What to think of Mr. Julian Assange?
A crusader—a prophet for the new age of transparency, uncovering the hidden abuses of imperial regimes—or an anarchist who will not be content until chaos reigns?
A self proclaimed libertarian and champion of the free market system, Assange is certainly a unique fellow. Apparently committed to transparency, he has taken on some of the most powerful institutions in the world, and in so doing has become a divisive figure. Though libertarian, he doesn’t exactly fit nicely into a single political mold.
His recent actions, or more specifically, the actions of WikiLeaks, of which he is the founder, raise some interesting questions not just about himself, but about transparency as well. Is transparency essential for a democratic government, and more specifically for the way governments interact with each other? Do we as democratic citizens have a right to know about the secret lives of rulers and diplomats, or do these people deserve the personal space that we ourselves enjoy when we write in our journals? Should they be held to a higher standard because they are indeed (in at least some cases) elected officials? Is Assange really that committed to a healthy transparency? Should we believe him?
I read a Forbes interview that Assange did a few weeks ago in which he made his intentions regarding the immediate future clear. He is sitting on a trove of secret documents relating to the public sector, and has Wall Street in his sights. Here I find myself actually cheering for Assange. There is no good reason to trust Wall Street—they have shown that they do not deserve the trust of the millions that they condescend to. Furthermore, I have always been a fan of the underdogs, the black horses, the cinderellas. And in a way, Mr. Assange is the perfect modern crusader. He uses technology to stick up the greatest powers and regimes in the world, then goes on the run. He lands on the cover of TIME magazine, makes Interpol’s wanted list (Rape? Sexual assault? Making a whoooole bunch of people really angry?), vaults himself to international attention, and now finds himself in a lawsuit against a powerful international corporation. His mom, of course always a fan, now worries he might have taken on a little too much this time.
So why can’t I quite bring myself to pull for Assange? Well, for starters, he just doesn’t strike me as being a good person. In a pseudo-intellectual online piece called “Conspiracy as Governance,” Assange begins a diatribe in which he starts off by saying that we need to understand the structure of bad, authoritarian governance so as to change it, adding a caveat that regimes have always resisted change. “Where details are known as to the inner workings of authoritarian regimes, we see conspiratorial interactions among the political elite, not merely for preferment or favor within the regime, but as the primary planning methodology behind maintaining or strengthening authoritarian power. Authoritarian regimes create forces which oppose them by pushing against a people’s will to truth, love and self-realization.” These regimes are a barrier to true self-realization, and technology must be used to bring them down or to change them.
He moved 37 times before he was 14. His mom didn’t send him to school, for fear that it would inculcate an unhealthy fear of authority. Sounds like the makings of a nut job; David Brooks sums his character up thus: “Assange seems to be an old-fashioned anarchist who believes that all ruling institutions are corrupt and public pronouncements are lies. For someone with his mind-set, the decision to expose secrets is easy. If the hidden world is suspect, then everything should be revealed.”
Whatever the view of his character, I think if Mr. Assange were honest with himself, he would have to admit that the last “megaleak” didn’t quite have the intended effect. Far from outrage over the corruption of establishment, most cables as reported have read more like the front page of a tabloid than as coming from a serious institution committed to transparency. What we basically have is a gossip column of massive proportions—with world leaders and diplomats taking the places of the usual weary celebrities.
The blog site for the Mormon Worker picked up on this, and promptly blamed the media. They insist that there is indeed shocking evidence of misbehavior and corruption, buried among the thousands of cables. They cite a cable regarding the coup d’état in Honduras earlier this year as an example. I haven’t had time to sort all of the evidence out yet—on the surface it looks compelling—but that is true of about every article written at the Mormon Worker. Does the cable have merit? What if it did and the United States was involved, using US tax dollars, all the while lying to us about it? What if we are all being duped on a major scale? Not that we are incapable of understanding or just plain dumb, but just that we have become so accustomed to believing what we want to that we have built lives of a false security of understanding?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. From what little Assange has said, I just don’t feel like the kind of world that Assange envisions would be a good one. However, he is difficult to pin down for me, and that is partly because I don’t think he has made his intentions entirely clear. What exactly does he want, out of individuals, the media, corporations, and institutions? Is he a modern day Jeremiah, or some kind of a Nietzsche on technological steroids? Or is he duping us all and down deep he is just one of those men, described in a chilling line in The Dark Knight, that “just want to watch the world burn?”