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Assange Is Free, But Are We?

By Slavoj Žižek

LJUBLJANA – I fought for years with and for Julian Assange. But upon hearing that he has regained his freedom, my first thought was that he is returning to a world that looks – and is – much worse than the one he left behind. Pandemics, wars, and widespread ecological breakdown force us to ask the big question: In what sense are we who breathe the fresh air outside prisons still free?

Even our fictional accounts are getting worse. The new children’s movie Inside Out 2 follows a 13-year-old Riley at the start of puberty. Her personified emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust – have created a new section in her mind called the “Sense of Self.” Then, four new emotions – Anxiety, Envy, Embarrassment, Ennui – arrive, and conflict ensues. Joy thinks Riley should focus on having fun at camp, while Anxiety wants Riley to win a spot on the team and make new friends. In the end, the first and second generations of emotions learn to work together to protect Riley’s ever-changing Sense of Self, leaving viewers with an utterly fraudulent depiction of the human psyche.

In the real world, these internal psychic tensions often escalate to the point of madness. A much better movie would have portrayed the emotions of a Palestinian boy in the ruins of Gaza, not a girl from a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. Rather than working together to form a stable self, his conflicting emotions would push him toward psychic breakdown and suicidal acts of violence. Recall G.K. Chesterton’s wonderful description:

“A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”

Oleh Sentsov’s recent film, Real, renders this combination of opposites perfectly. After spending several years as a political prisoner in Russia, Sentsov went to fight for the Ukrainian army. The film consists of 90 minutes of GoPro footage taken when he didn’t realize his camera was on. Presented unedited, it depicts the strange mix of terror and boredom that defines life on the front line.

Such dualities run through the entire film. The banal brutality of the real is punctuated by magical moments of what might best be described as meaningless meaning. Sentsov recalls a moment from just before the footage in Real begins: “There was a soldier with the call sign Johnny, a veteran of the Afghan war. He was going there to evacuate the wounded, but he was hit, and he managed to make one last radio transmission, in which he said: ‘This is Johnny. I’m dead.’” It is a moment of authentic metaphysical absurdity.

Many reviewers believe Real shows war as it truly is. If that was Sentsov’s message, his film would be yet another pacifist paean to the meaningless absurdity of war. But though Sentsov recognizes the brutal meaninglessness of the situation, he ultimately believes that the fight for a just cause must go on. Having stripped away all the romanticism of battlefield heroism, Real shows what true courage means: to accept the misery of a military struggle, and not obfuscate it with pathetic fantasies.

This is the message we need right now. In the case of Ukraine, pacifism has been used to excuse Russia’s military aggression. The message from those who oppose Western support for Ukraine is: “You must not resist the occupier, because then you will become the same as him.” In the Holy Land, the message is similar, but the mainstream media’s reporting of events is very different. There is a consistent effort to shape and manipulate our perception of what is going on, so as to limit the emotional impact. While Israelis are killed in a “massacre,” Palestinians are merely “found dead.” These forms of “soft” censorship pervade public discourse.

Did you know that a large group of Israeli Jewish intellectuals recently called on all EU member states, the United Kingdom, and others to recognize the State of Palestine? This courageous act generated scarcely any coverage in Western media. Major events that might disturb the Western public’s sensibilities either go unmentioned or are reported only with a small note at the bottom of the page.

How many people noticed that, on June 20, 2024, Israel enacted what amounts to an annexation of the West Bank, with the Israeli Defense Force transferring powers there to “pro-settler civil servants”? The irony of this move will not be lost on Palestinians. While a military occupation implies some distance from Israel, this new dispensation means that they are being integrated into the Israeli civil order – albeit one dominated by chauvinists bent on excluding them.

These examples show why we need heroes like Assange. He did what needed to be done, and he paid a high price. The time has come for others to continue the work he started. By “work,” I mean not just a job but a vocation: something that you are called to do. Assange did not choose to launch WikiLeaks and expose state secrets so that he could spice up his life. He did it because he could not have done otherwise. For that reason, I suspect he is a happy man, despite all the suffering he has endured.

Slavoj Žižek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London and the author, most recently, of Christian Atheism: How to Be a Real Materialist (Bloomsbury Academic, 2024).

28 June 2024

Source: countercurrents.org

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