The actions of WikiLeaks sparked a worldwide media barrage and has changed the face of journalism. Julian Assange, the leader of this organization quickly rose to prominence, initially because of the unprecedented public attention from the WikiLeaks revelations. Then sex scandals and smear campaigns, along with threats from the Pentagon threw him further into the eye of the typhoon of public attention. Rhetoric from some US right wing politicians and pundits escalated to calling for his murder. Many eyes have been glued to the news feed reporting on the progress of his extradition to Sweden, all the while the leaks have continued unabated.
Assassination is the intentional killing of a prominent person for political purposes. The death of John F. Kennedy shocked the world with newspapers and the TV broadcasting his tragic end. Soon after Dr. Martin King delivered a speech speaking out against the Vietnam War at New York’s Riverside Church, his voice was also shut down by an assassin’s bullet.
Political aims can also be accomplished by way of character assassination. When someone emerges into public perception who thinks and acts independently or who works at cross purposes to those in power, they often face character assassination. This is done by scandalous gossip columns in corporate tabloids or partisan news outlets. Whatever the method, the final destination for the target is the same – the death of their active characters as agents for positive change; being cast into the abyss of collective forgetting. How is this different from physical assassination? Character assassination is the murder of someone in the public consciousness. While physical assassination is carried out instantly with a bullet, character assassination is a gradual process of destroying the public image, thus incapacitating the person’s ability to freely act. This occurs without public awareness of the machinations and intentions behind the events and often without revealing who actually pulls the trigger.
Assange emerged into public perception with a fresh genius and charisma as well as an unshakable commitment to freedom of information. Amongst those yearning for true change, Assange’s example provoked a sense of great expectation. NewStatesman (2010) nominated him on the list of 50 people who matter in 2010 and he won Time Magazine‘s reader’s poll for Person of the Year, while finishing third as the editor’s pick. Assange however quickly became a controversial figure. His image was soon colored by words such as traitor, high tech terrorist, and enemy combatant. Former colleagues and media partners joined the fray with tabloid style hit pieces, in articles and tell-all books that portray him as controlling, volatile or unpredictable.
So, how is character assassination accomplished? Unlike physical murder, it is rarely carried out by single individual. The deadening process occurs out in public. The speed and effectiveness of the bullet is increased by the public’s compliance in accepting the manipulation of the target’s public image.
In The Unconscious Civilization John Ralston Saul described that “in a corporate society, most people in positions of responsibility… are rewarded for controlling language. ‘Knowledge is Power.’” (p. 43, 1995). This control of language is used to manipulate perception. Those who become professionals often perform the role of middlemen within a system that is manipulated to support elite interests. Associate professor of journalism and mass communication David S. Allen explained how this professional legitimacy was backed up by the methodology of science. Quoting Morton J. Horwitz, Allen (2005) described how “’the attempt to place law under the banner of ‘science’ was designed to separate politics from law, subjectivity from objectivity and layman’s reasoning from professional reasoning’” (p. 71).
One’s subjective bias and personal agenda do not magically disappear from the sphere of observation and analysis by simply claiming neutrality. Yet the creed of objectivity has become a powerful tool that serves to cover for the motives and influence of special interests or a particular ideology and legitimatizes their power. Unconscious conformity to the group and absolute identification with it sustains this perceived authority.
Membership in this type of closed group requires maintaining a line between themselves and perceived outsiders who ostensibly do not belong or share their values. Those in power create characters that seem to threaten the security of this shared belief system or sponsor those who promote it by simply manipulating the image of outsiders and representatives within a group, with a Photoshop brush in the sanctuary of the editorial room.
In his recent article Bill Keller and WikiLeaks (Jan 29, 2011), WL Central editor x7o explored the editorial policy of the New York Times. His observation of Times executive editor Bill Keller reveals a general attitude shared among major news establishments toward WikiLeaks and the fundamental practice of so called “professional” journalism as a courtier of power. x7o analyzed how Keller’s piece is tabloid style journalism, crafting Assange’s character with a certain agenda:
The sheer length of Keller’s piece is insurance against its comprehensive rebuttal. It weighs in at just under 8000 words. It is far more than a mere compendium of Assange rumors, but a concerted and sophisticated color piece, casting each of the events over the last seven months in the worst possible light. Assange is portrayed as “elusive, manipulative and volatile”, “arrogant, thin-skinned, inspirational and oddly credulous.” Middle class distaste is openly courted by the revelation of unnecessary details about his appearance, clothing, and body odor, the signs that this is somebody who just doesn’t fit in.
x7o is pointing to a systematic practice within this influential corporate news venue to obfuscate the real news of the leaks with a piece that subtly attacks the credibility of the messenger. This is one way that they support or at least certainly never challenge the power of US political elites. The ultimate accomplishment of this practice is a merger in perception of the public interest with the narrow interests of those elites. National discourse is skillfully crafted and the line of class division is dissolved under the banner of ‘national interests’. Much of what passes for valid knowledge becomes simply the individual’s unconscious acceptance of the dominant view.
“Knowledge is Power.” As with the biblical seduction in the Garden of Eden, the serpent at the Tree of Knowledge offers the promise of power that would lead to greater control of the environment and material wealth. People are tempted to eat the forbidden fruit that nourishes the body of knowledge. This knowledge is often used to gain power over others, subjugating others will to their authority.
Knowledge generated and indoctrinated into each individual now becomes the moral compass that guides their actions. With language and framing of events as a means of control, authority guards the gate of public perception. In the age prior to the time of ubiquitous internet communication, the gate was tightly governed. It was like the eye of a needle that very few could get through to participate in unfolding perception. Thoughts and emotions that are not validated by this orthodox knowledge are easily shut out.
Jungian analyst, Toni Wolff described how “’everything unconscious is projected; i.e., it appears as a property or activity of an object” (as cited in Jacobi, 1973, p. 92). Psychologist C. G Jung wrote that it is those repressed materials that one meets outside in the form of projections and that this projecting is carried out unconsciously (Storr, 1983).
Blindness of one’s unconscious emotions and the mechanism of projection makes one vulnerable to manipulation. People are impelled to react to outer compulsion. Control of perception works to activate repressed emotions and desires. The public then becomes like a group of rats in a lab. With simple stimulus of threat or reward the desired responses from the people are attained.
The power to control can move mountains and sway whole populations without lifting a finger. People can be corralled to passionately defend narrow ideologies, usually by fighting those branded as a threat to the group. Pushed into the reactionary mode of fight or flight, people are driven by fear of ‘red scare’ or ‘threat of terrorists’ into simple minded ideology charged with emotions. They are always driven to chase ever-changing mirages of an enemy that was predefined for them.
Another instance of this perception control was seen recently in US politics. After a long period of loathing by a large part of the population for the decrepit acts of the Bush administration, Obama’s campaign of hope and change was a well orchestrated, targeted PR campaign. When the frame for perception of the masses was rife with the rhetorical discourse of fear, for those who control perception the next logical step was to tap into unconscious desires for hope. Before people could withdraw projections and have a chance to look deeply into the root of fear within, a new product magically emerged. Instead of constructing an enemy, a friendly hero figure was created that stimulated this yearning for positive change. No matter how empty the promises and slogans were, the people were driven by unconscious impulse to cast a vote for a vague illusion of hope.
This legitimacy of authority is sustained through this mechanism of projection. Those in power guard the inception point where events can be seen as they are without filters. Once the control filter is inserted into the perception process, it is not easy to see anything else beyond the enforced border of that control. When someone emerges into public sight who is not easily defined or controlled by outer crafted images, this shakes up projections held in the collective consciousness. For a moment, a crack opens in public perception, a kind of void that is left open for engagement. This opened space brings a possibility for people to turn inward and confront their manipulated frame of reference. It is this possibility of a shift inward, the first step toward greater awakening that the appointed experts, the gatekeepers of perception try to shut down. They quickly move to fill this void with manipulated images that sustain the mirror of projection and keep perception under management.
This is experienced as a battle for the activity of perception. Something new struggles to be accepted into consciousness. The messenger resists being redefined, yet once a target is captured, he or she is made into an intruder, a threat to the perception held by mass projections. Power does not need physical weapons to engage with force to attack. Weapons of mass projection can be quite adequate for the intended result. Through labeling and stereotyping, they compress the complexity of personalities like Assange into a cage. Tackled by collective projections, the free act that cuts through the illusion is met with unconscious resistance. Those figures that carry new impulses, upon entering and disrupting the prepared public perception are soon distorted and targets for assassination. They are quickly judged and executed from public consciousness. One by one, those who rise to the forefront to bring new potential are taken down in the stadium of hype and hyperbole.
It is the assumed legitimacy of expert authority that prevents people from becoming conversant with reality from out of their own capacity to think critically. The foundation of conventional knowledge that lies in one’s unexamined subjective agendas concealed by the pretense of objectivity is inherently judgmental, creating an abstracted and manipulated duality of good and evil.
Whether it is through politicians, pundits or other well paid celebrities, the actions of the general populace are often driven and controlled through manufactured puppets, whose strings are pulled by hidden masters -the new priests that arise to convert the public to their prescribed moral judgments. The huddled masses only act blindly as such by being programmed to interact with carefully projected images emerging on the screen of shared perception. These are shadows of distorted reality, projected through people’s simple fears and emotions.
Assange is an example of individuals who stand out from the herd, going against the grain for the good of the larger whole. Through confronting the authority of official and expert knowledge, he challenges the legitimacy of the whole system and lifts the closed gates of controlled perception. He began exposing the corrupt culture of official secrecy and rightly questioned the legitimacy of governance by those with too much to hide from the public. His unshakable commitment to justice makes him appear at times stubborn or intransigent. What he exemplifies is a sense of individuality that contradicts or challenges ways of being that have become the norm. John Saul revealed the true nature behind the idea of Western individuality:
The primary loyalty of the individual is not to the society but to her group …. the Western individual, from the top to the bottom of what is now defined as the elites, acts first as a group member. As a result, we exist primarily as a function, not as a citizen, not as an individual. (p. 33)
This shows how what is considered independent thought is actually often not ones own. It is a kind of false individuality that promotes conformity to whims of outer legitimacy conferred by professional politicians and experts. This conformity supports a system that inherently diverges from the common good. Any means available will be used to quell truly independent thought. Therefore, Assange has become a prime target of character assassination.
Former Reagan administration official Paul Craig Roberts shows when character assassination fails real assassination will follow in the case of Assange:
When you have someone that is dangerous to you and you don’t really have a case against them, you slander them. And, this is the way the department of Justice works. It uses the…. media to slander the victim so that the victim is guilty before they even gets into a court. In some sense they would achieve their purpose even if he wins the appeal, because he is now slandered. The real question will not get investigated.
What are the motives behind character assassination? Those in power strive to control the images of authentic individuals, radicalizing and demonizing them to keep the public afraid, preventing people from attaining self-knowledge and the realization of their own creative power within.
What those in power absolutely fear is a collapse of the projections that guard the system of expert knowledge, which has replaced individual capacity to listen to ones own conscience. They are afraid of people marching side by side with those individuals who refuse to carry the given script and instead create their own and walk through the gate of the future on their own terms.
What WikiLeaks has done is lifted up the perception of the masses that up to now has been governed by illegitimate authority of ‘expert’ knowledge. People are beginning to trust and act out of knowledge informed by their own experience and to share this directly with others, instead of consuming the disseminated disinformation fed by corporate media. The unprecedented revolutions in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt and now spreading into Libya and beyond are a part of dissolving manipulated, preconceived perceptions about the world.
Those crucified by character assassination are often the pioneers of the future. They show what true individuality is, something that is systematically denied by institutionalized moral corruption. In spite of their flaws, individuals like Assange remind the world of old cherished virtues of democracy, liberty and acting for the public good, which seem to have become empty slogans or a convenient mythos only given lip service in the corporate age.
Character assassination is the murder of the true individuality in the public eye and is a symbol of the death of independent vision and inner conscience. Led by the choir of a cheer-leading mass media, these figures are assassinated through a form of channeled mass hysteria. People march along not knowing that by shooting the messengers who reveal their inherent power, they are leading themselves to their own funeral.
I don’t think you trust
In, my, self righteous suicide
I, cry, when angels deserve to die
In, my, self righteous suicide
I, cry, when angels deserve to die
Father, father, father, father
Father into your hands, I commend my spirit
Father into your hands
Why have you forsaken me
In your eyes forsaken me
In your thoughts forsaken me
In your heart forsaken, me
– Chop Suey! by System of a Down
Why have you forsaken me? In a sense, with these words we are asking the question: Why have we forsaken ourselves? We forsake ourselves when we fall asleep in the herd and look outside for saviors, then ask leaders why they have forsaken us. We deny our own individuality just to get along and join the dance of the dead. One by one we nail the living to the cross of our own unexamined life. In self-righteous suicide, all that is left are tears. Our tears are the tears of angels, who patiently wait beyond the Tree of Knowledge. It is only through confronting what has become the foreign enemy within that each finds the newly discovered strength to create. Guided by a higher moral of our shared humanity, the individual efforts become truly collective, giving birth to a new civilization.
Allen, D. S. (2005). Democracy, Inc.: The press and law in the corporate rationalization of the public sphere. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Jacobi, J. (1973). The psychology of C. G. Jung. Yale University Press.
Saul, J. R. (1995). The unconscious civilization. New York: The Free Press.
Storr, A. (1983). The essential Jung. Princeton: Princeton University Press.