Saturday, February 22, 2014

Julian Assange Takes Space

Julian Assange dancing in Reykavik in 2011.

"It was Evelyn Waugh who said that when a writer is born into a family the family is over. And why would it be any different when a second family comes to call? Julian wanted a brother, a friend, a PR guru, a chief of staff, a speechwriter, and he wanted that person to be a writer with a reputation. When he was working with those fellows from the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel, he allowed himself to forget that they were journalists with decades of experience and their own fund of beliefs. To him they were just conduits and possible disciples: he is still reeling, even today, from the shock that they were their own men and women. My discussions with him would go on, in private, long after the idea of ‘collaboration’ was over. But he consistently forgot that I am foremost a writer and an independent person. Julian is an actor who believes all the lines in the play are there to feed his lines; that none of the other lives is substantial in itself. People have inferred from this kind of thing that he has Asperger’s syndrome and they could be right. He sees every idea as a mere spark from a fire in his own mind. That way madness lies, of course, and the extent of Julian’s lying convinced me that he is probably a little mad, sad and bad, for all the glory of WikiLeaks as a project. For me, the clarifying moment in our relationship came when he so desperately wanted me to join him on the helicopter flight to Hay. He wanted me to see him on the helicopter and he wanted me to assist him in living out that version of himself. The fact he was going to a book festival to talk about a book we both knew he would never produce was immaterial: he was flying in from Neverland with his own personal J.M. Barrie. What could be nicer for the lost boy of Queensland with his silver hair and his sense that the world of adults is no real place for him? By refusing the helicopter I was not refusing that side of him, only allowing myself the distance to see it clearly for what it was. And to see myself clearly, too: I have had to fight to grow away from my own lost boy, and it seemed right that day to fly a kite with my daughter and retain my independence from this man’s confused dream of himself." - Ghosting by Andrew O'Hagan
The great tragedy of Julian Assange and Wikileaks is that they have become one in the same thing. The role of Wikileaks is now the life of Assange. In 2010 when the heat was closing in, Assange should have set up an administrative panel to manage the organization and then continued to fight his own battles independent of the function of Wikileaks. By reading Ghosting by Andrew O'Hagan we gain insight into why this would never have happened. Assange is brilliant, but his poor skills with people and how his own fears and obsessions dominate the decision making processes of the organization result in a spectacle driven series of explosive revelations. 

"One of the issues that bugged me was how far all this had taken us from the work WikiLeaks had started out doing. I believed at this stage that the organisation could regroup after the legal appeals and the autobiography battle, returning to the core work that had made Julian’s name. But there was strong evidence now that he was devoted to his legal problems as well as to skirmishes with former collaborators over his reputation" - Ghosting by Andrew O'Hagan.

The entrance of personality into journalism is journalism at its lowest level. The most obvious similar example, and one from a very different sphere than Wikileaks is News of the World. Reputation and publishing are tied together, but like The Economist, there is no reason for this to be centered on individuals. Even mainstream traditional publishing can be done anonymously right through to the point of readership. The name of the publication is enough to ensure reputation.

By breaking his confidentiality, O'Hagan delivers a fascinating portrait of Assange. No matter what happens in the future, Julian's role in the history of digital media is assured. However, by making himself the public face of Wikileaks, Assange opened himself up to exactly the sort of scrutiny and critique that O'Hagan delivers. Thus the tragedy of Assange is the tragedy of Narcissus:

Narcissus is the most beautiful boy whom many have ever seen, but he does not return anyone’s affections. One of the disappointed nymphs prays to the god of anger, Nemesis, that "he who loves not others love himself." Nemesis answers this prayer. Narcissus looks at his own reflection in a river and suddenly falls in love with himself. He can think of nothing and no one else. He pines away, leaning perpetually over the pool, until finally he perishes.

Information waits for no man and unless Assange can redefine himself in the contexts of more recent and less personality driven acts related to information, power and access (i.e. Manning, Snowden), he is in danger of becoming a figure in a digital mythology that warns against rather than inspires. O'Hagan comes to a similar conclusion when he writes, "WikiLeaks should not only bale stuff out onto the web, but should then facilitate the editing and presenting of that work in a way that was of permanent historical value". I believe it is too late for this now, and unless Assange can extricate himself from his present situation and rebuild trust with his key allies and the broader community of digital information activists, then his enemies (and he has so many of them) have won. The defeat of this Narcissus would be no victory for the people trying to make sense of the global digital pool we all now live in. Freedom is under threat, as Chelsea Manning writes in her Sam Adams Award Acceptance Speech, Feb 2014;

"When the public lacks the ability to access what its government is doing, it ceases to be involved in the governing process. There is a distinct difference between citizens, in which people are entitled to rights and privileges protected by and from the state, and subjects, in which people are placed under the absolute authority and control of the state. In essence, this is the difference between tyranny and freedom. To echo a maxim from Milton and Foes Friedman: a society that puts secrecy - in the sense of state secrecy - ahead of transparency and accountability will end up neither secure nor free."

The stakes are that high. Assange has to understand that what he has voluntarily taken on in his 'job' is so important that he no longer matters as an individual, no matter how painful and difficult that realization is. It seems Chelsea Manning is aware of that as her present defiance indicates while still languishing in prison.