Julian Assange appeared to be making a statement during his arrest from the Ecuadoran Embassy in London on Thursday. With wrists shackled, the WikiLeaks founder managed to carry a copy of Gore Vidal’s “History of the National Security State.” Its cover, featuring a photo of Vidal with a pensive, skeptical expression, was helpfully faceup so that eagle-eyed armchair detectives could discern Assange’s latest read.
Once Assange made it to court, he turned to the book while he waited for the proceedings to begin, according to Tristan Kirk, courts reporter for the London Evening Standard. During a delay, Assange “made good progress with his book while waiting,” Kirk tweeted.
The book, released in 2014, two years after Vidal’s death, was no bestseller. It consisted of transcribed conversations between the National Book Award winner and Paul Jay, the chief executive and senior editor of the nonprofit Real News Network, about the military industrial complex. So what message was Assange trying to send? We asked Jay, who in turn asked, “Did you have a magnifying glass or something? How did you even see that?”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Assange’s hands are shackled, and yet he’s intentionally holding this book. It feels like he’s sending a message and I thought maybe you would know what it is.
Read the book? I mean, I’ve never met Julian Assange and I had no idea he had read the book. The closest connection I ever had to him is one of his lawyers used to be on the board of the Real News Network, where I work, but I’ve never had any connection with him.
I would assume he knew he was about to be arrested and decided what he wanted to carry as all these cameras were on him, but I don’t know more than you do.
How did the book come about? [Editor’s note: Jay has previously written about his introduction to Vidal, which was supposed to be a 20-minute chat but turned into a multi-hour session fueled by a lot of scotch.]
This book is based on a particular series of interviews that I did in Los Angeles, which was his idea of the origins of the national security state and basically the idea that — I don’t think it’s his original idea. Other people say similar things, but he was just better at saying them — the idea that after World War II, under Truman’s presidency, instead of a normal kind of demobilization, there is erected a military industrial security complex and unnecessarily so; that there’s a creation of a false existential enemy, the Soviet Union, as a rationale for all of this.
I don’t think this was just a conspiracy in the sense that I think there were a lot of people who did believe there was an existential threat.
But other interviews I’ve done [especially with whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg] show that the rationale for the national security state Gore Vidal talks about was really known to be unnecessary and that it was built for the sake of primarily making money. I mean it comes down to really banal stuff.
So it sounds like the book is quite critical of the United States.
Oh, very. I mean, the reason Assange would be interested in promoting it — because I can’t imagine he said, “Oh, jeez, I’m going to jail, what can I take to read?” but I don’t know, maybe that’s what it was — the essence of the book is that this is not in the interests of the American people or people anywhere, this kind of security state, and that what WikiLeaks revealed with [Chelsea] Manning was essentially war crimes in Iraq.
I guess the fundamental point of what Vidal was saying is that the American empire is not good for the American people. The way it’s sold to the American people is that this is good for all Americans because we’re all in the same boat, but it’s quite the opposite. It’s good for an elite, especially arms manufacturers and the fossil fuel industry and others that cash in on this kind of foreign policy. But it’s young working people, men and women, that die for this, and they go off and die in these foreign wars while people that are making literally billions can thank them for their service. The level of hypocrisy is beyond belief. This is what Gore was really going after with the series, the way patriotism is sold to people and that it’s really a fraud.
Did the book make a splash when it came out? Did it sell well?
No. Vidal used to be a completely mainstream pundit, as well as obviously a very famous author and playwright and movie writer and scriptwriter and so on. But over the years, I don’t think Gore changed all that much — maybe his critique of empire and militarism became sharper — but the politics and the media moved to the right and he got more and more marginalized. So by the time I was interviewing him, he was almost never being interviewed on television anymore.
So, no, it didn’t make a big splash. [Laughing] Maybe that’s why Julian wanted to give it a push.
How do you feel knowing that Julian Assange is carrying your book around?
Well, obviously I’ve got mixed feelings. I think it’s atrocious that he got arrested. What he did is a kind of journalism and to say that journalists that get stuff leaked to them can be targets — imagine if they had charged The Washington Post for the Pentagon Papers. I don’t think it’s any different. These charges allege that he helped Manning. Well, maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. I have no idea, but that’s so minor compared to the importance of the release of those documents. When people saw the images of those people being killed from helicopters — the helicopters were slaughtering people in the streets including a guy I believe was a cameraman for Reuters and he had a camera under his arm when they shot him. The importance of people knowing what those Manning leaks revealed is so much more important in terms of public service.
So I have very mixed feelings, because if he chose to promote the book, it’s nice he did. But more important, the images of him being arrested show an attack on journalistic freedom. There’s no question about it.