ONLINE ONLY: An Unserious Man

Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding reveals the Wikileaks founder’s facile politics and ignorance of history

Features Global Governance Technology

Serious matters are in dispute in the debate about Julian Assange. Supporters of the WikiLeaks founder talk about human rights, freedom of speech and democracy. His opponents talk about espionage, the end of honest diplomacy and the safety of soldiers on the frontlines. It is a noisy debate. Yet most people agree that serious matters are at stake in it, and that Assange is a serious man. His intellectual hero, we learn from David Leigh and Luke Harding’s new book, is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Leigh is the investigations editor at the Guardian and Harding is the newspaper’s Moscow correspondent. They have written an engaging and thorough account of the Australian ex-hacker and his band of “cyber radicals”. They look closely at the difficult partnership between WikiLeaks and the mainstream media, a unique alliance which led to the publication of the first US diplomatic cables. In recounting the Guardian‘s relationship with Assange, Leigh and Harding draw out the contradictions in his character and write critically about both sides of the debate over his work.

The cables were “the biggest leak in history”. They lent shape and context to important events, and gave us insight into diplomatic manoeuvring and political wrangling. Many of them were fascinating to read. WikiLeaks, furthermore, is a fascinating organisation, and one which might herald lasting changes for the media. But it was the tireless legwork of reporters that turned the immense mass of data into solid news stories. That data was allegedly leaked by US soldier Bradley Manning.

Manning is the hero of the book. He was naive, confused and unstable. Yet he participated in the Iraq war and thought deeply about what he saw. Then he made some conclusions about US actions in Iraq. Whether those conclusions were right or wrong is part of a wider debate. Either way, he made a decision to act based on his principles. Assange, meanwhile, took the data and became “the world’s most famous man”.

But isn’t Assange supposed to be the hero? Leigh and Harding write that Assange enjoys a “vast worldwide fan-base”, though it does not extend to the US. They add that despite “the hostility of government officials, and the ‘latex gloves’ (as Vanity Fair put it) with which the mainstream media have handled him, much of the world has nothing but admiration for WikiLeaks and Julian Assange”. In other words, Assange is considered an authority on serious matters by many people, to whom his ideas are important.

What are those ideas? In adulthood, Assange “became a shape-shifter: frequently changing hairstyles, and dressing up in other people’s clothes”. He does this with ideas too — like a politician, he is willing to bend or change the rules to further his cause. However, Leigh and Harding write that WikiLeaks grew from the soil of “the anti-capitalist radicals — the community of environmental activists, human rights campaigners and political revolutionaries who make up what used to be known in the 1960s as the ‘counter culture’.” He drew other ideas from the “geeky hacker underground”. This is an anarchistic culture that believes in the free flow of all information. Assange’s thinking also turns on the idea that the US is a major cause of suffering in the world.

But his ideas run deeper still. Leigh and Harding quote this extract from Assange’s blog, written in 2006:

If there is a book whose feeling captures me it is [The] First Circle by Solzhenitsyn. To feel that home is the camaraderie of persecuted, and in fact, prosecuted, polymaths in a Stalinist slave labour camp! How close the parallels to my own adventures! … Such prosecution in youth is a defining peak experience. To know the state for what it really is! To see through that veneer the educated swear to disbelieve in but still slavishly follow with their hearts! … Your belief in the mendacity of the state … begins only with a jackboot at the door. True belief forms when led into the dock and referred to in the third person. True belief is when a distant voice booms “the prisoner shall now rise” and no one else in the room stands.

These are not isolated ramblings, for Assange has also spoken publicly about Nazi concentration camps and has implied repeatedly that governments are trying to imprison him for political purposes. He has, therefore, identified himself with a serious tradition — the tradition of resistance to totalitarianism.

History will judge what effect WikiLeaks and its disclosures had on human rights, freedom of speech and democracy. It will judge WikiLeaks’ opponents too, and settle the debate about whether accusations of espionage, or concerns about honest diplomacy and soldiers’ safety, were justified. But Leigh and Harding’s excellent book shows us that right now we should be questioning an important matter about Julian Assange — his seriousness.

For have we ever heard so many words from a truly “persecuted,” “prosecuted” and silenced intellectual? Assange’s claim to have suffered persecution for his ideas is one of the truly bizarre features of this debate. Right now, his every political statement — and much of his private life — is broadcast on television, on radio, the internet and in print. He has not been silenced. Rather, he has used his democratic right to speak with relative freedom. And he has used it, repeatedly, to imply that Western democracies are trying to silence him.

But that’s not all he has used it for. Speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum last year (this speech is not mentioned by Leigh and Harding), he argued that the use of the words “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” on the gate at Camp Delta was a worse “perversion of the truth” than the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign above the gate at Auschwitz I. To compare Guantanamo Bay to the Nazi death camps of Europe — or to see “parallels” in his prosecution for hacking offences in Melbourne and the experience of the Soviet gulags — speaks to Assange’s immense ignorance of history.

Primo Levi knew that he survived the camps chiefly because of “good luck”. He asked those who “live safe / In […] warm houses” to consider a man “who fights for a scrap of bread,” a man “who dies because of a yes or a no”. He asked us to consider a woman “without hair and without name”. If Julian Assange was really engaged in the type of anti-totalitarian struggle he imagines he is, then we’d be unlikely to know his name either. Nor would he be the type of person we read about at the end of Leigh and Harding’s book: the man who took pleasure in his own face on the front cover of Italy’s Rolling Stone, which had dubbed him “Rockstar of the Year”. In applying his ignorance of the past to his analysis of the present, Assange introduces perhaps the most serious matter of all into the noisy debate about his work — namely, the lessons of history.