Values in an Age of Nihilism

Florian Maiwald

November 18, 2022


June 17, 2022 was indeed a more than tragic day for the Western world. The British government has agreed to extradite Julian Assange to the United States, where he now faces 175 years in prison for journalistic disclosure of war crimes. Background: via the disclosure platform Wikileaks, Assange published, among other things, the video "Collateral Murder," in which the shooting of unarmed Iraqi civilians from a U.S. military helicopter is documented. The consequence: after the Ecuadorian embassy in London no longer granted Assange refuge, he had already been in the London high-security prison Belmarsh, which according to some statements resembles a "British Guantanamo," for months. There Assange stays under inhumane conditions and lives 23 hours a day in complete isolation.

All of this seems all the more paradoxical against the background of the fact that Assange is not even a U.S. citizen - he is Australian - and has committed none of his alleged crimes on U.S. soil. The statements of former CIA director Leon Panetta should make us think even more when he points out that the U.S. is primarily interested in making an example with regard to the Assange case. In concrete terms, this means as much as: every investigative journalist who intends to bring war crimes by the US army to the public's attention must expect a similar punishment in the future. The Assange case makes it absolutely clear that it is not just about the future of Assange in particular, but about the future of freedom of the press and freedom of expression in general, and thus, to some extent, about the future of all of us.


However, the Assange case should not be seen as an isolated individual case. Especially with regard to the current global political situation, which has changed dramatically – not least due to Putin's criminal war of aggression in Ukraine – the Assange case could provide important lessons for the so-called Western world, which always claims to defend its own liberal-democratic values against the worldwide increase in autocratic tendencies. The war of aggression launched by Putin against Ukraine has made us painfully aware that there are forces in the world that perceive liberal democracies as a threat. It is therefore consistent and logical to try to protect ourselves against such external threats in the most expedient way possible.


On Western contradictions

What the Assange case shows, however, is that it is a mistake to assume that the threat to democratic ways of life can only be attributed to external factors (autocracies, etc.). Rather, as the Assange case makes abundantly clear, such a threat - or more concretely, destabilization - of democratic structures can also be caused by democracies themselves. It is Assange's achievement to have relentlessly brought this aspect to our attention.

With his concept of the social character, Erich Fromm described a phenomenon that is supposed to explain to what extent there is a social unconscious in addition to the psychological unconscious in the Freudian sense. Here it is worth citing Fromm:


The social character, which causes people to act and think as the proper functioning of their social life requires, is only one link between social structure and ideas. The other link is the fact that each society determines which thoughts may enter consciousness and which must remain unconscious (Fromm 2005: 98).