Film Review: The New Radical

In an absorbing, fast-paced documentary, Adam Bhala Lough profiles two crypto-anarchists on different ends of the political spectrum but forgets the female half of humanity in his consideration of their philosophies.
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The “new radicals” in Adam Bhala Lough’s documentary The New Radical, mainly crypto-anarchists Cody Wilson and Amir Taaki, may or may not seem “new” or “radical” in their advocacy for “going dark” or “off the grid.” Both are provocateurs and look to Julian Assange as their hero. Audiences who have seen Laura Poitras’ Risk will know of the WikiLeaks founder’s dismissive attitude toward rape charges filed against him in Sweden (recently dropped for lack of access but that still may be prosecuted) and lesser charges in Britain, both of which he has refused to face. In Poitras’ documentary, Assange’s staff of sycophantic women and his misogynistic behavior toward his female lawyer and, at times, toward the filmmaker profiling him render judgment of Assange and his acolytes equivocal at best.

Politics has long been the province of white male rhetoric, and The New Radical will largely appeal to that demographic, although it raises moral and ethical issues that should be the basis of a national dialogue in all democratic societies. Had it incorporated women’s voices, Lough’s documentary would be exceptional, but as it stands it is a good primer on the “dark web.” Even viewers who find its dizzying cuts to picture and sound a ploy to persuade will in the end realize that the filmmaker is not engaging in propaganda, but rather attempting to explain the attraction of “going dark” in the world’s largest plutocracies, home to Wilson, an American, and Taaki, a British citizen of Iranian descent.

Taaki and Wilson are anarchists from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both self-identify as crypto-anarchists who use and advocate for encryption programs that prevent unauthorized access to digital data. As Lough’s documentary explains, this software is part of “going dark,” or underground in digital terms, in order to challenge the power of the state. Other ways of doing so involve the use of bitcoins, an unregulated, international currency that replaces bank accounts. Bitcoin may be rogue, but San Francisco’s Coinbase exchange trades in the currency; based on their transactions, the New York Stock Exchange started valuing bitcoins in American dollars in 2015.

The New Radical chronicles the case of Ross Ulbricht, now serving a double life sentence (no chance of parole) for his website Silk Road, on which users purchased illegal drugs with bitcoins. Ulbricht was convicted of drug trafficking, although as the documentary explains, he is considered by most to be a political prisoner since few common drug traffickers receive life sentences. Lough presents the argument, articulated by one of his subjects, that the justice system’s draconian incarceration of Ulbricht is the result of ignorance. He plants clips of Anthony Perkins in The Trial (1962) to emphasize the individual’s powerlessness against the state, especially when it excuses white-collar crime, as federal authorities did in the 2015 case against Microsoft, referred to briefly in the documentary.

Of Lough’s two primary subjects, Taaki is the one whose convictions will appeal to progressives, while Wilson’s are more the stuff of gun-toting libertarians. The latter’s 3D printable plastic gun, the “Liberator,” is an NRA dream—an open-source “recipe” or software for producing it was downloaded by 100,000 people in 2013, before the State Department forced him to remove it from the Internet. Wilson thinks he has a First Amendment case that could reach the Supreme Court, but as he tells his lawyer in the documentary, he does not accept their authority. It is Wilson’s stance that citizens’ best defense against an oppressive state is to arm themselves in equal measure.

Taaki, on the other hand, squats in warehoused apartments in London and Barcelona, and prides himself on never having worked a day in his life. In 2016, he went to Syria to join the Kurdish Workers Party’s “People’s Protection Units” (the PKK) that are fighting ISIS in Rojava, where they have established a direct democracy. If Taaki appears to be a better leftist for having briefly served on the front lines of a real revolution, he is a Peter Pan, the perpetual adolescent male too often celebrated in patriarchal societies, and portrayed sympathetically by Lough.

Taaki and Wilson, both gifted programmers, formed a partnership after they met at a crypto-anarchist convention. The pair are developing a “dark wallet” that would make all financial transactions anonymous; the result is that Wilson is on the State Department’s watch list, and Taaki on a terrorism watch list in Britain. While the “dark wallet” and the “Go dark” cry of their political philosophy reflect the rejection of any state-sponsored authority, what makes Taaki and Wilson questionable figures, as Lough so skillfully points out, is the practical consequences of their actions. In a black-and-white animation clip, the filmmaker imagines the possibility of the “Liberator” software being available on the Internet: a young man finds it, fashions the small gun, and takes it to school. In response, Wilson says that people have to act responsibly.

The ideology of the “new radical,” left or right-leaning, is not new, nor is the shared belief in, for instance, the possibility of armed revolution. When one of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s characters in The Social Contract recites the Latin proverb “Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium” (“I prefer dangerous liberty to quiet servitude”), he is spouting an argument for the right to topple oligarchies. No Marxist would disagree, nor would any libertarian. What Lough astutely observes in The New Radical is that the tools of social change and political revolution have changed with advances in technology, and that this circumstance is a compelling argument for reevaluating the sacrifice of personal freedom in exchange for protections granted to citizens in democratic states.

How women will fare at the hands of the “new radicals” is not part of the dialogue in The New Radical. Instead of the requisite “objective” pundit, journalist Rob Walker, or a man holed up in an embassy for six years to avoid facing rape charges, Lough might have chosen among a number of prominent female scholars in ethics, economics and feminist studies to comment on Wilson and Taaki. (One female commentator, Kashmir Hill, briefly appears.) As for the “dark wallet,” if weapons and illicit drugs can be traded without a trace there, then funding can find its way to extremists and human traffickers, which puts women and children at risk. When filmmakers fail to represent the other half of humanity in a documentary that touches upon the fundamental principles of free societies, they repeat the errors of the past—and their work is flawed.

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