Humphrey McQueen: WikiLeaks can help us interpret and change the world

Humphrey McQueen.

More than 400 people crowded into a lecture theatre at the University of Technology Sydney on February 17 for a public forum, “Don’t shoot the messenger: WikiLeaks, Assange and Democracy”. The forum was organised by the .

Speakers at the forum included socialist historian , Greens Senator Scott Ludlum, London-based human rights lawyer and , the mother of Julian Assange. Veteran journalist and broadcaster Mary Kostakidis chaired the forum.

The transcript of McQueen’s address to the meeting is below.

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Thank you all very much for being here. I won’t have to tell you why you are here, so I won’t attempt to do that.

I will, having been introduced as a historian, spend most of my time relating what is happening now to the things that have happened in the past, and why they relate to the ways in which information is operated.

It is the second time I’ve been on a panel with Christine Assange. We spoke together outside parliament house during the [US President Barack] Obama visit. She apologised for not being a public speaker.

I have to say to you should look forward to hearing her. It was a speech that would put any public figure in Australia to shame. Nothing that the leader of the opposition or the prime minister could say could carry not only the conviction but also the content, because what made the difference with Christine’s speech that morning was she had something to say.

We also had speeches from a group, surprisingly, of Congolese. And they came and spoke very passionately about the 9 million Congolese who had lost their lives in the 50 years since their fake independence was given. And they were there to protest about Obama and the US mining corporations in their country that they were holding responsible for that.

Many of you would have seen the excellent documentary by Raoul Peck on the life and murder of [the Congo’s first President Patrice] Lumumba. The other question is that if there had been a WikiLeaks then — and we might even find the answer in the future — is to what happened to the secretary general of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold when his plane crashed [in Africa in 1961].

We could also do with a WikiLeaks in Japan and get some sense of what is actually going on around the nuclear reactors there. If there had been a WikiLeaks there, then many of the disasters that have happened now, and those leaks and other problems that had arisen in the previous years, would have been public and there may have been more action taken to prevent the catastrophe that is still unfolding there.

We can do with a WikiLeaks here to tell us whether the banks are telling us the truth about the cost of borrowing money. The thing we all need a WikiLeaks for is to expose this abominable phrase “commercial-in-confidence”, which we all know means “corruption-in-the-closest”.

As I said, I’m not going to take up the particular legal issues about this. What I want to do is to go back and have a look at how things have changed in the past couple of hundred years.

Because throughout all of 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.

The Church used Latin. The Russian Tsarists used French against their own population. When John Wycliffe tried to translate the Bible into English he managed to die before they got to him, but they dug his bones up and burnt them anyway. They were probably pretty convinced that he was in hell, but they thought they’d do the little bit extra that they could.

Slaves in America were flogged if they tried to learn to read. But the important thing is that the slaves resisted. They used what was available to them — which was the Old Testament — to write hymns of protest.

But it wasn’t only the Holy Inquisition that tried to stop people knowing what was going on in their world.

No less than the president of the Royal Society, the chief scientist in England, announced in the 18th century: “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 the voice of science speaking, not the inquisition.

Marx, when he was writing Capital, used the evidence that had been collected by the factory inspectors when they interrogated teenage boys working in these plants 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.” But he was a bit confused beyond that because he said, “a princess is a man”.

William Turner was asked where he lived and he said: “I don’t think I live in England. Perhaps it’s a country, but I didn’t know it before.”

Another man 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 shortly over the page, commenting on the state of miseducation and the abominable conditions in which these English young people were living, he said: “Late at night perhaps, Mr Glassblowing Capital, primed with port wine, reels out of his club homeward bound, droning idiotically, .”

And of course the Britons have decided that for themselves. And like the slaves in America, they set about to teach themselves how to read.

Now 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 this: “B is for Bible, Bishops and Bigotry …K is for King, Knaves and Kidnappery.”

Capital, of course, around this time 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 realised.

So one of the conservative members of parliament remarked when [British prime minister Benjamin] Disraeli introduced the second Reform Act of 1867 to give 1 million working men the vote, “we must educate our masters”. But of course 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 so powerfully in Hard Times. The cultural illiteracy that had horrified Marx continued.

But it was now up against the self-education of workers and the autodidacts who taught themselves to become leaders of a working class movement and socialist groups.

But the capitalists were not now devoid of other ploys. They have got was has been called a “culture of distraction” — if people were going to read, then what had to be done was that they had to be distracted from the causes of oppression in their lives: sensationalism and crime, the police gazettes and, more recently, the promotion of people who don’t have personalities, like Paris Hilton.

But in order to understand what happens in our contemporary Australia, we need to place something like television — which my favourite science fiction writer George Turner in his novel refers to as “the Triv” — in the social circumstances in which people live.

The head of Channel 9 in 1970 was very clear. He said: “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 if 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 in this society.

The other thing they did in the 20th century was if there was going to be information available, it’s something called “the news”. Now even if the news were to tell all the truth and even if every item on the news was 100% accurate it would still misrepresent the world.

If I’m interviewed and I 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.

But we have to ask ourselves here, what is it that the news is trying to do? If you listened to every news bulletin, every quarter of an hour now — not three or four times a day but every quarter of an hour, you can have news around the clock — if you listened to it, every bit, what would you understand about the causes of the current global economic catastrophe? Nothing!

Your head would be filled up with scraps of information that really couldn’t matter less. What we need are ways of understanding what is in the media, what WikiLeaks reveals to us and is then filtered out and put into the news.

Unless we understand the dynamics of capitalism, why it has got itself into this situation and why it could never do anything else, then all these bits of information are not going to be of any 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. And that is the difference between interpreting the world and changing it.

Sometimes I hear people put these up as if you could have one or the other. In every aspect of life, whether in science or in politics, the two things have to go together. The way we interpret the world is by changing it. We work on it, we do something to it, we have an experience and get some sense of where we are going.

And the reverse is true: to change the world, we need to be able to interpret it. The two things are not one or the other.

The second point I wanted to make in conclusion is in relation to the Pentagon Papers and the discussions that have compared that to WikiLeaks.

There is no doubt that the release of the Pentagon Papers helped the peoples of Indochina to defeat the US invaders. Nothing can take away from the work that Daniel Ellsberg did.

But we need to remember the reason Ellsberg did what he did was because the US was losing the war on the battlefield. That’s what he had learned going there. He knew it was in these papers and felt he had to get this information out.

The reality had changed, and so had his understanding of the war. The crucial fact was not the publication of the Pentagon Papers, as useful as many of us found it, but the refusal of the Vietnamese to surrender.

That’s what ended the war, at the cost of 2 million Indochinese, and 60,000 Americans and other allied troops. It was that armed struggle that changed the world in Indochina, and indeed, in many ways, changed the world generally.

Because it showed that even the US, the greatest power on Earth, could be broken and driven into the sea.

The combination of interpretation and change that the Vietnamese had shown is the vision that we can take from WikiLeaks and away from this evening. Thank you.