The progressive movement’s overwhelming silence on the U.S. government’s persecution, torture, and indictment of Assange is commonplace. This may appear strange, considering the importance the freedom of the press possesses. The freedom of the press is the only freedom which Americans possess that allows people to hold the government accountable regarding every other right or freedom. It is the threshold of freedom. If Assange is extradited and subsequently convicted, Americans are set to lose that sole protection. Democracy is quite literally at stake.
At first glance, it would seem like protecting journalistic freedom would be an obvious dimension of the progressive agenda. However, when it comes to Assange, that has rarely been the case. Like with so many other issues, progressive politicians’ insistence on remaining part of the Democratic Party continues to erode the ability for progressive movements to challenge the establishment. This is especially true of matters like this—when American empire has been exposed.
Both parties are inextricably linked. The American party system is borderline incestuous. The parties largely serve the same corporate donors. They vote for the same wars and serve the same masters. Consequently, an existential threat to one party is a threat to both parties. Julian Assange, through Wikileaks, exposed the vast corruption and war crimes the U.S. government had committed. That information implicated establishment politicians across the board.
So where are progressives on an issue involving the intersection of the fabric of democracy, war crimes, violations of human rights, and widespread corruption? Progressive politicians have largely been silent on the issue. However, the ones who have discussed Assange have—with rare exceptions such as Tulsi Gabbard and Mike Gravel—avoided the issue or engaged in smearing him.
Bernie Sanders has straddled the fence concerning Assange. When President Donald Trump charged Assange under the U.S. Espionage Act, Bernie Sanders described Trump’s action as “a disturbing attack on the First Amendment.” However, when writer and journalist Dack Rouleau bluntly asked Bernie whether he would pardon Assange as President, Bernie refused to answer in either the affirmative or the negative. He was willing to describe this as an attack on 1st Amendment rights, but he stopped short of going against the establishment in being willing to affirmatively state that he would, in fact, pardon Assange.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has, at least twice, responded to questions concerning Assange and his indictment. In 2019, a reporter asked AOC if she could comment on Assange’s arrest and indictment. Before mentioning the 1st amendment implications, she started by saying: “I think there’s a lot of concern, you know…even for folks who…disagree or are troubled by Assange’s past…” This year, someone else asked her to comment on Assange—this time alongside Edward Snowden and others. Again, she began—not by discussing the human rights violations or threat to 1st Amendment rights—by expressing trepidation about the issue. She stated: “I do believe that Edward Snowden should be considered. I think there are considerations and concerns around Assange.”
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Mike Levin, a progressive U.S. Representative in California, has been silent about Julian Assange since 2017. In 2017, Levin shared a New York Times article painting Assange as a “narcissist” in bed with Donald Trump. The article perpetuated the myth that Assange aided—knowingly or otherwise—Russian agents.
On the other hand, Ro Khanna acknowledged that the indictment Assange violates the 1st Amendment. However, in the same breath, he engaged in the exact same smears. He stated that he “detest[s] that Assange helped Trump.”
The issue with coverage and treatment of Assange in the progressive movement does not stop with the politicians. Progressive media is not exempt from criticism in this regard.
The Young Turks (TYT), a massive media group who describes themselves as a progressive network, completely ignored Assange’s trial this year. This silence continued until two viewers—journalist Glory Jones and organizer Kimber Maddox—publicly called them out during one of their streams for their silence on the issue. At which point, Ana Kasparian, one of TYT’s primary commentators, replied that she would “look into it.” Some viewers saw this as a non-committal and, due to how long the trial had already been going on, insufficient.
Benjamin Dixon, progressive podcaster and journalist, has been openly antagonistic towards Julian Assange, often perpetuating the same smears that helped turn public opinion against Assange. He has claimed that “Assange was only working for Assange.” Benjamin similarly stated that “Assange had info on [T]rump but decided not to release it,” and that “he’s carrying Trump’s water.” A lot of progressives adopted the narrative that Assange worked with Trump. As one of the largest voices in progressive circles, Dixon’s voice likely helped promulgate that narrative.
What does it mean to be “progressive” if you are unwilling to stand up, not just for a singular journalist, but for an issue which lies at the intersection between human rights and the fundamental integrity of democracy itself? How can they be progressives if they are unwilling to guard the threshold of freedom?