Written by Rory O’Conner
What do Richard Nixon, Liu Xiaobo and Julian Assange have in common?
As lawyers for Wikileaks editor-in-chief Assange began preparing for a possible indictment by US authorities, two recent, unrelated but highly relevant news items caught my attention. The first involves the gift that keeps on giving in this and apparently every holiday season — Richard Nixon. Although it’s been nearly four decades since he left the Oval Office in disgrace, Nixon’s attitudes and actions, and the lessons we can draw from them, are as timely as ever – particularly so considering the controversy over Assange and his role in the release of secret cables revealing the attitudes and actions of more current American leaders such as Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The latest evidence of America’s closed-door political chicanery came with the release by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum of yet another trove of audiotapes of the ever-voluble former president. This time Tricky Dick can be heard chatting in the Oval Office with top aides and his personal secretary – all the while making a range of disparaging remarks about Jews, blacks, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans – some sixteen months before he was forced to resign as president.
For example, Nixon, who claimed not to be prejudiced, told senior adviser Charles Colson on February 13, 1973, that “The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.” The president’s negative attitudes toward Jews extended even to such close colleagues as his National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger, but his rampant bigotry did not end with his Jewish brethren.
“All people have certain traits,” Nixon opined. “The Irish have certain — for example, the Irish can’t drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.” He continued: “The Italians, of course, those people course don’t have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but…”
Nixon also revealed deep doubts about the abilities of African-Americans. He thought it would take centuries of miscegenation to integrate them fully into American society. He strongly disagreed with his Secretary of State William Rogers, who felt instead that “They are going to strengthen our country in the end because they are strong physically and some of them are smart.”
“My own view is I think he’s right if you’re talking in terms of 500 years,” Nixon remarked. “I think it’s wrong if you’re talking in terms of 50 years. What has to happen is they have be, frankly, inbred.”
As with many of the previously secret cables from Wikileaks, the long-secret Oval Office tapes don’t simply reinforce what we already know about our national leaders and what they are like when they think we aren’t listening. They also reveal valuable, detailed behind-the-scenes information about their values, veracity, geopolitical views, decision-making processes and the like. Take the subject of human rights as one example — neither Nixon nor Kissinger seemed terribly concerned over the Soviet Union’s treatment of its Jewish citizens: “If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern,” Kissinger can be heard saying on the tapes. “Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
“I know,” Nixon responds. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”
Just as the latest batch of Nixon tapes was released, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded, in absentia, to the imprisoned Chinese writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo. Liu is now serving an 11-year sentence for the heinous crime of “incitement to the overthrow of the state power and socialist system and the people’s democratic dictatorship.” For only the second time in history, no relative or representative of the winner was present at the ceremony to accept the award or the $1.5 million check it comes with. So no one was able to speak out on Liu’s behalf – although he did somehow manage to send word that he would dedicate the award to the “lost souls” massacred in 1989 in Tiananmen Square.
The Nobel Peace Prize, of course, is used as much to send a politically charged message as it is ostensibly to foster peace. Last year’s surprising choice of Barack Obama, thought by many to be what the New York Times terms a “thinly veiled rebuke to the politics of former President George W. Bush,” came as the current US president prepared to escalate the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. And let’s not forget that previous Peace Prize recipients include not only the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but also those of the aforementioned Dr. Kissinger. Nobel officials said this year’s prize should be seen as similar to that given Dr. King while he was fighting for civil rights in America in 1964 — a selection that helped create change. They optimistically hope this year’s choice of Liu will have a similar effect on China.
Perhaps over time… But at the moment, Chinese authorities are doing everything they can simply to make Liu invisible and voiceless. Nevertheless, a statement by Liu, read aloud at the ceremony by actor and activist Liv Ullmann, proved they have yet to succeed. “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth,” Liu’s statement noted in part.
Let’s try to remember that this week when trying to contemplate the fate of Julian Assange, who according to news reports may soon be prosecuted under the provisions of the 1917 Espionage Act (which was used unsuccessfully to try to stop the New York Times when it published the Pentagon Papers in the Nixon era) for the release of confidential diplomatic documents by Wikileaks.
Assange’s attorney told ABC News that she did not believe the Espionage Act applied to him, and added: “In any event he’s entitled to first amendment protection as publisher of Wikileaks and any prosecution under the Espionage Act would in my view be unconstitutional and puts at risk all media organisations in the US.”
But US Attorney General Eric Holder disagrees, saying Assange and Wikileaks had instead put the United States at risk. “The lives of people who work for the American people has been put at risk,” Holder says. “The American people themselves have been put at risk by these actions that are, I believe, arrogant, misguided and ultimately not helpful in any way.”
I’m every bit as much in favor of accountability and constitutionality as Attorney General Holder is – it’s just that we have different people we want to hold to account, and differing views of the Constitution. As prominent supporters of Assange noted in a letter calling for his release, the Wikileaks actions have actually “assisted democracy in revealing the real views of our governments over a range of issues”.
Imagine if Julian Assange and Wikileaks had been in existence during Watergate… He might have succeeded in “revealing the real views” of our government over a range of issues at that time. We might have found out what was really going on in Nixon’s mind and heart decades earlier – and we might even have been able to do something about it.
Instead, as per a recent Supreme Court decision, we have now begun to criminalize not only Julian Assange and Wikileaks — but also nonviolent First Amendment speech and advocacy as well if it is deemed to be “coordinated with” or “under the direction of” a foreign group listed by the Secretary of State as “terrorist.”
Where will the prosecution and persecution of Julian Assange end – and what will it mean for the rest of us who may be engaged in non-violent First Amendment speech or advocacy? Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama would do well to rein in his Attorney General and Justice Department – and to remember the words of this year’s Nobel recipient: “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth.”
About the authorFilmmaker and journalist Rory O’Connor writes the Media Is A Plural blog.