Sunday, April 14, 2024

Daniel Ellsberg Still Stirring Up Trouble

At a special symposium at Florida Atlantic University Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Daniel Ellsberg lectured for about an hour and a half before fielding questions from the audience. Event promoters expected an audience of 2,000 to attend the appearance, hosted at the Carole and Barry Kaye Performing Arts Center on the Boca campus, and while there were many empty seats in the auditorium, the attendees who did turn out for the event undoubtedly left the building more edified than when they entered it.

Ellsberg, who famously — or infamously, depending on your politics — leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, remains a polarizing political figure. He will turn 80 in April, and he took the lectern at FAU with more than half a century’s worth of first-hand historical perspectives on government secrecy, hypocrisy and whistle-blowing.

The talk admittedly started slow, with Ellsberg spending a lot of time on one of the Pentagon Papers’ early revelations involving the French bombing of Hai Phong in Vietnam. But by the time he steered what today’s students see as ancient history toward the realm of recent history -“The Lyndon Johnson administration, like the George W. Bush administration in this century, were acting as domestic enemies of the constitution” proved to be one of Ellsberg’s strongest applause lines – his talk became compelling all the way to the end.

Indeed, though he is an expert on the Vietnam era, Ellsberg’s lecture was most moving when it addressed current events, such as the inhumane conditions of the incarceration of WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning (whom Ellsberg likened to Nathan Hale) and the populist uprisings in the Middle East. To this end, Ellsberg made the powerful accusation that even when U.S. politicians, including Barack Obama, pay lip service to the protestors in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, they really support the dictators’ iron fists. The United States is opposed to democracy in these underdeveloped countries, he said, because “populist governments would be deleterious to American interests.”

Ellsberg’s talk soon took on a cynical, even hopeless, tone, as he described what he believed were constitution-shredding policies the Obama administration was keeping in place from its predecessor. But, after reinterpreting some of his favorite quotes from Thoreau and Gandhi for our modern geopolitical milieu, Ellsberg ended his lecture with a call for nonviolent dissidence, as important in our own nation as it is in Egypt. This conclusion was as sobering for the country as a cup of cold coffee, drunk in a cold shower in a cold rehab center, and it proved that a lecture can be soul-stirring even without the halcyon uplift of hope-and-change sloganeering.

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