In memoriam to John Lennon today, on the 30th anniversary of his death, I am reminded of the parallels to Julian Assange, another champion of social justice and war protest. John Lennon was hounded secretly and openly by the Nixon Administration and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, for Lennon's spirited opposition to the Vietnam War.
Assange's Wikileaks airing of dirty laundry is more information-based than Lennon's advocacy, but in the end, may be no less important (and perhaps even more so when all's said and done) in retrospect. But the persecution by the powerful, be they government or the rich elite, would appear to have significant parallels.
John Lennon vs. The Rich and Powerful
For anyone unaware of the history, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were married in March 1969, and used their honeymoon at the Amsterdam Hilton as a "Bed-In for Peace." This anti-Vietnam War event attracted worldwide media coverage, and within months, they staged a second Bed-In in Montreal, Canada, where the powerful, exceptionally influential antiwar anthem, "Give Peace a Chance" was recorded in their hotel room, sung by their invited friends and family. That song shot to stardom, and was sung that fall, 1969, by 250,000 anti-war demonstrators in Washington, DC.
Lennon knew very well the influence of his songs and message, and was the highest anti-war protest leader of his day. "You have to be more politically aware, in a day and age like this. It's impossible to close your eyes to it," he said.
Give Peace a Chance (1969)
Less than two years later, in 1971, Lennon and Ono moved to New York City from Britain. Soon after arriving, he ramped up his criticism of the Vietnam War, in both song and press interviews, and became an increasingly influential figure in the United States anti-war protest movement.
Lennon's songs clearly resonated with a generation disgusted and angered by the War (remember, as a reference, the Kent State massacre occurred the year before Lennon's arrival in New York, on May 4th, 1970), and caused consternation among the powerful supporters of the war, many of whom swore a vendetta against the dirty fucking hippy foreigner.
(Note: a bit of this is in Italian, but it's a version I particularly like):
Threatening the Powerful: The Smear, Harassment, and Deportation Campaign
Indeed, there was such a fear that Lennon's growing popularity could endanger Richard Nixon's entire presidency that he was soon, after his arrival, aggressively harassed by the FBI and other agencies of the U.S. government (including phone taps and surveillance), smeared in the press by Nixon supporters, and increasingly criticized for not minding his own business by Republican politicians and other right wingers. Historian Jon Weiner notes that
cracker jackass Republican Senator Strom Thurmond suggested in a February 1972 memo that "deportation would be a strategic counter-measure" against Lennon.
The Nixon administration, unable to silence him in other ways, soon began a long, drawn out attempt to have him deported back to Britain. Lennon successfully successfully fought this deportation, in part because of the steadfast support of his fans and followers.
This history is superbly captured in the documentary, The US vs. John Lennon. I recommend it to anyone -- both those interested in Lennon, as well as those concerned about the power of government to destroy, through illegal and legal means alike, opposition to war and injustice.
The US vs. John Lennon
Fast forward to the present: Julian Assange
You all know that story of Assange. Winner of Index on Censorship's magazine's 2008 "Freedom of Expression Award," his goal is to turn over the rock of secrecy that surrounds much of what governments around the world have been doing behind their citizens backs.
I don't know if Assange's guilty of the sexual assault charges that have apparently been leveled in Sweden, but I do know that he's been subjected to one of the most concerted international "containment" efforts aimed at a private citizen in some time. I'm also ambivalent about the blunt instrument that his document dumps represent. After all, Daniel Ellsberg (who has recently praised Assange's efforts) leaked a set of documents, The Pentagon Papers, that exposed a clear, illegal effort by the United States. There is some need for secrecy in security operations and diplomacy, despite the fact that there is currently WAY too much of it among most governments.
Nonetheless, he has already exposed illegal acts by the Obama administration (e.g., the diplomatic suppression of Spain's judicial inquiry into the Bush/Cheney cabal's torture crimes -- which, in addition to their failure to prosecute said crimes is also in itself illegal according to international and American law) and embarrassed countless more. Assange's being treated like a terrorist and a traitor by governments including the United States, who are falling all over themselves to shut his website down. The Obama admin. has already intervened to suppress free speech in a variety of venues, including the internet and financial transaction corporations (Amazon, PayPal, Visa, etc., etc.), with other "good boy" entities following fearfully behind them.
In Sum: Eerie Parallels, and Inspiring Similarities
John Lennon's FBI file was finally released, after decades of legal wrangling, in the mid-1990s. In it, were many startling and not-so-startling revelations. Jon Wiener, one of the litigants in the Freedom of Information suits, published the results of his 14-year campaign in January 2000 book, Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files In it were copies of the FBI documents, including "lengthy reports by confidential informants detailing the daily lives of anti-war activists, memos to the White House, transcripts of TV shows on which Lennon appeared, and a proposal that Lennon be arrested by local police on drug charges".
I hope Julian Assange is innocent of those charges. But it sure looks like those, and the many that are coming down the pike, are trumped up efforts to silence him. [special note: He's been denied bail, which would appear to be highly unusual for a case such as his, and particularly since he turned himself in].
Assange's approach is not without its risks. Yes, it's possible that he could divulge secrets that might cause a loss of lives. But, in contrast, much of the furor over the release of "critical infrastructure" targets in foreign countries, as solicited by the State Dept., is a tempest in a teapot. It is a raw list, the information in which virtually any even reasonably enterprising would-be terrorist could easily find on open-sources.
Also notable: LOTS of lives have been lost because we didn't really know what was going on.
Anyway, Moral to the story: Fight the power, and sometimes you win. Other lesson: Sometimes the power wins, especially if you settle into complacency, and believe the lies. Last lesson, from PT Barnum: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."