The Cruelty Is The Point: Australia and the Politics of Empire

by Emma Shortis
Stella Assange, (centre) wife of imprisoned journalist, publisher and Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, and lawyer Stephen Kenny (right) march during the Free Assange Quad Rally in Sydney, Wednesday, May 24, 2023.


Watch Dr Emma Shortis’ address to ‘Night Falls In The Evening Lands: The Assange Epic’ at RMIT University, Melbourne, on 9th March 2024.

After the death of his beloved predecessor in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson inherited a volatile and messy conflict in Viet Nam. Determined to honour JFK’s legacy by continuing his policies, worried that Viet Nam would prevent him from creating the “Great Society” he so cared about, and terrified of failure, Johnson tortured himself over what do about what he called a “damn little pissant country”.

Transcripts of President Johnson’s telephone conversations in 1964 show that he had long discussions with his friends about how a war in Viet Nam would be a disaster. He knew. In a telephone conversation with Senator Richard Russell the year before, Johnson had lamented “I don’t think the people of this country know much about Vietnam, and I think that they care a hell of a lot less.” The American people might not have “cared”, but it mattered to Johnson all the same. Responding to Russell’s suggestion to “get out”, LBJ asked, “wouldn’t that pretty much fix us in the eyes of the world and make us look mighty bad?”

Johnson knew what would happen in Viet Nam. He knew that if it was handled it badly, his domestic agenda would be at risk. But he was so worried about the United States “looking mighty bad” that he did it anyway.

Today it seems almost impossible to process – to really understand – the scale of the cruelty of that pointless war.

The numbers we have probably underestimate the toll, but along with Australia’s 521 dead, there were nearly 60,000 Americans, an estimated 1.62 million Vietnamese civilians, 1.1 million northern and 250,000 southern Vietnamese military casualties. At least 84,000 of those casualties were children.

All to avoid the risk of “looking mighty bad in the eyes of the world”.

To the ruler of an empire – even one who is progressive and committed to expanding democracy at home, as LBJ was – looking bad is a terrible enough prospect that it is worth causing unspeakable suffering to avoid.

And that, really, is the crux of it: Julian committed the most grievous of crimes against the empire. He made the United States look mighty bad. And he is being made to pay for it.

In 2018, at roughly the mid-point of the Trump administration, Adam Serwer wrote a stunning piece for the Atlantic. In “The Cruelty is the Point”, from which I take my title, Serwer wrote that Trump’s politics, and his support, is:

based on “a clear principle: Only the president and his allies, his supporters, and their anointed are entitled to the rights and protections of the law, and if necessary, immunity from it. The rest of us are entitled only to cruelty, by their whim.

Serwer was writing about Trump. But he might have been writing about empire, and its treatment of the rest of the world. He might have been writing about empire and its treatment of Julian.

Because Julian exposed the crimes of empire, he must be made an outcast. He must be made subject to the law, but not protected by the law. He must be made a pariah, a person who can be disposed of – but not become a sacrifice.

It is a state of being where an individual is subject to the total sovereignty of the state, similar to martial law where rights are suspended in favour of the government. So Julian has become a kind of outcast, subject to US law for publishing materials which indicated unlawful actions by the US – without any accountability to the citizens who elect the US government that supposedly acts on their behalf.

Julian was not a servant of that government – not even a citizen! – and thus was never required to maintain the confidentiality of its actions. Yet he now becomes the victim of the government’s wish to maintain its secrecy and avoid accountability. The empire has created a scapegoat for its own fundamental failures of command and accountability.

Julian is being forced to carry the responsibility for everybody implicated in the crimes of empire.

The cruelty he is being dealt is precisely the point.

All of that flies in the face of the image that the current president has tried to construct around himself. Biden, like LBJ, is a man of great empathy.

In early 2020, as the presidential nomination process was getting underway, and in the twilight of the Trump administration, Irish writer Fintan O’Toole published an extraordinary piece on Joe Biden in the New York Review of Books. In “The Designated Mourner”, O’Toole observed that Biden’s great appeal was the way in which he understood the collective grief of Americans, and that Biden himself embodied a “politics of empathy in which the leader shares the pain of the citizen”.

O’Toole understood, as he wrote:

…the power [and] the sincerity of Biden’s empathy. It is real and rooted and fundamentally decent. It has at its core the baffled humility of the human helplessness in the face of death that makes life “so difficult to discern.” As an antidote to Donald Trump’s grotesquely inflated “greatness,” it has authentic force.

It might seem baffling, at first, that a man who knows the pain of losing a son would allow Julian’s incarceration to continue.

But Biden, like Johnson, is not just the president of the United States. He is also the leader of an empire. It is entirely possible for him to be one thing at home, and another abroad; one thing to American citizens and another to non-citizens. He is pulled in two very directions. And he, too, is sensitive to anything that might make that empire look mighty bad – like it wasn’t, in fact, a force for good in the world, as Ronald Reagan once said.

Australia, like Julian, is tied to the Biden who is the head of empire, not the Biden O’Toole was writing about. The Biden who would drag us into a new Cold War, not the Biden who might see and share our pain. Just like we were tied to the LBJ who went to Viet Nam, not the LBJ who built the Great Society.

It does not have to be this way. Australia can and should play a role in appealing to what Biden himself has called the “better angels” of the United States. We must turn away from empire and focus on what is supposed to be the foundational shared value of our relationship: democracy.

Biden himself said just yesterday in his State of the Union speech that “freedom and democracy are under siege” domestically and overseas. The treatment of Julian under successive administrations, and that has continued under his watch, shows us that Biden is not doing enough to protect that freedom and democracy everywhere.

And American democracy – if we can even call it that – is in big trouble. Trump is an active threat to that already fragile democracy – we know he doesn’t care about democracy because he has told us. He has actively mused about “terminating” the US Constitution.

The fact that polling suggests Biden might not beat such an opponent is deeply worrying. Biden is risking American democracy with his attachment to the cruelty of empire – as he blows up his own reputation as a man of empathy in his lack of a response to the slaughter in Gaza, and turns young voters away. Given who Biden’s opponent is this year, that creates a very big risk for American democracy.

That matters to all of us, and it matters especially to Australia.

Australia’s alliance with the United States has always been about Australian governments’ desperate need for proximity to power. It is that proximity to power – not, as Defence Minister Richard Marles claimed in 2022, “the shared values we have as two democracies” – that is “fundamental” to the alliance.

In his lonely challenge to American power, Julian loudly revealed that fundamental hypocrisy. He dared to challenge American power by exposing its willingness to breach its own apparently fundamental values – something admirers of that power cannot fathom doing. So it’s entirely unsurprising that successive Australian governments would only reluctantly, if at all, support an Australian citizen subject to the exercise of that unaccountable power.

But because of the campaign for Julian, that is changing, and it is changing fast. That’s because on questions of justice for Julian and the integrity of our own democratic systems, the people of Australia are clear.

Recent polling suggests as many as 9 in 10 Australians believe it has been long enough, and Julian should be free.

In May 2023, polling by the Australia Institute found that one in three Australians (32%) think that the Federal Government is doing too little to secure Julian’s release.

Similarly, three in four people (76%) said that whistleblowers make Australia a better place, and an overwhelming majority of Australians (84%) supported stronger legal protection for whistleblowers.

Australians understand that the revelation of crimes committed by states should not itself be a crime. We believe in accountability and transparency. And we believe Julian should be allowed to come home.

That is being reflected more and more by our elected representatives, who as you all know have supported Julian through bipartisan delegations to Washington, and by passing a resolution in Parliament, supported by the Prime Minister.

These expressions of the democratic will of the Australian people, taken directly to the democratic representatives of the American people, are doing the critical and desperately needed work of reframing the alliance away from complicity with empire – what Clinton Fernandes has called our ‘sub-imperialism’ – to a relationship based on democratic solidarity and accountability. They represent one of the first cracks in the previously impenetrable wall of bipartisan support for empire that we’ve seen in quite literally decades.

Together, we can continue to widen those cracks. We can look to our existing, shared history of democratic solidarity between the peoples of the United States and Australia – a solidarity that has built international coalitions to oppose apartheid, labour exploitation, racist policing and environmental destruction. The bonds that exist between two imperfect democracies, and not the bonds between an empire and its deputy sheriff.

Such a relationship would understand democracy as both shared interest and shared value, and as foundational to a sustainable and peaceful future. Building that requires that Julian is free.

Last year, Biden said that “We’re facing an inflection point in history — one of those moments where the decisions we make today are going to determine the future for decades to come.”

He is right.

It is an inflection point for Julian, for empire, and for the alliance.

And I think that means we have an opportunity to put it to Biden very clearly; we can and should say that the alliance is contingent on democratic solidarity, on justice, on the universal application of the rule of law. We do not want a relationship – or a world – marked by cruelty.

The Australian government must convince Biden of this on our behalf. They must demand that Julian be allowed to come home. They must seek out the president of the United States – a man who lost his own son and understands the pain of a father – and not the leader of an empire desperately afraid of being made to look bad.

We want a relationship based on powerful and sincere empathy, empathy that is real and rooted and fundamentally decent. Julian – all of us – deserve freedom, not cruelty.

Thank you.

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