flag that flies from some 400 merchant vessels registered in Chisinau, the capital of a landlocked state.

Tempting as it is to make light of their pomposity, Snowden and Assange have shown themselves capable of creating a great deal of mischief.

Old-fashioned leaks slipped out page by photocopied page; modern leaks arrive by the gigabyte.

The leak demands no higher purpose; the leak is an end in itself. Since the nation state is illegitimate, the notion of the national interest is redundant.

It is hard not to draw the ugly but inescapable parallel between the Western post-nationalist disdain for the principles of liberal citizenship and the global jihadists who object to the kafir state and long for a global Islamic caliphate.

When convicted British terrorist Richard Dart refused to stand for his sentencing at the Old Bailey, he was challenging the integrity of the court and the rule of law that underpins it.

The jihadists have capitalised on the intellectual climate created by the boomer generation who have benefited mightily from stable democracies but treat any form of nationalism with deep suspicions.

They see sovereign borders as anachronistic. They are troubled by assertions of sovereignty; the suggestion that an elected government has a right to determine who enters a country and the circumstances in which they come makes them feel uncomfortable, without really understanding why.

They are embarrassed by expressions of national pride, except perhaps in the sporting arena, and even then they are inclined to mock popular tribal sentiments.

These are the descendants of the “denaturalised intellectual” identified by Arthur Angel Phillips in his 1958 essay on cultural cringe.

In Phillips’s day they were “forever sidling up to the cultivated Englishman insinuating ‘I, of course, am not like these other crude Australians’.”

Today it is “the eyes of the world” they feel obliged to impress.

Assange’s globetrotting days, meanwhile, are over for now as he sits under UV lamps and swallows vitamin D tablets.

Last year he called on the Australian high commission to find him a doctor, as was his right (so he imagined), as an Australian citizen abroad. He complained long and hard on ABC Lateline when the government refused to pay for one

“The result of that was, ‘Well, here you are, here’s a list of doctors in London’,” he told ABC Lateline. “A list of doctors that the Australian government is going to pay for? No. Nothing, nothing at all.”

He asked the Australian consul for a passport.

“The absurd response is, ‘Well just come down to the Australian consulate.’ It’s a joke. I mean, they insult the Ecuadorians with this sort of behaviour. They insult me. They insult all of Australia with this sort of behaviour.”

Assange’s supporters attribute a nobility to him that is entirely unwarranted. He is not a martyr, messiah or freedom fighter but a fugitive from Swedish justice who stands accused of becoming excessively frisky in the company of Scandinavian women.

The modern notion of citizenship as interpreted by the likes of Assange would have been anathema to Socrates, who when falsely accused of corrupting the youth of Athens rejected his friends’ advice to run way.

To flee from justice, Socrates argued, even when the law was applied unfairly, was a breach of a valid agreement between polis and citizen.

If the state or city was acting dishonourably, said Socrates, “you must persuade it to the contrary,” or failing that, “do as it bids and suffer quietly what it prescribes”.

Socrates was a citizen of Athens. Assange is a stateless wonder unanswerable to any jurisdiction except the whimsical judgments that form within his own head.