Truth to power


Truth to power

By Shea Howell

Michigan Citizen,  Dec. 12-18, 2010

Last year around  this time I was at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony where Detroit activist, writer and political theorist Grace Lee Boggs was awarded an honorary doctorate, along   with actor Jeff Daniels, ant scientist Edward O. Wilson and journalist Helen Thomas.

I was able to spend some time with Ms. Thomas, native Detroiter, daughter of Lebanese immigrants, and outspoken critic of every president since John Kennedy. After having been banished to the back of the room by George W. Bush, she had recently been restored by President Obama to her seat in the front row of the White House Press Corps.

In one of her last questions in November 2007, Thomas asked White House Press Secretary Dana Perino why Americans should depend on General David Petraeus to determine when to re-deploy U.S troops from Iraq. As Perino began her  answer,  Thomas interjected  “You mean how many more people we kill?” Perino, responded, ”Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements…it is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room, and to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive.”

I thought about this incident today as I read that WSU has withdrawn its Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award because of remarks she made in Dearborn last week.

Her remarks and the reaction to them did not make much news, even in Detroit. Instead, the whole incident has been lost under the much greater national attention given to the escalating assault on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The day after WSU withdrew the award, Assange surrendered to London police in response to charges of rape in Sweden. These charges came after the release in July of this year of tens of thousands of secret military documents and, last week, of  nearly a quarter  million secret cables from U.S. diplomatic posts around the world.

The assault on Wikileaks and Assange has been swift. Amazon.Com, EveryDNS, and PayPal, Inc. severed their connections. His bank accounts have been cancelled, Wikileak’s websites have been attacked, and Mastercard has stopped processing accounts.

Helen Thomas and WikiLeaks Julian Assange are both raising the same challenge to a nation mired in secrecy and silence. How do we talk honestly and openly about the exercise of power and force? Who decides what we should know and how we should talk about it?

Democracy depends on the free flow of ideas and information. It demands critical debate, the willingness to listen to ideas we find offensive and to look at hard truths. It also depends on people willing to challenge power.

In an article defending WikiLeaks, Sreeram Chaulia, Vice Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India , emphasized the importance of “disempowering power holders who are masters of doublespeak, and empowering the general public which has always been at a relative disadvantage owing to the absence of full information.” He goes on to say,“Assange’s route is not a criminal or illegitimate one but a praiseworthy push for greater social involvement in issues that govern ordinary people’s lives.

“WikiLeaks has never sold or traded its meticulously secreted information banks to those who could pay a fortune to get possession of such manipulative material. For releasing the ‘closed’ into the wide-open sphere in a non-profit manner, entirely to raise levels of social accountability of the establishment, Julian Assange deserves protection, not persecution.”

Everyone who cares about the direction of this country should come to the defense of those willing to challenge power and the conventional wisdoms that have justified, as Helen Thomas points out, “the  killing of more people.”

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